Creative Aging in Four Phases

Article excerpt

At 15 I set my heart upon learning. At 30 I established myself in accordance with ritual. At 401 no longer had perplexities. At 501 knew the mandate of heaven. At 601 was at ease with whatever I heard. At 701 could follow my heart's desire without transgressing the boundaries of right.

-Confucius, 500 B.C.

Old people are no longer educable, and on the other hand, the massive material to be dealt with would prolong the duration of treatment indefinitely.

-Sigmund Freud, 1907

Unfortunately, notes Gene Cohen, who directs the George Washington University Center on Aging, Health and Humanities, Confucius was only 72 when he died. Otherwise, the power of his observations, expressed-in the quotation above-among the earliest written observation about human development into old age-might have given the ages his wisdom about life lived beyond one's 8os. As for Sigmund Freud, who was about age 50 when he wrote so dismissively of the elder psyche, Cohen noted that the progenitor of modern psychoanalysis wrote some of his best works after the age of 65. What's more, Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex, the masterpiece that provided Freud the literary validation for his theories, when he was 71.

Despite the wisdom of the ancients, the giants of modern psychology have generally regarded human development as arrested well before old age. Jean Piaget ended his discussion of cognitive development with the completion of adolescence. Even Cohen's teacher, Erik Erickson, whose study Identity and the Life Cycle popularized the concept of the identify crisis, devoted only three pages of his 5O-page elaboration on the eight stages of human development to the years beyond adolescence.


From Freud and Erikson to more recent theorists in psychology, such as Daniel Levinson, who advanced the concept of the midlife crisis-but stopped his discussion at age 50-almost all have focused on human development with an emphasis on crises, according to Cohen. Their prevailing view, he said, has been that "if you didn't resolve the crises, you paid a price in terms of what followed, and that defined a lot of the work that would then go on in therapy." The study by Harvard psychiatrist George E. Vaillant, author of Aging Well (New York City: Little Brown, 2003), shifted this crisis orientation only slightly to critical tasks that older people must accomplish to move on in their lives. Although Cohen acknowledged that all of these theories "have made enormous contributions to our understanding of human development," he stressed, "My feeling is that they're incomplete in a very fundamental way."

During his 33 years of practice and research in aging, Cohen observed, "I've seen people with serious and unresolved crises that still do remarkable things. Many people are crippled by their crises, but there are many who surmount them and do tremendous things." Moreover, Cohen said, "Ours is a species that wants to explore new things. We want to climb mountains, we want to explore space, and, as John Glenn showed, there's no upper age limit to doing those remarkable things. I see this as an evolutionary, built-in inner push in our species."

A key factor that theorists in psychology have largely ignored, he said, has been brain research. Ironically, Cohen noted, while neurological scientists were making major discoveries demonstrating continued development of the brain in midlife and later years, "research on psychological theory about aging was shrinking; there was very little research in linking brain science and psychology together and examining the ramifications for ongoing psychological development with aging."


Cohen reviewed research that has revealed the unexpected plasticity of the human brain since University of California, Berkeley, scientist Marian Diamond and colleagues published their first rodent studies four decades ago. Diamond's studies showed that rats put into environments enriched with toys and placed in challenging mazes-with the rodents treated to their favorite treat, Froot Loops, at the end-developed thicker cortexes than rats in a control group. …