earthquake in the emptynest

Earthquake in the empty-nest:
a psycho-social perspective of aging

   Janetius, S.T. (2012). Earthquake in the empty-nest in Human Rights Abuse on Elderly People ISBN 9789350560983, Ch.1, 

Dr. Janetius Director Centre for Counselling and Guidance Sree Saraswathi Thyagaraja College Pollachi

The urge to grow is one of the insatiable quests of human beings. This process will stop only at the point of death. This growth is different from chronological or biological growth. The personality of a person has different dimensions and will be uncovered at different stages of growth by different means. At one stage in life, a reflecting person will know and feel that half of the life is completed and pause for a while. It is the time to look back and forth to wonder, question and evaluate the dimensions of personal growth and ponder about roads less travelled. Based on this reawakening based on the psychosocial and psychosexual growth, a person will try to redefine the goals and objectives in the light of life experiences, learning and achievements (Levinson, 1978).

Psychologists have defined this as midlife transition. This is the stepping stone to maturity. This happens roughly between 45 to 60 years of age. Still further in the growth process, when children leave home after marriage or under job compulsions, elderly people feel that they are left out by everyone and a kind of emptiness surround their lives. This complex phenomenon of emptiness and loneliness in the adult life has been labelled as empty-nest by psychologists Empty-nest could be a simple feeling of loneliness and emptiness or complex phenomena incorporating many factors. Mental health professionals choose to call it a syndrome because of its complexity in many respects. Since it is a complex experience, adults fail to pinpoint it clearly It could happen at any age or period, but specifically in the adult life or later adult life. When people are confined to home due to retirement it could become a cause of worry and the syndrome shakes the personality like an earthquake. Psychologists have also identified that this feeling is more seen in women than men. It could be due to the fact that men have a lot more opportunities than women to engage themselves in external activities. However, it can happen to both the sexes. A strong parental bond towards the children can aggravate the condition due to role adjustments and changing relationships. Sometimes empty-nest syndrome is compounded by other biological and social life changes happening at that period such as menopause and death of a spouse.

The phenomenon of aging is a multifaceted reality due to the obvious individual differences. Developmental psychology is the field of study dealing with behavioural changes and continuity from conception to old age. Developmental psychology reflects the view that human development throughout the life span is a function of interaction between biologically determined genetic factors and environmental influences, such as family, school, religion, and culture. The virtual importance of heredity and environment in shaping human personality (nature versus nurture; biological genetic factors versus social factors) has long been a topic of debate among psychologists (McCrae, Costa, et al. 2000). Let us not venture into the complexities of nature Vs nurture debate, rather try to understand old age development from an integrative point of view. As we notice from our day to day living, it is apparent that every human being is different having unique learning experiences, and distinctive genetic characteristics. Yet, there are similarities in many areas that help psychologists define adult development and it is these similarities that cre¬ate the hallmarks for well-defined adult development theories and concepts.

Biological and Neuro-endocrine theory of aging highlights the biological changes and decline seen in the loss of teeth, grey hair or bald head, less muscle strength, poor memory, loss of reproductive ability, accumulation of wrinkles in the skin, chronic joint pains, and the overall physical frailty in the body. The biological aging which is closely associated with the neuro-endocrine theory of aging, states that aging is caused by a progressive loss of sensitivity by the hypothalamus and related structures in the brain and their negative feedback inhibition. This not only disables the process of growth, but also causes post-maturational diseases, aging and death. Most gerontologists would agree that aging is a set of processes of gradual development and then decline that characterize the life span of an organism.

Approximately, above 60years of age is considered to be late adulthood. It is a complex period of several changes that involve both development and decline. The diversities in the development pattern originate from the concept of life and way of living – like for example, some become less active and some become dynamic; some begin to withdraw and some become more interested in contributing. The developmental processes are also influenced by the outcome reaction to aging and from the thought to compensate for the loss of abilities. The potential conflict arises from the need to compensate behaviours due to the non acceptance of helplessness and the fear of the loss of autonomy. This in fact leads an elderly person even to deviant behaviours. Menopause refers to that time when spontaneous menstruation ceases for six months to one year. The mean age at which menopause occurs differs from persons to person due to genetic and various environmental conditions; also differ among people of different races, geographical conditions as well as socio-economic situations. Menopause may occur at an earlier age (before 40 years) and is called premature menopause or it can occur very late at age. As women approach menopause, they begin to experience symptoms and signs of estrogen deprivation several years in advance by changes in the length of menstrual cycle with various physical and emotional disturbances. The most common symptoms of estrogen deprivation include irritability, fatigue, depression, insomnia, loss of memory and headaches. Similar development in men is labelled as andropause however it is not defined well as menopause.

Erikson’s Psycho-social Development theory perhaps would be one of the best theories which talk about psycho-social development in human beings. The core of Erikson’s developmental theory is that ‘social environment combined with biological maturation provides an individual with sets of developmental tasks that sometimes causes crises and that need to be faced and resolved in every stage of development so that the next stage of development is smooth and proper’(Erikson, 1968). Psychological, social and emotional development over the life span is sequential during which important inner conflicts are resolved by the interaction of individual self and the living environment. The result of the resolution of one stage is carried out to the subsequent stage. We will discuss how Erikson defines adulthood and what he talks about the last two stages of human development. Middle Adulthood typically covers the ages of 40 to 60, and is often viewed as a time of establishing self and thus guiding the next generation; that is, caring for one-self and one’s dependents. This is what Erikson (1968) calls ‘Generativity’, or working to make things better for future generations. This can be achieved by procreativity, productivity or creativity achieved mainly through the commitments made in relationships, and managed with the pursuit of the selected career. In essence, the person becomes involved in caring for something or someone. The person’s physical and cognitive functioning remains at their maximum, although physical abilities may begin to decline later in this stage. If this development task is not achieved at this period, stagnation takes place leading to one or other disturbance in the next stage. Late Adulthood is the period of time from age 60 until death that Erikson (1968) refers to as ‘Integrity vs. Despair’. The primary focus during this time centres on the understanding the meaning of one’s own life, which, if achieved, allows a person to face death without fear. Erikson explains this as achieving a state of integrity, which allows a person to reflect back on their life with an appreciation of one’s own personal struggles and accomplishments. If one sees his or her life only struggles and no achievement, this period can become highly regretful or bitter about their past and frustrated with their current condition in life. This leads to what Erikson calls despair, which results in fear of death and a potentially miserable existence.

Today since the life expectancy of people have increased dramatically due to major improvements in medicine, nutrition and personal as well as environmental hygiene, this time period has taken a new vigour. Late Adulthood becomes a period of ‘new opportunities and new relationships’ where a person can develop new skills and potentials (Kegan, 1982). While physical abilities often diminish, psychological and social growth often increase here, as most of the people during this stage could still seek for new personal meaning through professional commitments.
General characteristics: Late adulthood cannot be defined by the chronological age because better living conditions and the enhanced health care facilities that are available today extend the middle adulthood to a lengthy period and people don’t enter into latter adulthood sometimes until 65 + years. The latter adulthood often referred as old age could be divided into two parts: early old age (roughly up to 70), and advanced old age (above 70). We will look at both these periods together as one period. The main characteristics of this period would be: a) a time of physical and mental decline, b) a period of blessing for some people in the sense they consider it as a period of rest from active life where as for some it may be a period of curse and boredom; this individual difference is very significant, c) social negative attitude is very explicit leading to self-definition and self-pitying as old and invalid person leading further to pessimistic self concept, d) role changes from the active social and professional life to passive life and, e) poor adjustments to various life situations. All the above mentioned issues lead the elderly person primarily to adjustment issues with the self, in the families and also society.

Cultural Adjustment in the old age is the most neglected aspect of adult development. It is a major adjustment need due to the nature of changing society. Modern Indian society and the creeping globalised culture have forced elders to feel the pinches of empty-nest syndrome more than any time in the past. The younger generation finds it hard to manage the traditional values imposed by the elders and the elders fail to realise the changing cultural values thus creating a big generation gap. As the extended families are becoming less common these days, the elderly people are not prepared mentally to live alone at homes or feel comfortable in the aged-homes. Unlike the Western countries where elders are accustomed to be alone in the old age, cultures such as Africa and Asia where traditionally elderly parents are held in very high esteem and the duty to care for them and respect them remains strongly in the psyche of the people. Let me give you two current examples from our country to state that this traditional concept has not disappeared or the need to eradicate the same is not acceptable to many. The recent Rajasthan government ruling that it is a criminal offense to neglect the parents and the children are liable. Another example would be the recent survey conducted by Canara HSBC Oriental Bank of Commerce Life Insurance (2009) which states that India has the higher saving ratio compared to other countries but 35% saving go for their children and 12% for their retirement. Indians save for their children thinking that they will take care of them when they are old, rather than securing their own retirement period. Although this is the trend reflected in the recent survey, the more the cities become westernized and industrialized, the threat to the traditional values are evident and the elders become vulnerable. Vocational Adjustment is also one of the areas in which Indians are not prepared at all. On the eve of retirement I asked an employee what he is planning to do after retirement and he gleefully answered, “to say the fact, I haven’t thought about it Sir”. This explains the pathetic situation in our country.

Adjustment to retirement and life after retirement is an area that needs a lot of focus today. People need to prepare themselves for retirement so that they are properly oriented for their old age phase in life. A well prepared retired life could be presumably a period of happiness. Pre-retirement counselling will be of great help for people to face the challenges of new phase in their life and well prepared for the retirement life. Another factor that determines the happiness or sorrow regarding retirement or vocational adjustment in old age is whether retirement is voluntary or compulsory. Desire to work, desire to rest and economical situation are the factors that play key roles here. If a person takes retirement voluntary, he is better adjusted. If not s/he will be in identity crisis, looking for substitute activities. This search itself will become a pain. Economic status makes a world of difference in the retirement adjustment. Besides these, good marriage, attitude of family members to help them and well planned hobbies and occupation give better adjustment in the post retirement stage.

Family adjustment mainly with the spouse is of top priority because the elderly people spend a lot of time in the house. Spouses with similar interests adjust better, interact better. Changes in sexual behaviour are also a concern in family adjustment. Sexual problems and issues could be identified from four concepts: People believe that there is no sex life in old age due to physical changes; antagonistic relationships leads to less taste for sex life; incompatibility with spouse also contribute to the lesser appetite and problematic sexual adjustment; social attitude towards sexuality inhibits elderly people to abstain from sex life. Psychologists have identified that decline in sexual desire is more of psychological than physiological problem. Other family adjustment issues are: relationship with children and grandchildren, adjustment to the loss of spouse and or remarriage. Remarriage can be a good supportive alternative for people who lose their partners in the old age. In a traditional community like ours, where marriage is often associated with sex and procreation, people look negatively at old people when they remarry. However, remarriage is one of the best alternatives and coping mechanism for a loner, as it paves way for companionship in the old age. Care should be taken in identifying partners of similar education, social background because in the old age people don’t learn to adjust to ordinary issues. Approval from children to marry too contributes to the happiness in latter adult marriage.

Elders as victims as well as persecutors:
Lack of adjustment to the above mentioned areas place the elders in a precarious situation of both victims as well as persecutors. In the eyes of the growing children, the non-ability of the elders to understand and adopt the changing cultural values and the modern social trends, on top of all, rigidity in holding personal likes and dislikes make them persecutors. These again lead to victimization from the part of younger generation. For the sandwich-generation, elders are an added burden in their daily struggle with their children. The fixations of elders for specific needs and demands add fuel to this issue. In the modern urban as well as semi-urban settings, where both the couple go for job, it is rather inconvenient and impractical to attend the needs of one's own parents in every detail. Added to that, is the bitter fact that some elders are abusive and repressive. Take for example our familiar mother-in-law stories. Here too, they are forcefully placed in a vicious cycle of being both the persecutors and the victims. In addition, the weak physical body and the inability to do many chores place the elders in various social situations in the same vicious cycle. Psychopathology in old age is a very complex phenomenon to be studied mainly due to the inevitable realities like death and/or illness that are closely associated with old age. Due to the various anticipated changes associated with aging, it’s difficult to assess whether some changes are natural or part of a disease process.

Possible pathways to explore psychopathology in later adulthood would be: 1) having some disorders at earlier points in one’s life which were not noticed clearly or identified; 2) having problems earlier in life that gets more serious with age; and, 3) no evidence of a mental disorder earlier, but that develops in the old age. Dementia, phobias, depression and suicide, alcoholism or alcohol dependence, sleep disorders are the major health hazards related to old age. Other health problems that are chronic and common in late adulthood are: arthritis, osteoporosis and hypertension. Besides these, heart disease, cancer, and cerebrovascular diseases are also prevalent. With regular exercise, proper nutrition with diet and weight control better health can be achieved. Antioxidants can counteract the cell damage. Monitored intake of antioxidants (vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene) in the form of food or medicinal intake can slow the aging process. Protections from environmental pollutions and other hazards and non-exposure to the risk of being sick can increase well being among the elderly.

Psycho-social management strategies for a better old age:
Certain strategies are expected of elders in order to manage the old age. In the first place, one should have been blessed with a better lived and fulfilled first part of the life that would reduce despair and frustrations of life at the old age period. Secondly one of the most neglected aspects in the Indian scenario is the lack of preparation for retirement life. A well prepared retirement life, in terms of economic security, relevant social networking, needed vocational/professional pursuits and good free time activities and hobbies, can reduce the turmoil of old age to a greater extent. Thirdly developing a broader mindset to accept and manage the changing cultural values is a must from the part of elders because the globalization and change of cultural values are unavoidable realities today. Earthquakes can shake the old age but can’t destroy the happiness if old age is well planned and adequately prepared.

Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton
Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Levinson, D. (1978). Seasons of a man's life. New York: Knopf.
McCrae, Robert R.; Costa, Paul T., Jr.; Ostendorf, Fritz; Angleitner, Alois; Hřebíčková, Martina; Avia, Maria D.; Sanz, Jesús; Sánchez-Bernardos, Maria L.; Kusdil, M. Ersin; Woodfield, Ruth; Saunders, Peter R.; Smith, Peter B. (2000). Nature over nurture: Temperament, personality, and life span development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 78(1), 173-186

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