1. Some theories of late adulthood are called self theories because they focus on individuals’ perceptions of themselves and their ability to meet challenges to their identity. They are theories that emphasize the core self, or the search to maintain one’s integrity and identity. (Other theories are called stratification theories because they describe the ways in which societies place people on a particular life path.) These negotiations to the challenges faced in late adulthood are crucial when faced with challenges such as illness, retirement, and death of loved ones. The central idea is that each person ultimately depends on himself or herself.
Integrity versus despair is the final stage of Erik Erikson’s developmental sequence, in which older adults seek to integrate their unique experiences with their vision of community. Many older people develop pride and contentment with their personal story. They are proud of their past, faults included. They realize their life is no longer measured in years since birth, but in years before death. Close family members become more important to them, and they continue to try to understand themselves focusing more on the way they will be remembered. Tension occurs between the two opposing aspects of development. Past crises, particularly identity versus role confusion, reemerge when the usual pillars of self-concept crumble.
2. The continuity theory is the theory that each person experiences the changes of late adulthood and behaves toward others in a way that is consistent with his or her behavior in earlier periods of life. It assumes that a primary goal of adult development is adaptive change, not homeostatic equilibrium. The Big Five personality traits are maintained throughout old age as in younger years, shifting somewhat but always oriented toward the same life goals. A person’s reactions to potentially disruptive problems reflect continuity, as do attitudes toward all other topics—drugs, sex, money, neatness, privacy, health, government.
One example of selective optimization is the positivity effect, which is the tendency for elderly people to perceive, prefer, and remember positive images and experiences more than negative ones. Selective memory is a way to compensate for whatever troubles occur; unpleasant experiences are reinterpreted as inconsequential. Research has found that this has both cognitive and social aspects, and in many ways, enhances life in late adulthood. While the positivity effect does not always emerge, self-perception normally tilts toward integrity rather than despair. Most people realize they could have chosen other paths through life, but they also appreciate their particular self. Research on what people hope for themselves and how they perceive themselves finds that, with age, the two selves come closer together. This may explain the contentment that older adults generally feel.
3. Another major set of theories regarding late adulthood that emphasizes the relationship between society and old age are the stratification theories. These theories emphasize that social forces, particularly those related to a person’s social stratum, or social category, limit individual choices and affect a person’s ability to function in late adulthood as past stratification continues to limit life in various ways. Individual factors—including quality of marriage and friendship, personality, and cognitive capacity—affect each person’s position in his or her society. Nonetheless, stratification theories note significant social restrictions imposed by stratification categories such as age, gender, and ethnicity. Stratification by age is demonstrated as industrialized nations segregate elderly people, gradually shunning them out of mainstream society as they grow older. Stratification by gender is demonstrated as society guides and pressures males and females into divergent paths. Stratification by...