Death and Advanced Age
People are living longer and healthier than ever before. Population experts in the United States estimate that in 2020, seventeen percent of the population will be sixty-five or older (www.agingstats.gov). The media and society in general will be increasingly attending to this age group.
Advanced age is often understood in terms of the physical problems people tend to develop. Although gradual deterioration of physical and mental capacities certainly needs to be addressed, some researchers are now focusing more on what people can fruitfully do as they age.
For Erik Erikson, in middle adulthood--the stage of life until retirement--people tend to develop what he calls "generativity'; they contribute to society, support younger generations, mentor, and teach. This stage of life can extend well beyond retirement. Today, many "retired" people are still very active with their families and communities.Some continue to pursue their passion well beyond retirement age.
Jung himself remained quite active with his work, publishing books and seeing clients into his 80's and until his death in 1961. Frank Lloyd Wright did some of his best work in his 80's and 90's. Michelangelo was still working on the dome of St Peter's until he died at age 88. Albert Einstein was penciling solutions for a unified theory, on his deathbed.
As death draws near in late adulthood, the main conflict can be the tension between significance and despair. By embracing that tension, people can find a greater sense of fulfilment about their lives and develop a broader sense of wisdom.
Jungian psychology understands advanced age as a further step on the Individuation process. In mature individuals, it brings a further loosening of one-sided ego identifications, a deepening of the inner life, a greater desire to serve the community at large, and closer contact with the Self--the transcendent guiding archetype.
As we foresee the final stage of death, reviewing the life we lived and what the future holds, can give birth to new and hopeful meaning
C.G. Jung said about death, "Well, you see, I have treated many old people, and it's quite interesting to watch what the unconscious is doing with the fact that it is apparently threatened with a complete end. It disregards it. Life behaves as if it were going on, and so I think it is better for an old person to live on, to look forward to the next day, as if he had to spend centuries, and then he lives properly. But when he is afraid, when he doesn't look forward, he looks back, he petrifies, he gets stiff and he dies before his time. But when he's living and looking forward to the great adventure that is ahead, then he lives, and that is about what the unconscious is intending to do."
(BBC television interview "The World Within" by John Freeman.