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“Aging Well” by Patricia Cavanaugh

By July 2, 2011 May 23rd, 2023 One Comment

The Three Stages of Later Life: Generate, Stagnate, and Keeper of the Meaning

I have been curled up reading a review of classic Harvard longevity study called “Aging Well” by George E. Vaillant.  You may remember in an earlier blog I briefly discussed Erik Erikson’s developmental stages for adults.  I coined the term “Generatarian” based on Erikson’s later life task and tension between generate and stagnate. (Link to previous “Generatarian” blog).

Dr Vaillant in his book adds an additional stage for later life.  It follows the generate/stagnate stage and comes before the final developmental task of Integrity. He calls it “Keeper of the Meaning” and contrasts it with rigidity. So as we enter our 50’s and beyond we have three stages to work through.  I focus here on the first two stages, Generate/Stagnate and Keeper of the Meaning/Rigidity.

Do you find yourself in the Erickson’s generation stage, where you feel drawn to helping those younger than yourself?  Are you caring for and coaching those around you to support them in becoming authentic and joyful human beings.  This is the most active stage of the three.   Are you drawn further and further out in to the world, your circles growing wider?

Or do you find yourself drawing back in and just leaving the problems and challenges to others?  I often find myself vacillating between these two magnetic fields.  Some days I am full of ideas and actions to help my community and the world and at other times I am not so sure.  I just want to throw my hands up and retreat to my own small safe world.   It is the struggle between these two polarities that is the task for many of us in the 3rd Act.

The Keeper of the Meaning phase has a different challenge.  It requires a more sedate movement of rising above the fray and seeing the big picture and by so doing helping to define what is just and of value from the past.  The alternative is becoming a crotchety old person who holds on to the past with a tight grip failing to give the next generation the best of the past.  These older people rigidly hold on to the way things were done not because they are valuable or just but because ‘that’s the way it has always been”

The more sedate task is to hold on to values, histories and practices for the generations too young to know about them.  These are the village elders, the historical chroniclers or the memoirists.  I have a good friend who is writing a “mother-line” family history for her children.  She is a perfect example of a “Keeper of the Meaning”.  In contrast, sometimes, I find myself coming up against my own rigidity when I become frustrated with the young who do not see the world from a 1960’s perspective but instead are suspicious of those years or worse find them quaint.

We may find ourselves moving back and forth between Generate/Stagnate and Keeper of the Meaning/Rigidity as well as in the tension between a more life giving movement to one of contraction and rigidity Some days we may feel more active and focused on caring for one younger person or a group from Gen X or Y.  Or on less active days we may find ourselves drawn towards family genealogy or repairing a family heirloom for the generations to follow.  In whatever stage you find yourself, the time is rich and complex and is there for the living.

Please send me your thoughts and reflections.

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