It’s one of the few things in life we can count on – we all get older. Ageing is as certain as it is inevitable. It’s a process we cannot prevent, but depending on our lifestyle choices and our outlook, we may be able to slow its physical and / or mental progress. According to the World Health Organisation statistics, longevity is 50% dependant on lifestyle choices, 20% on environment, 20% on genetics and only 10% on healthcare, meaning that we play a huge part in how (and how quickly) our ageing process unfolds.
The psychology of ageing, however, is something slightly different. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” It’s a question that’s probably been asked of most people many times; one that you may have asked yourself on countless occasions – one that assumes your life’s needs and aspirations shift along with the sands of time. “Life stages” is an expression that’s widely bandied about, but what does it really mean?
There are dozens of different theories on the subject, but most of them share a common denominator – they all assume that as we mature, we change – physically, mentally, emotionally. Among the most famous, but also the most controversial, of all developmental theories is Freud’s “stages of psychosexual development.” According to Freud, early experiences – particularly sexual ones – are key in the formation of personality and sexual desire is a driving force behind behaviour.
Another well-known hypothesis comes from Erik Erikson. He was largely influenced by Freud’s work, but referred rather to psychosocial stages of development, and regarded culture and society as major role players in the formation of a “sense of self.” Erikson emphasised adolescence as a pivotal stage of development and believed that, at each psychosocial stage, individuals evolve on three separate levels simultaneously: biological – relating to the organism; social – depending on how we experience culture and society; and psychological – pertaining to the individual.
Do men and women age differently? Preliminary studies suggest they do, with hormones having a strong influence on gender-based differences in both physical and emotional ageing experiences. But exactly how you age – in both bodily and psychological terms – depends largely on the individual. While pricey anti-ageing treatments such as plastic surgery and hormone replacement therapy are becoming ever more popular in the modern world, combating the ageing process needn’t cost an arm and a leg, says Dr Duncan Carmichael of Cape Town’s Anti-Ageing Clinic. “Eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and protecting your skin from the sun are all major influences on keeping the body and mind young.”
Other practices, such as meditation and various forms of therapy, may more specifically target the psychology of ageing, helping people to maintain a positive outlook as they age. This, in turn, may loop back to the physical – a number of modern studies have shown optimism to be a strong indicator of longevity.