In my last blog I discussed the mission of middle age, stability and reinvention. These developmental tasks of being fifty-something provide an important reference point to understand where sixty year olds are coming from. In this blog, I want to discuss where they are going. I call it the final mission.
The final mission of life is composed of two primary developmental tasks:
1. Preserve control in a world where all control is being lost.
2. Create a legacy in a world where time is running short.
The battle for control in old age is well known but never fully appreciated by younger adults. Sadly, it can be overwhelming for older adults and their families, leaving both parties angry, frustrated, feeling unappreciated, and ultimately disconnected. Here’s why.
Older adults are watching control evaporate right before their eyes. Loss of health, family and friends, social status, productive engagement, driving, living accommodations, and control of money all conspire to render older adults dependent through a relentless series of losses. The reasonable response to this onslaught is to fight back, to resist all attempts to take control away. In many cases this means saying “no” without comment.
Equally compelling is the need to create a legacy, which may come as surprise to younger adults. A common myth about older adults is that they arrive at their advanced years with life figured out, part of an innate wisdom that comes with aging that brings clarity and closure to their seventy or eighty year pilgrimage. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Life on earth is perpetual seeking. Old age is no exception. Older adults have a mature perspective but a sobering list of difficult questions. For them, as for us, life’s answers remain elusive. Simply put, there is work to be done in the final phase of life to make sense out of what has happened (what it means) and what to do about it (final plot adjustments). This mandatory life review is consumptive and emotionally complex. It involves dancing with ghosts from the past, a return to places older adults thought they had left for good. From this involuntary reconsideration come the building blocks of legacy, the final version of a life story, the kind of mark it will leave, and how it will ultimately be remembered.
So the final mission of life is paradoxical assignment composed of lasting and leaving, holding on to what’s left while at the same time saying goodbye. As middle age adults advance through there sixties, they begin “out grow” the agenda of fifty-something as the needs of old age make their way to center stage. This cross dissolving of agendas creates an “in-between” zone that creates both confusion and opportunity.
Confusion comes from a new mandate to take more control. It is an involuntary paranoia that seeps into even the most mundane transactions where we start to feel the need to defend our control, a hypersensitivity that seems so out of character. Why are we fretting over a casual comment about our health, our looks, where we live, or what we are going to do with our money?
Confusion also comes from a new preoccupation with life review. Why are certain people long gone and apparently forgotten starting to show up in our dreams or in our associations with music, smells, or geography? Why are events from the past that seemed so settled suddenly coming up for reconsideration again?
It seems that just when we have trimmed our sails to currents of middle age, a new developmental storm sends us in a new direction. But with it comes a profound opportunity from knowing what lies ahead. Knowledge of the final mission, control and legacy, offers sixty year olds the opportunity to make “preemptive” choices before the transition is complete. What do I mean?
Opportunity lies in planning how control will be preserved going forward. This could be as simple as purchasing long-term care insurance, having overdue health screening tests or updating a will. But it could also involve a closer look at social networks, spiritual connections, and attitudes, which are all critical factors in successfully managing the loss of control.
Opportunity also lies in considering how legacy will be created going forward. At sixty-something there is ample time to take action on two fronts: repair and pioneering.
The greatest legacies have nothing to do with money; they are always about the human heart. Reaching out to repair important relationships, as difficult as it may seem, opens an enormous legacy channel. Our life story is not only what we have done but also who we are as expressed through our relationships, even the ones that ask the most of us again and again.
And we are pioneers. This could lead us at sixty into radically new pursuits and situations. Or it could mean a new commitment to a life-long passion. In either case, it expands our legacy by demonstrating our willingness to go further, look deeper, and break “new trail.”