A psychological perspective on ageing

Thobekile Marume
The rhythm and meaning of human development begins in early childhood and winds into late adulthood; a stage associated with great wisdom as deep reflection connects the end with the beginning.

As the holy scriptures say, elders are blessings to the young, and Zimbabwe has, therefore, been gifted with longevity in the mould of former President Robert Mugabe.

This article examines socio-emotional developments associated with old age and its related stages, focusing particularly on Mr Mugabe following his resignation as President of Zimbabwe.

People have questioned the effect of old age on the former President’s cognitive abilities.

However, contrary to popular belief that no new brain cells are generated after early childhood (under 10), people continue to grow new brain cells throughout their lives.

Late adulthood years are no exception to continued brain development as the brain retains capability to repair itself, losing only a portion of its ability to function.

But cognitive mechanics decline with age.

These mechanics involve the speed and accuracy of processes related to sensory input, visual and motor memory, discrimination, comparison and categorisation.

Some, but not all aspects of memory, decline in older adults. This decline occurs primarily in remembering the where and when of life as well as working memory which is used in problem-solving.

Erick Erickson concluded that humans move through psychosocial stages at various stages in their lifetime.

These psychosocial stages reflect a desire to affiliate with other people throughout life.

And each stage ushers in a unique development opportunity which comes in the form of a developmental task the individual is faced with.

The task presents a crisis which is not catastrophic but is a crossroad of increased vulnerability and enhanced potential. Successfully resolving crises leads to healthier development where the virtue of the developmental crisis is attained.

A developmental crisis ensures the individual takes away something from it.

If not a virtue, it will be a vice which will be the Achilles’ heel symbolising inability to successfully resolve the developmental crisis.

There are eight stages, with Stage One occurring in the first year of infancy, progressing through childhood, adolescence and ultimately culminating in the final stage which happens in late adulthood.

Late adulthood begins at 60.

The final stage of development is characterised by the individual’s reflection on the past and either piecing together a positive review or concluding that one’s life has not been well-spent.

If the retrospective glances and reminiscences reveal a picture of a life well-spent, the individual will be satisfied. Conversely, if retrospective glances are negative, the individual will despair.

At this stage, the individual assesses his/her worth through the eyes of their contribution. Such assessment can be quiet or intense, involving various activities around the individual.

Individuals look at their personal lives, families and communities as they assess the effects of their decisions and overall contribution; negative or positive.

At 83-years-old, Robert Mugabe continued working.

He continued contributing actively to the nation of Zimbabwe and, therefore, might have been assessing that stage of life quietly.

We will never know how much those around him cushioned him from the discontentment many in Zimbabwe had with his leadership.

Mass mobilisation events such as Million-Man March were organised for him and he may have felt accomplished, satisfied with the way he led Zimbabwe.

Mr Mugabe was made to believe he was a darling to many; loved by both young and old.

Then one day he woke up to a bigger crowd — perhaps much bigger than the one he encountered in 1980 when he ascended to power — advocating his resignation.

No one’s bearings remain the same under such circumstances.

On November 18, 2017, the statesman stepped down as President of the Republic. His resignation came after a period of intense negotiations that could only have been stressful for a man his age.

In African culture, the elderly are excused from some serious deliberations for fear of upsetting them.

Most deliberations are done by younger kinsmen, with older ones informed of the decisions. This could have stemmed from indigenous knowledge of the decline in working memory.

However, Robert Mugabe had to be actively involved in negotiating his end.

He was supposed to be the source of wisdom; full of invaluable knowledge, the one they all looked up.

But suddenly, and true to street lingo, “shiri yabvuta rekeni” (the bird snatched the catapult).

November 2017’s events may not have been how President Mugabe envisaged leaving power.

In African culture, ageing brings with it greater responsibility, especially in taking on an advisory role as happened with Nelson Mandela.

Mr Mugabe had none of this, possibly catapulting him into despair: Despair as revision, reflection on experience and expanded understanding take place.

One may ask themselves questions such as: where did I go wrong? What did I do? How did I miss it? This could further catapult him into despair.

In the later stage of life, people worry about generativity, assessing the lives of the children they have raised. Parents wonder if they did a good job.

This crisis is worse for parents whose children remain children, failing to transcend and fill the ageing father’s shoes. Baba Mugabe is no exception.

He has to worry about the children he has raised. Can they carry the family totem with pride?

Mr Mugabe continues to negotiate through the last stage of development like any other sekuru his age, but for now, it is amidst a major loss in his life.

Losses come with their own set of psychological processes.

Kubler Ross, in working with people dealing with grief, identified five common stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

The stages are not necessarily linear, but individuals do go through them at different times of loss as a way of coming to terms with their circumstances.

The two psychological theories above can help the nation empathise with possible explanations of what Robert Mugabe might be going through.

However, the theories cannot be used in isolation of a full basement by qualified personnel to draw a comprehensive conclusion on what he is going through.

Everyone has some degree of uniqueness in dealing with both grief and existential crises which is set in motion with ageing or any other event in their life.

 

Thobekile Marume is a Harare-based psychologist. She wrote this article for The Sunday Mail

 

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