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Late adulthood

Late Adulthood

The purpose of this assignment is to present a case in late adulthood, based on an interview of an older adult, and to analyze that case from a developmental perspective. Through this process, studied theories will be applied to a real situation, and therefore the assignment serves as a means of demonstrating true understanding of developmental theories studied in the classroom. Relevant information gained from research will also be included and applied to the situation, demonstrating understanding of research techniques and the importance of the impact that historical events have on human beings.


The idea of the case study design is to look at one particular subject’s experiences during adulthood, and use that information to apply theories and better understand how people’s lives change over time, and the factors that influence people’s choices and experiences. The method used to gather information was the interview method, specifically a semi-structured clinical interview. That is, the interviewer asked a given set of questions, and also probed the subject’s ideas and reasoning in an open-ended manner by asking him or her to elaborate on his or her responses. In this kind of research, the interviewer must take a very active role.

The interview protocol included an introduction, explaining the purpose of the interview and informing the subject that the discussion would be tape recorded, and that the identity of the individual would be kept confidential. Six specific questions, or variations of them, were then used as the guidelines for the interview. These questions included probes for information about the subject’s most important life events since high school, the most important people in his or her life, historical events that influenced the subject’s life, and the impact of cultural background on the individual. A more detailed transcription of the interview that I conducted can be found in the Appendix on pages 1-19.

The length of the interview was approximately one hour and fifteen minutes. It was conducted on the afternoon of March 9th, 2000. We were at the subject’s own house, sitting in his living room. This was the most comfortable place for him, which I felt was important to the validity of the information that was gathered. The subject and myself were the only two people in the room. His wife and daughter were in the room next to us, but were not able to hear our conversation. No one entered or left the room while the interview was being conducted.

Background Data

The subject that I interviewed was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts in November of 1916. He grew up as an only child, with his two parents. Both of his parents were also born and raised in Plymouth. He describes himself as white, Anglo-Saxon. The subject graduated from high school in 1935, at the age of 19. In 1940, when he was 24 years old, he had a severe attack of acute appendicitis, which turned out to be a more serious disease. Because of this illness, he was not drafted to participate in World War II.

At the ago of 30, he was married to a young woman, also from Plymouth. With only a high school diploma, the subject began working in the Plymouth Welfare Department in 1950, at 34 years old. Three years later, his only child, a daughter, was born. When he was 44 years old, he was promoted to the position of Director of the Plymouth Welfare Department. In 1971, his only child graduated from high school and his father passed away. His daughter was married in 1977, and his first grandchild was born a year later. At the age of 64, in 1980, the subject retired and his only granddaughter was born. Two years later, he underwent yet another intestinal surgery, and in 1983, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and faced surgery for that illness. In 1984, the subject’s third and final grandchild was born. Doctors informed him that the prostate cancer was back again in 1986, but they chose not to operate at that point. When the subject was 72 years old, in 1988, his mother pas!

sed away. His eldest two grandchildren graduated from high school in 1996 and 1998.

The subject is currently still married to the woman he married in 1946. He describes his religious affiliation as Protestant, American Baptist. Although he changed jobs frequently right after he graduated from high school, he considers his occupation to have been a welfare administrator. He has been living in Plymouth since birth, and has no plans to go elsewhere. For a more detailed Life Event History of the subject, please see the Appendix, pages 20-24.


Taking a close look at the information gathered on the subject, a few factors emerge as most salient in his life. These include health, intimacy, and politics. Regarding health, it seems as though the subject faced some sort of health crisis at every turn throughout his life. Discussing his intestinal problems, he stated, "On March 10th, [1940] I had an attack of acute appendicitis and went to the hospital...I had appendicitis and I didn’t get better. I mean, I had problems...It went on and on" (appendix, p. 2). The subject was eventually diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. The disease was first described and named in 1932, and usually affects young patients in their teens or early twenties. Crohn’s disease is fairly rare, "occurring in about 1 to 5 per 10,000 people" ( There is no known cause or cure, but treatment is available.

Treatment options vary greatly, depending on the severity of the case. Many Crohn's disease patients require surgery, either to relieve symptoms that do not respond to medical therapy or to correct complications such as blockage, perforation, abscess, or bleeding in the intestine. Obviously, as medical technology advances, the risks involved in this kind of surgery lessen. Therefore, in the early twentieth century, when Crohn’s was first formally detected, the surgical method of treatment was more life threatening and risky than it is today ( digest/pubs/crohns/crohns. htm# rese).

Because of this illness, the subject was not able to serve in World War II, like most of his male peers were. It is clear that this was an issue for him. In the interview, he described various occasions when he attempted to pass the health examinations so that he could serve. He recalls, "So I went up to the draft board after they sent me to be examined in Boston. They said, no, you can’t go, and I said yes I can, and they said all right. So they sent me in for another examination, and when they saw my belly, they said, ‘what is this?’" (appendix, p. 4). Between November 1940 and October 1946, over 10.1 million people were drafted into the military services in the United States (http:// www.cdi. org/weekly/1998/issue27/). Some young men, such as the subject whom I interviewed, wanted to participate in the war, even to the extent of ignoring their own medical issues. In fact, World War II had fewer resisters than other conflicts. What made this war different was that we had been attacked, and therefore there was a sense of outrage. Individuals such as the subject of this interview wanted to serve and protect their country.

In 1983, the subject was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Here, again, health issues played a large role in his life. He underwent surgery at that point, and when it became an issue again four years later, he had to deal with the fact that the doctors saw operating again as too risky for his overall health.

Intimacy is another factor that played a large role in the subject’s life. He did not marry until the age of 30, but it is clear that since then, he has been completely in love with his wife. He comments, "well, my wife has been the most important person in my life. That’s the best thing I ever did" (appendix, p. 13). He obviously feels comfortable with her and feels a deep connection with her. Later, he says, "seriously though, she [his wife] is the best-natured person I know. I can’t imagine living with anyone else" (appendix, p. 19). The fact that he feels so intimate with his wife has affected his life. He also felt an intimacy with his mother. Discussing both his wife and mother, he says, "well, all the women in my life have been good women. But my wife and mother, I’m proud to say...are really fine, fine people - both of them" (appendix, p. 18). Clearly, intimacy has been important in the subject’s life. His connections with his mother and wife have been particularly strong throughout his time with them.

Lastly, politics have been a large factor in the subject’s life. He classifies himself as a liberal, and says that, "they don’t have any liberal politicians anymore. Not real ones. I like real liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Franklin Delano Roosevelt of course, and Harry Truman" (appendix, p. 13-14). This liberal outlook on life may have led the subject to work in the Welfare Department. He spent a number of years in the human service area, helping those who were less fortunate. Around the time of retirement, he comments, "people were coming in who needed help, and because of regulations, we couldn’t give them help...those cases came and it bothered me terribly...and politics got into it, and I got a belly full of that" (appendix, p. 10). At that point, he decided to retire. Here, politics played a role in his life because his political views guided him towards working to help others, and politics eventually made him decide to leave the profession as well.

Throughout human development, individuals follow certain trends. One of these, as Piaget has concentrated on, is the change from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. Cole and Cole (1996) define concrete thinking as, "internalized mental actions that fit into a logical system" (p. 485). Children tend to demonstrate this type of thinking. As one moves on in life, he or she becomes an abstract thinker, and is able to conduct mental actions without having them fit into a system or needing a concrete object to think about. According to Cole and Cole (1996), young adults "use their newly sophisticated cognitive ability to rethink the fundamental issues of social relations, morality, politics, and religion - issue that are debated by older adults" (p. 667). The subject of this paper demonstrates his ability to think abstractly when he discusses his religious beliefs. He states, "I have the greatest curiosity about theology that you could think of. I’m really very curious about it. And I think it’s important" (appendix, p. 15). Clearly, he is able to think abstractly. He has no true physical evidence pointing him to the existence of God or any other supreme religious being, but yet he still believes in a greater power beyond himself.

Another trend that I can detect evidence of is his non-egocentric attitude. Cole and Cole (1996) define egocentrism as, "the interpretation of the world from one’s own point of view without consideration of alternative perspectives" (p. 486). The subject demonstrates that he in fact has the ability to do the opposite. An example of this is the fact that he repeatedly attempted to fight in World War II, even though he was extremely ill. He knew that he was too weak to fight, and that participating in the war could very well lead to his death due to his unhealthiness at the time. However, he thought of his country and others who were affected and was willing to risk his life in order to help them. This is a very non-egocentric way of looking at a situation.

A third trend in human development is the idea of following the adult path of being single, then dating, then getting married, next having children, then having an empty nest, and finally retiring. The subject that I interviewed did follow this pattern eventually. However, he was a bit late in his execution of the trend. He was not married until he was thirty years old, and his bride was twenty-five. Seeing as they were married in 1946, they were older than most newly wed couples. This can be attributed to the fact that the subject was quite ill during the time in his life when most young men were married. Because he spent that time of his life in the hospital, he was not able to date or marry his wife until a bit later in life than average. This might also have been difficult because "the years from 25 to 40 are blessed with peak or near-peak physical have enough energy for a 50 or 60 hour workweek" (Bee, 1996, p. 391). However, during the first few years of that age span, the subject was quite ill, which took away from his ability to take advantage of this flux of energy. Regarding his marriage, the subject comments, "I waited a long time to do it, and I wish I could have done it before, but I did it" (appendix, p. 13). The couple also waited a while to have children. He states, "well I only had one child of course. It was an amazing thing to me. I mean, I was thirty-six years old when she was born. We had been married for six years" (appendix, p. 17). Clearly, the subject was an older father than most of his contemporaries, but he still followed the trend. He went on to have an empty nest when his only child moved out, and he eventually retired, as the trend suggests. He was just a bit older than most people due to his medical issues.

Erik Erikson suggests that there are four developmental crises that people face as they progress through adulthood. The first is that of Identity vs. Role Confusion. In Eight Stages of Man, he explains this stage as the time when "the young adult is now primarily concerned with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are" (Erikson, 1963, p. 261). The individual is attempting to find him or herself during this time. The subject of this paper creates a positive identity for himself by dabbling in many different jobs right out of high school (appendix, p. 1-7). In doing so, he is trying to find his calling in life. Bee (1996) states that, "a good case can be made that it is young adulthood and not middle age that holds the honor as the most stressful period in adult life...[at this time] individuals change jobs more frequently than any other age group" (p. 389). He was also committed to fighting in World War II, which helped him to find his identity as a young man who cared about the welfare of others and wanted to serve his country.

The next crisis, according to Erikson’s theory, is that of Intimacy vs. Isolation. In his book, he refers to this stage as the time when "the young adult, emerging from the search for and the insistence on identity, is eager and willing to fuse his identity with that of others. He is ready for intimacy" (Erikson, 1963, p. 263). The subject showed that he was not yet prepared for intimacy when he was twenty-three. He remembers, "I almost got married when I was was my high school sweetheart...I escaped that by the skin of my teeth...I went to her wedding in 1942, and I remember thinking that I was glad it was him, and not me!" (appendix, p. 19). Clearly, he was not ready for that kind of intimacy at that point in his life. However, when he was thirty years old, he did get married. One can see that he was ready for intimacy at that time because he has been married to that woman ever since. As I pointed out earlier in this paper, he speaks very highly of her and is obviously very happy with the decision he made to spend the rest of his life with her.

The next stage in Erikson’s theory is Generativity vs. Stagnation. He describes this crisis by stating that "generativity is primarily the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation" (Erikson, 1963, p. 267). By having a child, the subject has resolved this crisis in a positive way. He has reproduced and contributed to the future. About being a father, the subject comments, "It was an amazing thing to me...When I went to the hospital and saw her there, it was the funniest feeling...A nice feeling...I mean, there she was. She was my daughter" (appendix, p. 17). He definitely felt satisfied with the fact that he had a child, resolving the generativity vs. stagnation crisis.

Lastly, Erikson explained the stage of Ego Integrity vs. Despair. He states, "although aware of the relativity of all the various life styles which have given meaning to human striving, the possessor of integrity is ready to defend the dignity of his own life style against all physical and economic threats" (Erikson, 1963, p. 268). This is the stage where the individual reflects on his or her life, deciding whether they have any regrets. The subject of this paper does not seem to have any regrets about his life. Reflecting on his extensive medical problems, he comments, "And all these years, there’s been no symptoms - nothing - it hasn’t done anything, and you wouldn’t even know I had it" (appendix, p. 12). This shows that he is happy with his medical situation at this point. He also had words of advice, stating that one should "never let your schooling interfere with your education" (appendix, p. 17). This shows that he feels that he learned a lot throughout his life, even though he never attended college. Lastly, he commented, "You know? It doesn’t seem rosy at the time, but it always seems rosy afterwards" (appendix, p. 17). He obviously sees his life in a positive light as he reflects on the past eighty-three years. Therefore, he has resolved the ego integrity vs. despair crisis in a positive way. As Berk (1998) states, "adults who arrive at a sense of integrity feel whole, complete, and satisfied with their achievements" (p. 588).

Issues around retirement are also prominent for the subject of this paper. According to Berk (1998), "because retirement involves giving up roles that are a vital part of identity and self-esteem, it is often thought of as a stressful process" (p. 614). The subject certainly had this experience. He remembers, "then all of a sudden, I had no place to go - I felt like I had lost my identity - I was nobody. I didn’t belong anywhere...There was nothing. I mean, it was a very hollow feeling" (appendix, p. 11). Clearly, the subject had a difficult time adjusting to his new lifestyle. Cole and Cole (1993) point out that, "the chairman of the board who retires and is no longer in a position to exert authority may find it difficult not only to keep himself occupied but also to adjust to a long-forgotten feeling of powerlessness" (p. 666). The subject was the Director of the Plymouth Welfare Department for many years. Therefore, he experienced this feeling of a loss of power as well. However, retiring did give him more time to spend with his wife. Berk (1998) explains, "with extra time together, the majority of couples engage in more joint activities" (p. 604). Also, "marital satisfaction rises from middle adulthood to late adulthood, when it is at its peak" (Berk, 1998, p. 604). Based on this information, the subject and his wife had more time to spend together after his retirement, and their marriage was also at its peak during that time, bringing them more intimacy.

Levinson’s theory states that "coping with the constellation of developmental tasks that confront us at midlife...guarantees some kind of significant reassessment and change of basic life structure in the early 40’s" (Bee, 1996, p. 396). This is based on the idea that in early adulthood, between the ages of 17 and 25, the individual forms his own dream of what life will be like for them. The subject that I interviewed seems not to go through any sort of major transition at midlife. This may be due to the fact that he was very ill during the early adulthood years. Therefore, his major goal was simply to live through the disease, when his peers were thinking about getting married, buying houses and having children. Because he did not get the chance to form his own dream during early adulthood, he did not have the experience of feeling like he had not fulfilled it during midlife.

At the age of eighty-three, the subject reflects on his current state and what he now needs out of life. According to Bee (1996), "the older adult restricts the range of activities or arenas in which he or she will operate, concentrating energy and time on those needs or demands that are truly central" (p. 402). The subject seems to fit into this pattern. He says, "but then - I’m an old man, and what do I need? As long as I can pay my doctors at the hospital, and get up in the morning and get my coffee, I’m happy" (appendix, p. 11). Clearly, he has narrowed down his priorities as he has grown older. While that comment was meant to be somewhat sarcastic, it also demonstrates that fact that he truly has limited his activities down to what he sees as central to his everyday happiness.


The purpose of this assignment was to present a case in late adulthood, based on an interview of an older adult, and to analyze that case from a developmental perspective. Therefore, based on the information gathered through the interview process, the subject that I have dealt with seems to have progressed normally through adulthood. Clearly, health, intimacy, and politics are all factors that sincerely affected his life. He also followed the trends of moving from concrete to abstract thinking according to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, became non-egocentric, and followed the general trend of being single, dating, marriage, having a child, having an empty nest, and finally retirement, although he progressed through this a bit later in life than most of his peers.

Regarding Erik Erikson’s stages of development, he resolved all of the developmental crisis in a positive way, finding his identity, getting married to someone he truly loved, having a child, and reflecting on his life in a positive manner. His retirement was an issue of sadness and loss of identity for him, but it also gave him the chance to spend more time doing what he wanted to do. The subject did not have the chance to develop a "dream" during his early adulthood years, as Levinson’s theory suggests, because of his health problems, and therefore he did not feel a sense of failure during midlife. In conclusion, he is currently dealing with late adulthood in a positive way. He has narrowed his life down to include what truly makes him happy and what is necessary in order for his survival. He looks back on the past eighty-three years with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. He has truly lived a happy and successful life.


Bee, H.L. (1996). The journey of adulthood (3rd ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Berk, L.E. (1998). Development through the lifespan. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Cole, M., & Cole, S.R. (1993). The development of children (2nd ed.). New York: W.H.

Freeman and Company.

Cole, M., & Cole. S.R. (1996). The development of children (3rd ed.). New York: W.H.

Freeman and Company.

Erikson, E.H. (1950/1963). Childhood and Society. (Chpt. 7). New York: Norton.

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