Developmental Tasks and Challenges of Middle to Late Adulthood

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By Sarah Stevenson, The Tini Yogini

This age group is of particular interest to me because, as a 45-year-old woman, I am currently in this stage of development and have friends and family in this stage. Researchers are beginning to bring more attention to middle to late adult development with people living to the average age of 78 and beyond (Santrock, 2016, p. 332). As we age, we begin to face challenges cognitively, physically, and social-emotionally.

Cognitive Challenges

As we get older, our bodies begin to break down, and this influences the human brain. In middle to late adulthood, crystallized intelligence (verbal skills and accumulated information) increases, and fluid intelligence (abstract reasoning) decreases (Horn, 1982). Perceptual speed declines in middle adulthood, and the prefrontal cortex begins to shrink, so we are slower to respond to stimuli (Schaie & Willis, 2010). Memory begins to decline with a decrease in myelin sheath and neurotransmitter production, and it becomes more difficult to process information and learn new things, especially in late adulthood. The brain begins to decrease in size due to neurons and axons shrinking and fewer synapses occurring. Researchers suggest in order to slow down the process of aging in the brain, we can choose to learn new things each day. Something as simple as taking a new way to work, eating with your non-dominant hand, or learning how to play a song on the ukulele can slow down the effects age has on the brain (Weir, 2018). Researchers have also paired physical exercise with decreasing brain shrinkage, so get up and dance a little (States News Service, 2020). Researchers have also paired physical exercise with decreasing brain shrinkage, so get up and dance a little (States News Service, 2020).

Physical Changes and Challenges

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Physically adults are beginning to lose collagen and fat in certain areas (especially the face) and start to see wrinkles and sagging skin. Hair is thinning and turning gray. Fat may be decreasing in the face but increasing everywhere else, causing waistlines to expand due to decreased metabolism and less physical activity (Chen et al., 2018). In middle and late adulthood, height is shrinking due to bone loss in the vertebrae, and age spots are popping up on the skin as payment for our sun worship as youngsters. In fear of getting older, plastic surgery is a common temporary fix that more women than men turn to in this age group (Dunaev et al., 2018). But in the end, gravity always wins the fight. Between the ages of 40 and 60, vision becomes impaired, making it harder for us to see things close up, typically when adults need glasses to read. In late adulthood, individuals face eye diseases like cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. Hearing loss begins around 40, specifically with high pitch sound, and as we age, we will eventually need hearing aids (Humes, 2021).

Researchers are finding that any form of physical activity can help you physically, cognitively, and emotionally even in the latest stages of life (Santrock, 2016, p. 369-370). You don’t need to run a marathon, just park a little farther from the grocery store, instead of the elevator, take the stairs, try to stand up every 10 minutes throughout the day, and go for a brisk walk after dinner (Guseh et al., 2020).

Social-Emotional Changes

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In middle adulthood (40-65 years), people are starting to reassess their life. The age gap between a young adult and someone in mid-life is becoming noticeable to this age group. With the knowledge that the time left on earth is shrinking, those in middle age begin to evaluate what has worked and what needs to change. Middle adulthood is filled with learning to manage responsibilities and finding meaning and purpose in life (Santrock, 2016, p. 333).

In the later stage of adulthood (70 years-death), people are beginning to face more loss than gain, losing people close to them, health is declining, creating a decrease in independent living and once again being at risk of losing purpose and facing psychological pain (Kim et al., 2020).

Empty Nest and It’s Refills

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With children growing up, becoming more independent, and headed to college, the nest is emptying, mothers and fathers are starting to have more time to themselves. This can feel like a blessing and a curse to parents, having more time to focus on themselves but a loss of purpose, losing the responsibility of raising children (Mansoor & Hasan, 2019). Empty nest syndrome is associated with depression, anxiety, and cognitive and behavioral impairments (Bougea et al., 2019). My partner and I are currently in this stage. We both have children age 20 and 21. When each boy turned 18, they moved out of our home, seeking independence. My boyfriend and I decided that it was vital to fill the void that the responsibility of being a parent inhabited. We both came from broken marriages and put our careers and education on the back burner to raise our children as single parents. So, we saw this new freedom as an opportunity to invest in our futures that we put on hold. We moved to North Carolina, I started my masters, and my boyfriend created a small theater group. We still miss being parents but are beginning to enjoy and getting used to being middle-aged adults investing in our futures. Researchers suggest that to decrease symptoms of the empty nest syndrome, parents must have a good social support system, work on self-development (through pursuing education, volunteering, new hobbies), and seek out the help of a professional counselor for support if needed (Bougea et al., 2019).

In today’s economy, adult children often come back to live with their parents because they cannot afford to live independently. These adult children are called “boomerang kids” which is when the empty nest gets refilled (Santrock, 2016, p. 359-360). The challenge for parents here is readjusting once again to support the young adult emotionally and financially until they can support themselves. Our luck as soon as we get used to being empty nesters, our kids will come knocking on the door. Either way, resiliency is the key to success, so we will rise to the challenge.

Over the past few months, I have studied stages of development from birth to death. It has opened my eyes to so much and brought a sense of awareness and empathy to each age group. We are not alone in this journey of life, and when we take the time to learn from the past, we bring with us insight and wisdom for the future. Every stage of development will require vulnerability, resiliency, and help from others to make it through. There are so many more opportunities for fulfillment and happiness in the afternoon and evening of our lives if we just plan it out appropriately (Kelleher, 1992). Next time you see an older person alone on the street, remember what you learned here tonight and take the time to give them a warm smile and a hello because someday that will be you.

References

Bougea, A., Despoti, A., & Vasilopoulos, E. (2019). Empty-nest-related psychosocial stress: Conceptual issues, future directions in economic crisis. Psychiatrike = Psychiatriki, 30(4), 329–338. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.22365/jpsych.2019.304.329

Chen, C.-C., Seo, D.-C., & Lin, H.-C. (2018). Longitudinal state-level effects on change in body mass index among middle-aged and older adults in the USA. Health Education Journal, 77(1), 59–72.

Dubanoski, J. P., Goodman, R. J., Braun, K. L., Roberts, E., & Lenzer, A. M. (1999). Growing old in a new age: national and international evaluation of a gerontology telecourse. Educational Gerontology, 25(8), 723–740. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1080/036012799267468

Dunaev, J. L., Schulz, J. L., & Markey, C. N. (2018). Cosmetic surgery attitudes among midlife women: Appearance esteem, weight esteem, and fear of negative appearance evaluation. Journal of Health Psychology, 23(1), 59–66. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1177/1359105316642249

Guseh, J. S., Churchill, T. W., Yeri, A., Lo, C., Brown, M., Houstis, N. E., Aragam, K. G., Lieberman, D. E., Rosenzweig, A., & Baggish, A. L. (2020). An expanded repertoire of intensity-dependent exercise-responsive plasma proteins tied to loci of human disease risk. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1–11. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1038/s41598-020-67669-0

Horn, J.L. (1982). The theory of fluid and crystallized intelligence in relation to concepts of cognitive psychology and aging in adulthood. In: Craik F.I.M., Trehub S. (eds) Aging and Cognitive Processes. Advances in the Study of Communication and Affect, vol 8. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4684-4178-9_14

Humes, L. E. (2021). Longitudinal changes in auditory and cognitive function in middle-aged and older adults. Journal of Speech, Language & Hearing Research, 64(1), 230–249. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1044/2020_JSLHR-20-00274

Kelleher, K. (1992). The afternoon of life: Jung’s view of the tasks of the second half of life. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 28(2), 25–28. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1111/j.1744-6163.1992.tb00367.x

Kim, E. S., Shiba, K., Boehm, J. K., & Kubzansky, L. D. (2020). Sense of purpose in life and five health behaviors in older adults. Preventive Medicine, 139. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1016/j.ypmed.2020.106172

Mansoor, A., & Hasan, S. S. (2019). Empty nest syndrome and psychological wellbeing among middle aged adults. Pakistan Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 17(1), 55–60.

Santrock, J. W. (2016). Essentials of life-span development. https://ncuone.ncu.edu/d2l/le/content/194118/viewContent/1786464/View

Schaie, K. W., & Willis, S. L. (2010). The seattle longitudinal study of adult cognitive development. ISSBD Bulletin, 57(1), 24–29.

Tortosa-Martínez, J., Beltrán-Carrillo, V. J., Caus, N., Iglesias-Martínez, M. J., Lozano-Cabezas, I., Jimenez-Hernández, S., & Cortell-Tormo, J. M. (2020). Psychosocial benefits of exercise for older adults with amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment: Innovative practice. Dementia: The International Journal of Social Research and Practice, 19(2), 518–527. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1177/1471301217725895

Walking, gardening, swimming, dancing may prevent brain shrinkage in older adults exercise may slow brain aging by 4 years. (2020, March 5). States News Service. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A616390009/AONEu=pres1571&sid=AONE&xid=ec37e0e3

Weir, K. (2018, December). Lab Work: Decoding the aging brain. Monitor on Psychology, 49(11). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2018/12/aging-brain

By The Tini Yogini

I hold a Masters degree in psychology with an emphasis in behavior modification & have worked with individuals in the public & private sector for 20 years. I am a certified Yoga Instructor RYT & sole proprietor of my own health and wellness business for the last 14 years built from the ground up. I implement Cognitive Behavior Therapy theories to help clients eliminate self-destructive unconscious behavior patterns and replace them with positive life affirming behavior patterns. I am also a professional writer and have spent the last 10 years writing articles about implementing research-based behavior strategies to positively enhance one’s life. I teach workshops throughout the United States that teach individuals how to flourish and thrive.

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