Aging is the change over time that is experienced by any living organism. It can be described as a process of physical, psychological and social changes which leads to expansion and decline of some aspect of life. Aging is an important process of life which enables perpetuation to go on in the society and it is also a reflection of biological development of an organism. Aging can be described as universal and probabilistic. Universal aging is the change in ages that happen to all people in the society. Probabilistic aging on the other hand my happen to some particular segment of the aging population but not to all people e. g. the development of Type II diabetes. However the most definable kind of aging is the chronological aging which refers to the advancement in years that people undergoes. (Marcia, 1980)

As people age they undergone different changes in all aspects of their like. This paper will look into details of aging, the changes that people undergo as they age and the help they can get from social workers. Let us first look at the changes people undergo by looking at the factors that may lead to loss of identity.

Factors that may lead to loss of identity during aging

There are various factors that can lead to loss of identity as people age. These factors can take social and biological dimensions. Many studies have explored these factors and have described the role of biological and social factors that leads some aspects like dementia which cause loss of identity.

Biological factors like cellular memory loss and degeneration of brain cells are have been pointed as leading factors in loss of identity. Protein damage of cells which can be attributed to biological process can be held responsible for change in the memory which leads to loss of identity. But biological factors needs the effects of the environment in order to express the


genetic make up. So it is the social factors that can mostly be held responsible for this loss. It depends with the angle of your argument on loss of identity.

We know ourselves because we identify ourselves. One of the greatest psychologists who looked closely at the theory of identity in aging was Erick Erickson. Erickson formulated several stages of development. Erickson’s theory of personality insisted on the Freudian theory but can be described as Neo-Freudian. He was described by many other authors as ego psychologist from his work on stages of development. His study works is marked by a conflict whose resolution results in a favorable outcome. Erickson termed the favorable outcomes of each stage as virtues which come out of the conflict in each stage of growth. In his work on those conflicts, Erickson identifies two conflicts in the old age, Ego versus Despair. According to Erickson, the Ego identity enables each person to have a sense of individuality. Erickson described stressed that “Ego identity, then, in its subjective aspect, is the awareness of the fact that there is a self-sameness and continuity to the ego’s synthesizing method and a continuity of one’s meaning for others.

In his work, Erickson came up with the term “identity Crisis” which showed the actual conflicts that people undergone in life. He described identity crisis as a time which is marked by intensive analysis and exploration of different ways of in which somebody looks at oneself. He traced the identity crisis from the time of childhood and traces it up to the old age. In all these stages, Erickson identified different types of identity crisis that we undergo through in life. Erickson defined identity as “a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and continuity of some shared world image. As a quality of unself-conscious living, this can be gloriously obvious in a young person who has found himself as he has found his communality. In him we see emerge a unique unification of what is irreversibly given – that is, body type and temperament, giftedness and vulnerability, infantile models and acquired ideals – with the open choices provided in available roles, occupational possibilities, values offered, mentors met, friendships made, and first sexual encounters.” (Erickson 1970)

According to this definition, identity can be seen in perspectives of one belief in sameness based on reorganization of oneself. In this respect identity can be described using some statuses. Identity achievement occurs when an individual goes through an exploration of different identities and at the end makes a commitment to one of them. However according to


Erickson, this stage mostly occurs in the teenage years when there is an intense struggle between feelings of identity versus the role confusion. Overcoming this confusion and identity is what can be termed as identity achievement. On the other hand moratorium describes a person who is exploring different identities options but who has not yet come up with one identity. Foreclosure status describes as person who has made a commitment without attempting some identity commitment while identity diffusion takes place when neither identity crisis nor commitment occurs. It is obvious that those have made some form of identity appears to be happier than others who have not made one.

But does this apply to the old? In reality the it is may always have a conflict of integrity verses despair as Erickson postulates in his theory but again this will depend on individual persons. The crisis of identity can be seen as more profound in the adolescent than in the old age. As per the above statutes of identity, the old person will have achieved an identity and will be living for it. The aspect may come as a result of the way the person has carried out the identity. The elderly spends time reviewing life accomplishments. At time one may have to deal with loss in life and at the same time prepares for death. Hence one of the factors that lead to loss of identity at this age is the fact that there is little time to think about oneself. The integrity ego is the accumulated assurance that describes the egos capacity for the older and meaning. The fear of one death can be seen as the main factor leading to despair. This is couple with the reflection of the loss in self-sufficiency and loved ones. Erickson argues the children won’t fear life if the elders shows integrity and don’t fear death.

But this cannot apply to all old people. A person who have lived their life well, have achieved a lot and have grand children around them may have less identity crisis than a person who have lived a careless life and are lonely in later life. It is just a matter of the kind of life that one has lived. This can be expressed as a result of self evaluation. If one achieves a positive life evaluation, they will not have despair.

What are some challenges that challenge people’s sense of identity as they age and support that can be offered by social workers?

As people age, they are faced with some challenges that really challenges their identity. At


times this is seen as re-occurrence of identity crises in their life. As people age, there are different changes that occurs in their life which may have positive or negative impact on their identity in life. As we described earlier, aging occurs in many spheres of life and old people are faced with numerous problems that they have to cope with. There are different losses and transitions that older people have to come up with in their life and which have different effects on their identity.

One of the challenges that these people faces in the society is retirement. Literally, they enter into a different world altogether from the one they have lived for many years. Many retirees find themselves in a difficult situation as they try to reestablish themselves in the society. They might have spent a lot of their time in the work place and they find it difficult to find a niche in the society. Many people chose to retire in a peaceful area away from the busy town where they have been working or in the suburbs. They enter in a society different from the one they have been associating with in the work place.

It is the adjustment to the new life that poses a challenge to the old people. There is a crisis of establishing their identity in the society as well as their role. Some of the have to play a different kind of roles altogether from the one they had been playing for the time they were employed. Think of a woman who has been working as secretary. After retirement she has to settle down to the role of a house wife. There is a lot of identity crisis in the way this woman will reestablish herself in her new role as house wife. Here social workers can help the old pole to cope with this life by involving them in activities which helps them to practice their former professionals. This will help them to create an identity of their former life. (Ian, 2007)

The other crisis is witnessed in the change of social relationships that happens as one ages. There is break up of common activities that one has been engaging with at their juvenile age and suddenly one is entangled in a complete new relationship. One of the greatest effects that have been haunting the senile members of our society as far as relationships are concerned has been the ability of the person to face the evidence of an empty nest. The children are all gone and the house is as empty as it was in the early years. There are long moments of loneliness which becomes worse especially for those whose partners have left. There is also a trend into the aging population of remarrying as in their senile years. Again at this time in age one has to cope with a new relationship which means on has to identify them again in the relationship. Again there will be need of identification in terms of roles and self identification.


One will be required to play a new role of a wife or a husband. (Davis and Clifton, 1995)

In the untied states there have been rising practices of confining the old to the care homes. How do the old people establish themselves in the new homes? They enter into a completely different form of life from the one they have been living. They have to form new relationship with the one they find in those homes. There is a challenge of creating ones identity in the home and in the circle of relationships that they form. The loss of a cople is one of the most devastating factors in the relationship of the old people. Many aging people depend on one another and a loss of one in the circle of dependant is a big blow to the emotional status of the bereaved. In some instances it has been shown that the death of one couple is usually followed by the death of the other. This is because there is crisis in creating an identity in life without the other.

But there is a difference that occurs in different category of older people as far as relationship is concerned. There are older people who adapts very quickly to the new environment and forms relationship which are functional and satisfying. There are other old people who after retirement identify is a new role in the society which they can play ad activity takes on it. But at the same time there will be those who will find it difficult to adapt to the new role and will take time thinking about their past and what they have lost.

As people age, they find that they have lost most of their independence and they are under surveillance either from their children, their couples or social workers at the care homes. This is another challenge that they face in their sense of identity. This is one of the losses that old people undergo and which has an overall effect on their life. Suddenly they find that they cannot do what they want. They find that they cannot move as they like. This is a case in many of those who suffers from dementia. They cannot be allowed to the kitchen alone. Many of them will leave the gas open or leave the lights on for a whole day. In some instances some may forget to take their meals or their medicine which call for intervention of their care givers. Loss of independence has been one of the greatest conflicts that old people faces as some regards it as mistreatment. This conflict witeh care givers clearly exemplifies that even when someone is suffering from mental dementia, there is importance of identity. The old still struggles to reestablish their identity or to play a role in their life that portrays their former self. But in some cases you will find some people who suffer from meant dementia but still retains their self identity and even that of their roles. The practical support that social worker can offer here is by


giving the old people a degrees of independence or space in which they can practice their former life but which should be under the watch of the social workers. (Ann, 2005)

Perhaps one of the most critical challenges that old people face in their life that has an effect on their identity is that of their health status. Many old people suffer from bad health due to the aging biological system. Many of them suffer from various digestive disorders which weaken their immunes system. Their body weakness and with time they turn to be dependant on others. At times they fail to identity with the current condition that is affecting them. They fail to understand the sudden change of the status of their body from a health one to bed ridden one. At the old age this portrays a struggle that they will undergo to the death in trying to identify their health past. Many will still struggle to perform the roles they used to perform. At old age, they also suffer the change of their status in the society. This can affect those who have serving as administrator who finds themselves in the opposite side to authority. Many of them will still want to retain their former status which they cannot. Social workers can play an important role here by supporting the old people to accept the change in their health and makes sure that they follow the medication.

All the above represents different challenges that old people undergo in their life as they struggle to create an identity of in the societies at their age. Understanding of the above is more important in for the social workers since they can come up with working support for the old people.

What can social workers do?

The social worker can play a role in helping the old accept their present status and live with it. One of the most important works that has helped the old people has been the reminiscence work. Social worker can use their skill in reminiscence work in order to help the old people regain their identity. There is need to recognize the role reminiscence plays in the later life of a person. It helps the old people get in touch with things and time that were really important to them in their earlier life. This can help them retain their sense of identity and build self-esteem once they recognize the role they have played in the society.


Hence one of the important skills the social worker should have is that of helping them recall their memories and narrate what they used to do in their life. This is an important aspect that will help them understand their importance in the society. Hence a social worker must posses communication skills that will help them relate with the old people. We should understand that when old people feel isolated, remembering and sharing with somebody a part of their memories may improve their emotional, social and physical well being. In this respect the social worker should use proper communication skills to convince the old the important role he or she can play in perpetuation of the society by narrating the past to us.

Social worker will have to play two roles here. One, they must encourage the old person to share the memories. This will help them to gain their identity once again and it will also be part of recording our history. Second the social worker must be able to pay genuine attention and show interest to the person reminiscing as they unfold their memories. This would motivate them to give more.

A social worker must have proper skills in order for practice of reminiscence to work. Firs they must have skills of group structure and process. They must ensure that old people feels at home by creating a familiar habit and a common way of meeting which creates recognition and a sense of community. The composition of the group must be carefully considered. In forming a group the social worker must have understanding of group members in order to balance characters. The social worker must also have skills for spatial arrangement in that people must sit in a circle around a small table. This means that a group should have 6 to 8 people. The social worker must be able to prepare the group by creating tense free atmosphere and communicate the number of subjects to be discussed. Each session should not last more than one hour and participant should leave at their own leisure.

To get started there is need to have an informal session where everyone tells of their past. The social worker must have skills to help the old people with memory impairment. They must have the skills to use props and visual cues like old photographs to stimulate their memory. Other props that can be used include school days materials like chalks or textbooks, music from old


songs, pictures of localities, brainstorming members who grew up, random questions to different members, major historical events, foods, and others.

If social workers apply the above skills in reminiscence, they will help the old people to remember and contribute their past and identify themselves with the society.


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