Four phases of aging: Beyond Erikson's integrity versus despair

by Jean Illsley Clarke, M.A., CFLE
NCFR Report
Content Area
Human Growth and Development Across the Lifespan

It's a Stage She's Going Through

My mother used to shake her head about me and remark, "It's a stage she's going through." I suppose it was. My mother's position was that the cure for each stage was the next one; I guess that worked for both of us. But what would she say if she knew that I'm almost 90 years old and I'm still going through stages? Well, it's what she predicted, isn't it?

Many of us who are aged, while we appreciate psychoanalyst Erik Erikson's pioneering work on identifying developmental stages, need help beyond "integrity versus despair," because 50 is no longer old and the concept of aging has changed. People who are old and their younger family members may find the family journey easier if they have some guidelines on the developmental stages and old age.

Here we will consider the four stages identified by Gene Cohen, a student of Erikson, in his 2006 book, The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. While there are many helpful descriptions of aging, I chose Cohen's because his stages are easy to grasp and easy to teach. Current research continues to support his theories and it is easy to add new research, especially about the brain. Also, I am old enough to have experienced all four stages and they fit my experience and my observation of aging in others.

Old Age

Erikson's old age, the age of wisdom, started at 50. In his 1950 book, Childhood and Society, Erikson called the eighth stage of development, old age, a crisis of integrity versus despair, a stage of generalization of sensual modes with the basic strength of wisdom.

When I turned 50, I didn't experience even small spots of wisdom. While I continue to be grateful for the groundbreaking work of Erikson, I needed more.

My old dictionary says something about aging as the gradual change in an organism that increases the risk of death.

Really! The "risk" of death? I thought death was a given. Part of our natural life process.

Currently we have the geriatric position that aging is not about birthdays, but is a developmental and maintenance process, and that successful aging is associated with all aspects of well-being and a high level of life satisfaction.

Gene Cohen picked up Erikson's challenge to his students to continue the work on aging. His book, The Mature Mind, is the outcome. Cohen begins by debunking the prevailing stubborn myth that aging is negative, an illness, a stagnation, a falling apart, and is dominated by the inevitable decline of body and mind. He urges us to expect positive growth with age and to embrace the scientific findings that the aging brain can form new memories and grow new brain cells. He says,

We've also learned that older brains can process information in a dramatically different way than younger brains. Older people can use both sides of their brains for tasks that younger people use only one side to accomplish. A great deal of scientific work has also confirmed the old "use it or lose it" adage.

Developmental Intelligence

Quotient and the Inner Push

Cohen posits that we are all endowed with an Inner Push that urges us on with our development at every age. He notes that, throughout their lives, people are always at some level in the development of their intelligence. That level is their Developmental Intelligence Quotient. It is

... the degree to which a person has manifested his or her unique neurological, emotional, intellectual, and psychological capacities. ... More specifically, developmental intelligence reflects the maturing synergy of cognition, emotional intelligence, judgment, social skills, life experience, and consciousness.

Cohen sees developmental intelligence as the greatest benefit of the aging brain/mind. Call it wisdom. Although the process of aging is associated with some memory loss and some slower thinking, Cohen reminds us to consider that many declines in mental abilities are caused not by birthdays but by disease, mental illness, depression, stress, unhealthy lifestyles, and injuries.

Not by birthdays? When I recently lost almost a year of robust health, I was repeatedly told that I had to expect it because I was in my 70s. When I lost much of my fourth-grade year to an undiagnosed illness, no one told me to expect that because I was 9! Let's beware of labeling memory lapses as "senior moments." They may not be about birthdays.

Cohen's Four Stages of Maturity

Cohen's phases (stages) are more fluid than Erikson's; he notes that people may experience them in a different order from the one presented here, or they may overlap.

Phase I—Midlife Reevaluation (ages mid-30s to mid-60s)

Phase I is a period of quest more than crisis. It involves searching for truth and meaning.

  • Where have I been?
  • Where am I now?
  • Where am I going?

People in this phase commonly confront their mortality. Although for some this produces anxiety, the Inner Push usually results in an exciting new look at what we want to do with our lives. This may mean doing something differently or something entirely new. Midlife people often become less impulsive, more thoughtful about their work, more open to life's complexities, and more aware of their intuitive feelings. Meanwhile, the brain is aiding the Inner Push by expanding the corpus callosum. This increasing integration of both sides of the brain produces more balance between the analytical and the intuitive, resulting in greater productivity and a stronger sense of self. It's a great time to start a new project or direction.

On my 50th birthday I decided to write my first book. I always thought of myself as a slow starter, but according to Cohen, I was right on time.

Phase II—Liberation (ages late 50s into the 70s)

Phase II is a time of experimentation and innovation. In the busy brain, new neurons are growing in the hippocampi where dendrites reach their greatest density from the early 50s to late 70s. The Inner Push is toward liberation, not compliance, toward innovation and willingness to take risks. For many, retirement means time to do the things they always wanted to do. The questions are: If not now, when? Why not? What can they do to me?

For me this was a delicious career time of inventing new ways to teach and to think about theories.

Phase III—Summing Up (ages late 60s through 80s)

Phase III is a time of review and resolution and heralds a desire to give back. The review is of one's life with recognition of its meaning. It is a time of putting photos in albums, of writing memoirs. It may be that the richness of the autobiographical activities is aided by the ability to use the left and the right sides of the brain simultaneously. The left side is mostly used by young adults. Cohen speculates that the brain "relishes" the summing-up activities.

In his early 70s my husband Dick realized that his grandchildren had no way of knowing their immigrant grandfather's history. Dick started with a few pages and several years later had 3 inches of facts, stories, and pictures.

Cohen's research indicates that 80% of those in the summing-up phase do some sort of volunteer work. Common questions are: What is the meaning of my life? How do I give back, make the world a better place? Are there unresolved conflicts I can make right?

Phase IV—Final Phase, Encore (ages the late 70s until the end of life)

Cohen remarks,

This need to remain vital can lead to new manifestations of creativity and social engagement that make this period full of surprises.

Drawing on his extensive research and that of others, and on interviews and experiences working with people in Phase IV, Cohen sees the Inner Push fostering reflection and celebration. He notes that this phase continues aspects of the three previous phases: reexamination, liberation, and summing up. Hence the name encore is used in the French sense of "continuing." Although some qualities of intellectual functioning decline, new dendrites, synapses, and neurons are continually being created, especially if there is adequate physical and mental stimulation. Not only is learning always possible, but the depth of experience gives an added dimension of wisdom to the quality of one's thinking. Cohen cites research indicating that the oldest-old can cope well and have high levels of satisfaction and psychological resilience. Positive emotions and morale are supported by further changes in the amygdala. Cohen states:

Several other studies have confirmed these findings—even among unhealthy adults. The bottom line: people become better at adapting to their conditions as they get older.

Regardless of their health status, older people typically are better prepared—in terms of both satisfaction with life and coping capacities—to face the vicissitudes of aging.

For me this book is a yes! It is so freeing. Yes, personal perceptions and ways of thinking change. They get broader and deeper. Yes, those old societal myths about aging program us to fear old age. Yes, we need to move beyond them and expect positive growth.


If you think Cohen's four-phase concept can be helpful in a class setting or in coaching an individual or a family, I have two ideas to share. First, I find Cohen's phase designations cumbersome, so I nickname them Quest, Zest, Meaning, and Mellowing. Second, if the Four Phases of Adult Development handout looks useful, feel free to use it. I create short activities, depending on the interests of the group or individual, to help people examine their thoughts and beliefs about each stage.

May all of us who are older be thoughtful as we journey through our stages and create our own successful aging.