Between the ages of 30 and 55, adults experience as much change in their lives as they did when they were younger, and as they will when they are older, but what is different for this period of life is how they respond to change.
Three ways that humans adapt to the flux of influences on their lives are (a) growth, (b) maintenance/resilience, and (c) regulation of loss. Growth involves adding new skills or understanding to our behavior; maintenance/resilience is the continuation of the same level of functioning despite challenges or the restoration of functioning after experiencing loss; and regulation of loss involves not only changing our behavior, but also lowering our expectations and accepting a lower level of functioning (Broderick & Blewitt, 2003).
Growth is the most common coping mechanism among youth, and regulation of loss is most common among the elderly. Middle adulthood is the crossroads of adaptation, with all three methods occurring as the two poles shift position. It is analogous to sitting in the middle of a teeter-totter, struggling to stay balanced.
The physical changes characteristic of middle adulthood include loss of elasticity in the skin, changes to the texture and color of hair, and decreased ability in seeing and hearing. Cognitive changes include the slowing of fluid intelligence (speed of thought processing) and the increase of crystallized intelligence (accumulation of practical knowledge), as well as a loss in working memory and a gain in semantic memory (Broderick & Blewitt, 2003). Social changes can include divorce, variation in employment (either reaching the peak of career or being rendered unemployable for the unspoken reason of being "overqualified"), caring for elderly relatives, and difference in parental responsibilities (either taking them on for later life parents or relinquishing them for empty nest parents).
Sheehy (1976) described the midlife passage as a time to face the "downside of life" (p. 6), including the acceptance of our own mortality. Bly (1988) described middle adulthood as the time when our shadow side begs to be acknowledged. He explained that we have an opportunity window of about 10 or 15 years to change our lives (i.e., act upon the gifts of the shadow), and if we do not, we can never fully be our authentic selves (pp. 80-81).
As midlife adults struggle once again with self-identity issues that first arose during adolescence, such as "Who am I?", "Why am I here?", and "Where am I going?", as well as self-esteem issues that can arise as a result of comparing the actual state of their life with their expectations, they can either seek answers in a healthy way or bury the questions in denial or addiction.
Some of the physical changes that occur in late adulthood are (a) progressively weakened immunity, (b) decreased eyesight and hearing, and (c) osteoarthritis. Cognitive changes include the possibility of dementia, caused by protein plaques and tangles interfering with neural function, and terminal drop, a sharp decrease in intellectual functioning occurring six months to five years before death. Social changes can include (a) a decrease in quality of social interactions due to age discrimination or stereotyping (such as patronizing talk); (b) social segregation due to cultural differences; and (c) loss of a comfortable network of co-workers, friends, family, and community members due to relocation, death, and illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease (Broderick & Blewitt, 2003).
Three major processes that appear to contribute to successful aging in the late adulthood years are (a) selection, (b) optimization, and (c) compensation. Selection involves limiting our focus to a few areas of expertise or interest. Optimization means finding or creating the most efficient route to achievement. Compensation is basically the act of using a window when the door is shut (i.e., resourcefulness). Though beneficial at any age of the life span, these processes are especially helpful for people in the late adulthood stage because they experience more losses than when they were younger (Broderick & Blewitt, 2003).
Bly, R. (1988). A little book on the human shadow. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Broderick, P.C., & Blewitt, P. (2003). The life span: Human development for helping professionals. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Sheehy, G. (1976). Passages: Predictable crises of adult life. New York: Dutton.