Untapped Richness in Erik H. Erikson's Rootstock

Helen Q. Kivnick, PhD, LP; Courtney K. Wells, MSW, MPH


Gerontologist. 2014;54(1):40-50. 

In This Article

Links to Gerontology Research and Practice


Conceptual overlaps exist between Erikson's principles and the findings of multiple research labs, produced over more than 20 years. Although behavior and social science researchers rarely explicitly use Erikson's terminology, gerontology as a field clearly rests on his seminal observation that development persists throughout adulthood. Further, much contemporary research may be understood as experimental exploration of the principles of Erikson's overall framework. For example, dynamic psychological mechanisms of aging such as Selective Optimization and Compensation (SOC), Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (SST), and balancing primary and secondary control may all be seen as later-life processes through which elders rework all eight themes. Exemplifying precisely this link, Baltes & Baltes (1990) describe virtuoso musician Arthur Rubinstein as utilizing SOC to rebalance lifelong industry & inferiority (cell 60), accommodating weakened hands while continuing to exercise other dimensions of his musical skill. Similarly, in describing the ways individuals use social and emotional goals to direct their own behavior in the face of varying time horizons, SST (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999; Carstensen, 2006) illustrates later life's rebalancing of multiple themes, to accommodate perceived amounts of lifetime remaining. Prioritizing relationships over knowledge/skills, for example, requires reworking intimacy & isolation (cell 62) and industry & inferiority (cell 60), along with integrity's rebalancing of the relative importance of behaviors associated with these two themes (cell 64). The very notions of primary and secondary control in old age (Schulz & Heckhausen, 1996, 1999) illustrate an ongoing, reciprocal, cycle of influence between the immediate environment and the person's internal self, that is, these notions exemplify the process of vital involvement. Further, the construct of control, itself, is closely related to balancing autonomy with shame/doubt throughout the life cycle (Figure 2, second column). These overlaps indicate the potential for Erikson's principles to add nuance to our research-based understanding of the experience of old age.


Together, the three principles support one another in a scaffolding that links theoretical developmental constructs with professional practices. We understand this scaffolding as undergirding such gerontological practices as person-centered care (e.g., Crandall, White, Schuldheis, & Talerico, 2007) and civic engagement (e.g., Kaskie, Imhof, Cavanaugh, & Culp, 2008); the structure helps explain the intrapersonal and interactive dynamics in both modalities. As indicated in earlier examples of effective person-centered care, the scaffolding helps us understand how specific behaviors observed in person-centered care facilities demonstrate staff, residents, and family members all behaving in ways that promote the well-being of individual residents. By extension, the scaffolding could enable supervisors to identify incidents where staff behaviors fail to promote (or actually conflict with) such well-being—and for staff to strategize behavioral modifications that will more effectively meet articulated facility goals and missions.

Civic engagement involves elders in their communities in ways that meaningfully address elders' problems while enriching community life for citizens of all ages. This reciprocally beneficial cycle of influence exemplifies the process of vital involvement, that is, mutual person–environment engagement. Consider the way this vital involvement promotes psychosocial health in individual elders—and the way a robust community can promote healthy development in its children. These considerations illustrate the principles supporting one another as part of an overall scaffolding for individual psychosocial development, in a larger environment, over generations, providing useful understanding for evaluating, and improving existing gerontological practice. It can also be valuable in designing the very gerontological practice models and programs the field is concerned with providing.