Death Anxiety Occurring In Late Adulthood
As a psychology major, I have had the opportunity to study a lot of very interesting topics. One that has always interested me the most is Thantaphobia that occurs during late adulthood, and the negative impacts it can have on a person’s quality of life.
Thantaphobia, or death anxiety, is the fear or anxiety that is felt in regard to one’s own impending death. Research has shown that men and women experience death anxiety in very different ways. Regardless of the individual’s ethnicity, men are more prone to death anxiety than women, as women tend to have a higher sense of life satisfaction than their male counterparts. When struggling with death anxiety, the impacts can be catastrophic, impacting a person’s quality of life in various ways such as a decline in physiological well-being or deterioration in mental health.
When considering death anxiety, what it is, and what it means in relation to a person’s life I believe that Erik Erikson’s theory is very relevant. Erikson’s theory tells us that as an individual reaches late adulthood, they must choose between ego integrity and despair. During this time a person reflects on their life, and according to Erikson’s theory, if you view your life with a sense of satisfaction, you possess ego integrity whereas if your life is viewed as a series of failures, you are more apt to sink into a state of despair. When an individual is submersed in despair, they feel hopeless, isolated, depressed, or like their demise is the only thing they have left.
There are many different factors that influence a person’s likelihood of struggling with Thantaphobia: age, environment, and religious faith. In the past, those suffering from death anxiety have been seen as mentally ill, senile, a burden, and as a drain on society. As research has progressed, society is beginning to realize that death anxiety is a very real illness, and that its impact can be felt throughout the world’s population, regardless of culture or ethnicity. This is in essence why I believe that in order to adequately care for our elderly family and friends, it is crucial that we understand what Thantaphobia is, and how to help them cope.
Peter Strang says, “Pain is the one thing that all dying patients fear, and pain control is a high priority in specialized palliative care. However, we tend to focus too much on the physical and pharmacological aspects of the end-of-life process.” While pain control is an important factor for people who are nearing the end of their life, not enough thought is focused into the psychological and emotional trauma that people may experience as their bodies prepare to die.
During late adulthood, people tend to come to terms with the fact that they won’t live forever, and for some this can cause crippling physiological, emotional, and psychological effects. Those who have lived a generally “good” life and feel satisfied with themselves are more apt to accept death easily, and have even been known to welcome death by stating they are ready to “go home.” On the other hand, those who have had unsatisfactory lives, or a poor sense of self-worth are more predisposed to become depressed, have feelings of hopelessness, and are more prone to accelerated worsening of physiological conditions when faced with the reality of their own demise.
Thantaphobia is most commonly referred to as Death Anxiety or Terror of Death, and this disorder is largely seen in those who are 65+ years old. Until recently, terror that was directly linked to death was not seen as a valid psychological disorder. As research has progressed, Thantaphobia has helped experts in the field of psychology to develop the Terror Management Theory. This theory is used to define the relationship between an individual’s desire to continue living, and the inevitability of their own approaching death. This theory teaches us that we may be able to counteract the effects of Thantaphobia by encouraging a belief in the afterlife and nurturing the development of a healthy level of self-esteem.
Most people who suffer from Thantaphobia are paralyzed by the fear of nothingness. This is one of the reasons that religious faith can lessen the effects of Thantaphobia, if not to make a person exempt from death anxiety. Most people who consider themselves to be religious have a deep belief in the afterlife, heaven or hell, that our souls still have a purpose and a meaning even after death. These people find it easier to accept their own death, and are typically more calm and content in the period of time leading up to death. Individuals who hold no belief in an afterlife normally view death as simply an end, a dive into an abyss of nothing. The feeling of no longer existing, being forgotten, or not knowing what to expect when you die can be terrifying. Generally, these are the feelings that induce death anxiety.
Terror caused by death is not a disorder that has only recently been discovered. If we look back into the history of psychology, Freud said, “We can’t accept our own death, no one believes in his own death; in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.” According to Freud, time does not pass in chronological order within our unconscious. Freud had another theory in which since we have never died, we have not experienced death, therefore it does not exist in our unconscious. Without the experience of death, we are unable to fear death. Instead, Freud theorized that rather than fearing death itself, we are actually exhibiting fear of something else: abandonment, unfinished business, or guilt.
It was Ernest Becker who delved into Death Anxiety when no one else believed it existed. Becker believed that the human awareness of death directly impacted a person’s behavior. He believed that humans are the only life-forms that are aware that death can occur instantaneously with no warning, and that we are corporeal and only have a finite amount of days in which to live.
Humans typically begin to grasp the concept of death during early childhood, and this has an effect on all stages of a person’s lifespan. During the early years, individuals tend to feel invincible, and death is far off on the horizon; nothing that warrants worrying about. By middle adulthood, the tables have started to turn. By this stage of development, middle aged adults are finding themselves with empty nests, careers which they define as unsuccessful, crumbling marriages, deaths of parents and siblings, and all too often mounting debts. During these years, the realization begins to set in that we are not immortal, and the reaper may be coming faster than we expected. By late adulthood, those who still lack ego integrity commonly find themselves ensnared firmly in the grip of Thantaphobia.
Late adulthood is considered to begin at around 65 years old, and during this time people find it important to resolve conflicts rather than to become bitter, or remain in a conflicted state. Studies in Gerontology have shown that just because a person has entered late adulthood does not signify a deterioration in mental or emotional wellbeing. However, it is common for individuals in late adulthood to suffer from atrophy in the brain, which causes neural process rates to decline. Those in late adulthood may also experience a decrease in sensory modalities.
Normally, the physical changes that occur during late adulthood are the most noticeable. These changes include hair loss, thin or papery skin, and lack of muscle tone. In relation to the expected developmental progression, Death Anxiety would have the potential to hinder or stunt expected development by causing chronic pain or illness associated with depression, the worsening of a pre-existing condition, or mental and emotional trauma. In an individual suffering from Thantaphobia, quality of life would be extremely diminished, which would result in anxiety, depression, social involvement, and a decrease in physical activity which would increase the rate of muscle atrophy.
We need to assess death anxiety and find a way to potentially treat it. By allowing our senior citizens to suffer from this invisible illness in silence, we are sitting idly by while they deteriorate into an isolated and unhealthy state. Perhaps it could prove to be beneficial to simply sit and listen to someone in late-adulthood reflect on their life, offering words of support and encouragement when needed, letting them know that they are not alone. We could begin making a conscious effort to help people attain life satisfaction for the small things they did, rather than focusing on what was lacking in their life.
Current research shows that a person who is empowered, has a good sense of life satisfaction, and has a solid support system is less likely to be affected by death anxiety as they reach late-adulthood. Future research on death anxiety, such as the Terror Management Theory, will have the potential to more effectively diagnose and treat individuals in late-adulthood, while increasing the probability that they will have a more satisfactory quality of life.
We have a need as a society to further research skills that the elderly could use to effectively cope with the challenges that accompany age. We need to find healthy ways to help them cope with depression and anxiety. Ensuring a bright future is seen as mandatory when it comes to our children, and ultimately should be viewed the same for our elderly loved ones. In most cases, these are the people who cared for us, fed us, clothed us, and kept us safe when we were unable to do these things for ourselves. It’s only fair that we do the same for them.