Psychoanalytic Theory and Aging

Freudian theory is preeminently a theory of early childhood, yet given many of Freud's adult life experiences, this is somewhat ironic. From about 4 years before the publication of Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, Freud began describing himself as old in letters to his friend Wilhelm Fliess (even though Freud was only 40 at the time). He became very depressed and remained so for years after the death of his aged father Jacob in 1896. Nearing the age of 60, Freud agonized over the fate of his adult sons in World War I. Thus, throughout his later adult life, he struggled with his feelings of being old and unproductive. Nevertheless, psychoanalytic theory and Freud's own psychoanalytic practice with young and older adults always kept its clinical eye toward early childhood as the root of any adult problem.

Formally, at least, Freud did address at least one theoretical aspect of aging—death. As noted earlier, he did hypothesize a death instinct, thanatos, and clearly mocked those who held beliefs of life after death, a beneficent divine Providence, and the belief that eventually good is rewarded and evil is punished. For Freud, belief in a god or gods and other religious ideas were formed through the ego defense of reaction formation in the face of what he viewed as the crushingly superior force of nature. In his own life, particularly over the last 2 decades while he suffered greatly from jaw cancer, he nevertheless remained stoic and productive, even if he remained highly self-critical. It is perhaps unfortunate that Freud and psychoanalytic theory did not formally address the issues that aging and death pose for adjusted and maladjusted persons.

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