In psychology, the concept of ego integrity can refer generally to the development of a healthy ego or specifically to one of the stages of development proposed by psychologist Erik Erikson. Erikson believed that humans moved through eight different stages of development during their lives, with ego integrity being the final stage. At each point, the individual would face a crisis and either resolve it to move through to the next, or fail and remain at a stage of arrested development. Erikson's research was particularly important, as he was one of the first psychologists to specifically look at the developmental role of aging.
Erikson argued that older adults moved into an ego integrity versus despair stage of their development at around age 60. Successful resolution of the crisis would result in a rounded, holistic view of life, while failure would generate depression and despair. Support such as close association with friends and family could help older adults move through this stage of development. Erikson theorized that in a society with well adjusted older adults, children would be less likely to fear aging and death.
The crisis at this stage is typically brought on by a reminder of mortality. As people age, their friends and family start to die, which can trigger worries about death and dying. This may also spur an older adult to reflect back on life, thinking about accomplishments and failures. If this reflection in the form of a series of reminiscences is successful, the crisis should resolve. The patient will feel content with the choices made in life and any contributions made to the community, and will enter a state that Erikson referred to as wisdom.
Failure during the ego integrity stage of development can result in despair. Older adults who do not feel like they lived well-rounded lives may develop depression and distress. Others may lack the support they need to think about their lives as a result of living in isolation, failing to reach out to friends and family, or being rebuffed during attempts to remember their lives. Talking with people around them about their lives can help older adults resolve the ego integrity versus despair crisis.
Awareness of this theory is particularly important for gerontologists and other health care professionals who work with older adults. They need to be able to offer the most appropriate services to their charges. Demonstrations that reminiscence is highly beneficial for psychological development highlight the need for older adults to have access to community interactions; projects like interviewing veterans, for example, can help older adults move through the ego integrity stage while also collecting information of historic and cultural interest.