This course follows a rough chronological disorder in which we talk about emerging adulthood and young adulthood first, followed by middle adulthood, and older adulthood. However, this division is mostly for convenience and custom rather than because of any clear delineation. Older adulthood covers a period of up to 40 years and now is commonly divided into at least two if not three parts. Ageism likely contributes to the fact that there still are many studies in which everyone 50 and up is classified as older with no subdivision.
The twenties and thirties are often thought of as early adulthood. (Students who are in their mid 30s tend to love to hear that they are a young adult!). It is a time when we are at our physiological peak but are most at risk for involvement in violent crimes and substance abuse. It is a time of focusing on the future and putting a lot of energy into making choices that will help one earn the status of a full adult in the eyes of others. Love and work are primary concerns at this stage of life.
The late thirties through the mid-sixties is referred to as middle adulthood. This is a period in which aging, that began earlier, becomes more noticeable and a period at which many people are at their peak of productivity in love and work. It may be a period of gaining expertise in certain fields and being able to understand problems and find solutions with greater efficiency than before. It can also be a time of becoming more realistic about possibilities in life previously considered; of recognizing the difference between what is possible and what is likely. This is also the age group hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic in Africa resulting in a substantial decrease in the number of workers in those economies (Weitz, 2007).
This period of the life span has increased in the last 100 years, particularly in industrialized countries. Late adulthood is sometimes subdivided into two or three categories such as the “young old” and “old old” or the “young old”, “old old”, and “oldest old”. We will follow the former categorization and make the distinction between the “young old” who are people between 65 and 79 and the “old old” or those who are 80 and older. One of the primary differences between these groups is that the young old are very similar to midlife adults; still working, still relatively healthy, and still interested in being productive and active. The “old old” remain productive and active and the majority continues to live independently, but risks of the diseases of old age such as arteriosclerosis, cancer, and cerebral vascular disease increases substantially for this age group. Issues of housing, healthcare, and extending active life expectancy are only a few of the topics of concern for this age group. A better way to appreciate the diversity of people in late adulthood is to go beyond chronological age and examine whether a person is experiencing optimal aging (like the gentleman pictured above who is in very good health for his age and continues to have an active, stimulating life), normal aging (in which the changes are similar to most of those of the same age), or impaired aging (referring to someone who has more physical challenge and disease than others of the same age).