Psychologist Erik Erikson suggested that in mid-life we confront the essential task of caring for future generations. He called the development of this special form of caring "generativity." Much recent research supports this notion that social caring is an essential ingredient of vital aging. George Vaillant reports in his groundbreaking book, Aging Well, that people who successfully embrace the task of generativity at mid-life are three times as likely to be happy than those who don't during the years that follow. Many people who report aging successfully also say that they are experiencing a greater sense of purpose, compassion, and generosity than in the first half of their lives.
We see this all the time in the lives of vital elders around us. People who, in the second half of their lives, are contributing something of meaning to others in the first half of theirs, typically impress us with their energy, liveliness, and joy. Nor has popular culture failed to recognize this either.
In the classic 1970s comedy, Harold and Maude, Ruth Gordon plays Maude, a 79-year-old woman whose consummate zest for life ultimately overcomes the world-weary angst of 20-year-old Harold, played by Bud Cort. At the beginning of the film, Harold is obsessed with death; he fakes suicide dozens of times and attends funerals of strangers just to feed his morbid curiosity. Life for Harold is nearly devoid of meaning; he has no real passion for anything; he's just going though the motions, waiting around to eventually die himself.
Maude, by contrast, is a life lover. Even though (as we eventually learn) she is suffering from a terminal disease, she embraces everything in and about the world. She loves animals, sunsets, and flowers and drinks in all the beauty and joy she can find.
As the story unfolds, Harold eventually comes to adopt Maude's attitude. It happens slowly, over time, through a series of adventures in which Maude helps Harold to see how wonderful life really is—at least when you believe that it is.
The source of Maude's zest for life is her love for all of humanity, which she calls "her species." Whereas Harold wants little or nothing to do with anyone, Maude wants everything to do with everyone. She gets off on talking to strangers and delights in conversations with people from all walks of life.
Harold comes to love Maude and her way of looking at the world. As a result of her influence, he, too, learns to embrace life. Even when, at the end of the film, Maude passes away, Harold sees the beauty in the circle of life. In the movie's final scene, he strums a banjo hopefully, Maude's spirit carrying him forward to the future.
In many ways, Maude is a model for what it means to be a new elder and what it takes to live a vital and generative life for all of one's life. She never stops caring about the world and the people in it; she never stops being a learner; and she never stops wanting to make a difference in the lives of others.
Since we are not all 79-year-old women with a wonderfully eccentric view on things, it may be somewhat more challenging for us than it was for Maude to engage the affection and interests of young people. Most of us already have quite full lives that do not (as does Maude's) involve attending random funerals and stealing the cars of attendees. This doesn't mean, however, that we can't find creative and effective ways of caring about future generations in a manner that gives meaning to all parties involved. The structure of our caring creates meaning in our lives.