I’m going to take a look today at practicing being old. You can laugh, but it isn’t as simple an idea as it appears. I have placed it in my set of categories as “Getting Old, but being old isn’t the same thing. And “being old” and “practicing being old” aren’t the same thing either. Here’s one of the ways to picture it.
This post amounts to a detour—a brief one, I think—on my road to Erickson’s consideration of generativity. Let me tell you how I got here. I’ve been working on. Helen Q. Kivnick was listed at the third author of Vital Involvement in Old Age. She was third behind Erik and Joan Erikson and I’d never heard of her so I didn’t pay much attention. But it turns out she has written a great deal about the kinds of ways old people can invest themselves in their lives, even though the circumstances vary a good deal from one time to another. The circumstances vary before and after a stroke, for instance; or before and after they take away your driver’s license; or before and after the operation that puts an end to your eating solid food.
Those are dramatic changes of the circumstances of your life, I think you will agree, but none of them prevent your continuing to involve yourself in the vitality of your old age. The way you will invest will change. And learning how to invest yourself in those new circumstances will require practice—if you want to get good at it. I really do want to get good at it so I am beginning to practice as early as I can. Like…now. This would be a good place to put an alternative image, I think.
Kivnick’s interest stretches from the Erikson’s epigenetic stages on the abstract side to occupational therapy on the applied side. That’s quite a stretch. I’m in the seventh of Erikson’s eight stages. Self-absorption is the opponent I am playing in this stage. There is a good deal more to be said about that, but this is my detour and I am going to look at Kivnick’s application of the Eriksons’ work. On the occupation side, we are looking at things like this.
Occupational science focuses on the study of the form, function and meaning of human activity, and it seeks to understand people as occupational beings (Yerxa, 1988). Occupations may be described as individual patterns of meaningful activity that are influenced by culture and personality.
The three scenarios I sketched above—the stroke, the driver’s license, and the gastrectomy—could all benefit, it seems to me from considerations of “the form, function, and meaning of human activity.” And Kivnick’s framework for doing that is called Vital Involvement Practice, hereafter VIP. That will mean “very important practice” to me; I have long since given up becoming a Very Important Person. Here’s a short sketch of what she has in mind.
Vital involvement has been described as a person’s meaningful engagement with the world outside the self (Kivnick, 1999), a process of “being in relation” to elements of the environment (e.g., people, materials, animals, ideas, values, institutions, sounds). Vital involvement maybe expressed in overt behaviors that link a person’s internal (psychological) processes to entities in the external (social; physical) world.
So the practicing I am thinking about is going to be about a “meaningful engagement with the world outside the self (inside, too) and of “being in relation to aspects of the environment.” From the list, I will pick out ideas, values, institutions, and sounds. And not only am I going to be doing that; I am going to be doing it on the basis of my current strengths. The heart of Kivnick’s emphasis is that sound practice requires that we begin with what old people are good at—I remind you that I am the old person in question—and build a pattern of engagements on those. If I don’t do that, I am going to get myself involved in a system aimed at identifying and categorizing behavioral deficits and providing “solutions” for those deficits. Engaging actively in some new setting, an engagement based on my strengths, sounds better to me than that. And maybe if I get out ahead of the diagnosticians and push the pace a little, they won’t be able to catch up to me.
So what does “practicing” involve, given all that? It seems to me that the simplest approach is to pay attention to what I’m good at—what I’ve already had success at—and start thinking about how I can vitally engage a setting in which many other options are more limited. And if I have trouble remembering what they are, I can consult the members of my book group, which will mark its 30th anniversary in the fall of 2013. And they’ve been watching me as long as I’ve been watching them. They’ll know what I’m good at.
 This is “playing” in the sense that one plays an opponent in tennis. I continue to think of progressing through Erikson’s stages as analogous in many respects to winning your match in a tournament, as a result of which, you get to face your next opponent. In my previous match, my opponent was isolation—the inability to invest wholeheartedly in an intimate relationship. I won that one, mostly, and have moved on to playing against “self-absorption.”
 Yerxa, E. (1998). Health and the human spirit for occupation. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 52, 412-418.
: Helen Q. Kivnick PhD & Sharon A. Stoffel MA, OTR, FAOTA (2005): Vital Involvement Practice: Strengths as More Than Tools for Solving Problems Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 46:2, 85-116
 Kivnick and Stoffel, op. cit.
 Engagement with people, one of the values I skipped over, is crucial to everything else for me, but I think of that transaction as involving collegiality and intimacy. They are relationships. The ones I chose are just transactions.