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Behaviour through a lifespan perspective

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 2503 words Published: 9th May 2017

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What are the advantages and disadvantages of viewing behaviour through a lifespan perspective for social work practice?

This assignment will look at the advantages and disadvantages a social worker viewing behaviour through a lifespan perspective may encounter. It will look at developmental theories that relate to the chosen service user group, and how, as a social worker, this knowledge would increase understanding of the service user and how this in turn may affect the role of a social worker in practice. The service users age group being explored in this assignment will be older adults aged from 65+.

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Lifespan development starts from conception and finishes with the death of each individual. During each individual’s lifespan there are constant changes and developments taking place, the majority of stages and life changes each individual passes through are due to their common psychological and biological heritage as humans and are shared by all people. Culture and social class, and the individual’s environment are all factors that help shape the course of development (Niven. N.1989). There are five main theoretical approaches for lifespan development; these are biological, cognitive, humanist, behaviourist and the psychodynamic approach.

Ageing in late life is shaped by the accumulation of life events and the proximity of death; a misperception about ageing is that disability and poor health in later adult life are inevitable (Davies, M, 2002). During each individual’s lifespan, they will experience a series of crises and life transitions. Throughout the lifespan there are certain periods or stages where each individual will face a transition from one state to another. These periods have been referred to as life crises by some psychologists, each crisis needing to be resolved in order to progress to the next stage. Each individual proceeds through the stages of development, and the way in which they deal with each crisis in each stage of development shapes their personality (Niven, N, 1989). Other approaches agree that there are certain stages in development that have significance for each individual, but they state that there are also other events that can also shape development – these being experienced by some individuals but not all.

Retirement is just one of a number of changes that need to be adjusted to in late adulthood, among the others are declining health and physical strength along with physical and sensory impairment which can result in increased dependency on others in late adulthood (Beckett.C.2002).

Several physical and cognitive changes also take place in old age (Bee & Mitchell, 1984) cited in (Sugarman. L. 1990. Pg 53). The bodily changes that are associated with ageing are summarized in five words- slower, weaker, lesser, fewer and smaller. As ageing occurs experience gained throughout the lifespan helps the individual and they learn to compensate for the many gradual declines that accompany old age. (Corse 1975) cited in (Sugarman. L. 1990. Pg 53) concludes that experience, intelligence, and education can help maintain normal perceptual and sensory functioning.

Many changes in appearance take place in old age. Outward appearances begin to show ageing, older people’s skin begins to lose elasticity, which causes lines and wrinkles to appear, hair loss and grey hair may be one of the first signs of ageing, and hearing and eye sight now begin to deteriorate (Windmill.V.1987). Internally the kidneys, lungs, heart and intestinal tract all begin to function less and there may be deterioration of muscles which can literally cause old people to shrink. The reduction of calcium in the bones makes the old person more prone to fractures and brittleness of the bones is also a problem in the older population. Arthritis is one of the more serious health problems affecting older people and for most people these changes may be gradual (Windmill.V.1987).

A social worker needs the basic insight of childhood studies, as without them it would be difficult to assess adults on adulthood theories alone.

Freud is credited with beginning the psychoanalytic approach. The central assumption of this approach is that behaviour is governed by the unconscious as well as the conscious processes; some are present at birth while others develop over time. (Beckett.C.2002) The second assumption of the psychoanalytic theory is that our personalities have a structure that develops over time. Freud proposed three parts of the personality- the id, the ego, and the superego. Freud’s key assumptions were that adult’s personalities depend on childhood experiences; he assumed children go through five psychosexual stages. The first being the oral stage, the second the anal stage, and the remaining stages being the phallic stage, the latency period and the genital stage. (Beckett.C.2002).

When looking at human lifespan development, Erik Erikson’s theories can be of use to a social worker. Erikson was a student of Freud; however he had some very different ideas. He thought development was psychosocial and due partly to maturation and partly due to society. Erikson also thought that personality development continued across the lifespan, unlike Freud, who suggest personality development finished in adolescence. Erikson (1980) cited in (Niven, N, 1989, pg 155) proposed eight stages of development which he called ‘developmental crises’, these being viewed more as a period of difficulty or dilemma. They are times when individuals face a turning point or transition in their lives often involving a degree of stress associated with having to resolve each dilemma. Not only do these transitions of change affect the individual’s behaviour they also affect their family and friends. Erikson’s stages are phrased in terms of an opposition between two characteristics and each individual must successfully negotiate the task or stage in order to be able to move on to the next one. Eriksson’s eighth stage (late adulthood) is integrity vs despair; this suggests if the individual has managed to negotiate the previous stages, then the individual will have developed a sense of integrity. This refers to the acceptance of the limitations of life, with the sense of being a part of a larger whole which includes previous generations. It enables the individual to approach death without fear, if one looks back on one’s life and sees it as unsatisfactory, despair occurs and a feeling of ‘what if’ prevails. Erikson suggests that at each transition individuals may need to revisit unresolved issues from previous stages. The main strength of Erikson’s theory is that it offers a framework for explaining changes in childhood and adulthood. His work has been criticised in that it represents a set of assumptions instead of precise descriptions of relationships and causes. A disadvantage here is the lack of empirical evidence- this is also another criticism of Erikson’s work. The advantages for a social worker using Erikson’s theory is that it provides markers for those events in a service user’s life that may be proving difficult and in using this approach, social workers can highlight the problems that are likely to affect people during specific stages of their life. (Niven. N. 1989).

An area of life course development most associated with older adults relates to end of life issues. In the later stages of adulthood the end of life is expected. Death is the end of biological and physical functioning of the body. Factors to be taken in to account for social workers working with service users who have suffered a loss, are gender and cultural differences, as these can affect a social worker’s understanding of what may count as a loss and what in turn can be done about it (Currer. C 2007). Each individual’s reaction to grief and emotional trauma is as unique as a fingerprint. When thinking about bereavement and loss it is useful to look at attachment theory, Bowlby’s (1946) cited in (Davies, M, 2002), major work was Attachment and Loss; sadly it is the case for many individuals in later adulthood that there is a price to pay for the benefits of forming attachments. According to Bowlby’s attachment theory adults, who as children had secure attachments with their carers, are able to form satisfactory relationships in adult life and this will help them to cope with the pain of bereavement in later life. Bowlby’s aim of this originally was to explain the consequences for personality development and how severe disruption of attachments between infant and mother could have negative effects on development. (Butterworth. H. & Harris. M. 2002). Adults who did not have secure attachments as children can be identified, according to Howe (1995) cited in (Davies, M, 2002), who suggests that avoidant individuals are the ones who show self reliance. They may display delayed reactions to grief, they attempt to be emotionally self reliant and are wary of forming relationships. This means the loss of someone who is close to them usually triggers defence mechanisms- they may not cry or appear to be upset but are vulnerable to future losses. Exaggerated reactions to grief can be accounted for when the individual has not adjusted or come to terms with earlier loss of an important attachment relationship. On the other hand ambivalently attached individuals may experience self-blame and guilt when their partner dies. Where there has been an insecure attachment in childhood (an attachment that does not meet the child’s needs- the need for safety and security etc) Bowlby (1998) cited in (Beckett. C. 2006) suggests the anxious child will try to protect themselves against anxious situations. The child uses a variety of psychological manoeuvres and this results in what Bowlby called a faulty working model of themselves and of other relationships. To maintain this model the child will use defensive exclusion to avoid feelings that may threaten the child’s already precarious stability. Attachment theory is backed up by empirical evidence. This is beneficial as it can help social workers identify causes from an individual’s past and this helps to provide explanations for present behaviours and their ability to deal with change (Beckett. C.2006). Each individual’s reaction to grief and emotional trauma are as unique as a fingerprint.

When looking at loss it is important to remember that older people may lose friends, abilities, connections and many other things that are important to them. The significance of grief and loss in old age is dismissed by the ageist stereotype that older people will be used to loss because they are at an age where they have experienced lots of it. However the reality is that loss can be cumulative at this age and this results in negative experiences for those whose loss or grief is not recognized or addressed (Thompson.N. et al. 2008).

It is important that social workers take a holistic approach to understanding life course development in older adults, as life course is central to any understanding of ageing. A social worker should be aware that an individual’s life experiences and life course developments are affected by several factors- these include economic and social aspects, historical, cultural, psychological, and cognitive and physiological influences. (Crawford, K, & Walker, J, 2007). All transitions expected or unexpected, sudden and unplanned, present opportunities and challenges for the individual’s development and growth.

Each individual will have different experiences of transitions even when the life event is common to many in society, each person will respond and adapt to that change in a unique way. (Crawford, K, & Walker, J, 2007). There are disadvantages for social workers when viewing individuals through a lifespan perspective as most of the theories being used are Euro centric (European studies) and cannot be applied to all cultures.

As a social worker care must be taken when using any of the behavioural approaches as they raise the issues concerning the use of power and oppression. The social worker should not focus too much on narrow behavioural issues at the expense of the larger picture (Beckett.C.2006).

It is in a social worker’s interest not to oppress or discriminate service users but to treat them with unconditional positive regard, not forgetting to treat each service user as an individual with their own opinions and values. The theories used do have limitations as not all individuals or cultures fit the suggested norms and each person develops at a different rate. As a social worker knowing about the different viewpoints from theorists and their suggested viewpoints may enable a better understanding of what problems a service user may be experiencing. When working with service users from any age range, it is important that the social worker does not influence these transitions with their own life experiences.


Beckett.C.(2006).Essential Theory for Social Work Practice. Sage Publications Ltd. London.

Beckett.C. (2002). Human Growth & Development. Sage Publications Ltd. London.

Bee.H. & Boyd. H. (2003) 3rd Ed. Lifespan development. Pearson Education Inc. Boston. USA

Butterworth. G. and Harris. M. (2002). Developmental Psychology. A Students Handbook. Psychology Press Ltd. Hove. East Sussex.

Crawford. K. & Walker. J. (2007) 2nd Ed, Social Work and Human Development. Learning Matters Ltd. Exeter.

Currer. C. (2007). Loss and Social Work. Learning Matters Ltd. Exeter.

Davies. M. (2002) 2nd Ed. The Blackwell Companion to Social Work. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.Oxford.

Niven. N. (1989) Health Psychology. An Introduction for Nurses & other Health Care Professionals. Churchill Livingstone.

Sugarman. L. (1990). Lifespan development. Concepts, Theories and Interventions. Routledge. London.

Thompson.N.& Thompson. S. (2008) The Social work Companion. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

Windmill.V. (1987). Human Growth & Development. Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. Kent.


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