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Veterans in Middle Age

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Veterans In Late Adulthood
Brittany Albano
NYU

Part I
I observed homeless veteran men within the late adulthood population at the Borden Avenue Veterans Shelter in Long Island City, NY. I watched the veterans first in a recreation room interacting socially with other clients, next, in a meeting with social workers, and lastly, outside of the shelter on the streets of New York. These observations were all made at the same time, at approximately 12 pm. I watched the veterans both interact with others and behave on their own for an hour in each setting. During this time, I saw and noted many different aspects of what it means to be a homeless veteran in late adulthood through a social work lens.
In an entirely social setting, the recreation room, most clients interacted closely and comfortably. It was mealtime in the recreation room and they were gathered to eat lunch. Most of the clients were loud and spoke to each other often. They seemed ‘free’. Some were even making inappropriate jokes and it seemed as if their guards were down. I heard them making fun of other people, both staff members and clients.
The clients sat in dyads or small groups; practically no one was alone in the room. However, the younger clients who were not part of the late adulthood population that engulfs most of the clients at the shelter seemed to be excluded and stuck together. The older clients did not interact with them at all. During this time, the clients were dressed casually, most in sweatpants or the equivalent. They were slumped in their chairs and seemed to be informal in their mannerisms. The few clients that were dressed better seemed to be were more serious overall. The clients who acted like this were mainly alone and were only talking amongst each other, not with the rest of the population. These clients seemed to be pushed off to the side, between the nonverbal behaviors and the blatant exclusion. As a whole, the clients who dressed better acted more serious and responsible. In other words, the grooming and attire of the clients were absolutely congruent with their behaviors. Most of the clients were entirely positive with the exception of a few negative outbursts.
The recreation room was set up with horizontal tables, around ten people to one table. I sat in the corner with another staff member, and my presence was clear. The clients were aware that I did not belong, and it was obvious they were questioning my reasons for being there. I felt very excluded and could not imagine what the clients who were not being drawn into the groups must have felt like.
While the recreation room showed clients to be mostly laid-back and positive, the social worker’s office portrayed a completely different outlook on the clients. As soon as they walked through the door, I noticed disparities in their guards going up and being far less open as I had noted they were in the recreation room. I observed two clients come in at the same time who each had an appointment with a different social worker. They did not communicate with each other but instead entirely focused on the social workers and myself. The clients acted more formal and seemed as if they took themselves more seriously in this type of environment. Additionally, their conversation topics had shifted. Instead of joking around and talking about the positives of life, the veterans were suddenly noting how depressed and anxious they felt. They immediately started complaining about different staff members and how they were ruining their lives. Vouchers and public assistance allowances dominated the conversations between the clients and the social workers. The impression that I took from these clients in this particular setting were that their lives were horrible, and that everything that was going wrong was. There were grievances about mostly everything there could have been within the shelter, including room changes, annoying clients, food, and even the temperature within the facility. Their demeanors had changed as well, and mannerisms became more conscious and formal. However, they had not changed their clothes or groomed themselves any more than they had for lunchtime in the recreation room. The third setting was perhaps the most interesting to me. Clients would exit the shelter to go to their jobs, activities, or get food. I chose to observe clients in this setting because I was curious to see their interactions with people on the outside world, or not within the confines of the shelter. I observed once someone would leave the facility, and watched them walk to their destination, usually the town.
Once the clients exited the shelter, they acted similar to typical individuals who were not vulnerable nor needed the help and attention they were receiving. The clients I watched dressed in nicer clothes and carried themselves with more confidence than they do within the shelter. Individually, they seemed more serious about themselves. Watching the veterans reminded me of typical, productive members of society, instead of homeless clients. The veterans interacted with people on the street like many late adulthood individuals would. The only difference was that they were alone, and seemed it.
I observed one client enter Dunkin Donuts. He sat down and observed other people for about forty-five minutes. He took no phone calls or spoke to anyone really, besides to make awkward remarks about two young women sitting at an adjacent table. These women seemed uncomfortable, proving the client to be maladjusted to society for the most part. This was an intriguing case of the client seeming confident and capable upon leaving the shelter, but in actuality in need of assistance in functioning in the real world.
My expectations of the late adulthood population of veterans were moderately different than what I ended up observing. Because these clients are indeed homeless, I envisioned most of them would keep to themselves. I have seen homeless individuals both on the streets of New York City and in certain shelters, and most are not very talkative. On the contrary, the clients were overall friendly and especially social amongst their age group population. I was also expecting them to isolate given their age since they had no family around them, and I did not necessarily expect the individuals at the shelter to be friends. At this point in their lives, this age population typically has established a set of family and friends and often is not looking for more. It is not a sociable age where individuals often gather with friends similar to the adolescent and young adult populations. This was also incorrect, and it seemed as if they bonded solely for this reason. I also assumed the observations to be similar within all three settings. I anticipated minor differences, but none like the ones I observed. This opinion proved to be incorrect, and the clients acted differently in both obvious and subtle ways. The more obvious changes included a shift of attitude. In addition, while potentially undetected through a normal lens, the clients acted different through the social worker perspective I implemented during my observations. For example, things such as dress, grooming, and overall demeanor changed in each setting.
Despite most of my refuted expectations, there were predictions that were also confirmed. Before observing the clients, I anticipated most or all of them of having disgruntled tendencies. It is not uncommon to predict homeless veterans who were certainly not young anymore to be displeased with their current situation, especially after serving our country in an honorable way. This expectancy was definitely confirmed, but interestingly enough, only in one setting. As noted above, the other two settings that I observed clients in showed the clients as positive and happy go lucky. However, in the meeting with the social workers, the clients portrayed the attitude that I thought would be the case.
It is certainly possible that my expectations were certainly affected by my choice of setting. Because I expected the clients to act similarly in all three settings, I did not realize that the settings changed the clients’ attitudes. The clients acted the way they wanted others to perceive them in each individual setting. For example, in order to get along with their peer communities, they act laid back and relaxed in the recreation room. In the social worker’s office, the clients wanted the social workers to see that they were serious about their lives and sometimes also not receiving the proper treatment that they expect. Once in the outside world, the clients aimed to give off the impression of a person and simply desired to blend in. It was difficult to be in line with my predictions when added in the dynamic nature of the clients’ actions, looks, and impressions. I did not anticipate outside entities affecting them so strongly.
In addition, homeless late adulthood population certainly will certainly differ from late adult populations in typical home settings with families. Because these people I observed are forced to stay within the confines of the shelter, I believe that often they may interact with others when they normally wouldn’t outside of this environment. Overall the most noted and surprising to me about my observations were the clients’ friendliness and sociability when I anticipated the opposite.

Part II
The life cycle stage of the clients I observed is generally described as late adulthood and categorizes people aged sixty-five and older.
Age sixty-five is considered a milestone and the beginning stages of late adulthood. This stage is an important one because of the many lifestyle changes it brings. Some of these are leisurely and rather trivial, such as reduced fares for movie tickets and other social activities, while other changes can often bring stress and severity, like retirement from work, Social Security and Medicare benefits. There are significant psychosocial, cognitive, and social differences between individuals in their late adulthood and other stages previous to this.
According to Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, individuals aged sixty-five years and older tend to slow down their productivity and start to explore lives as retirees, in what is called the “Wisdom” phase of “Integrity vs. Despair.” Retrospection is a key element of Erikson’s “Wisdom” phase and involves looking back on one’s life and accomplishments. During this time, one will develop feelings of contentment and integrity if he or she believes they led a happy, productive life. On the contrary, one may develop a sense of despair if they look back on a life filled with disappointments and/or unachieved goals. The psychosocial development is especially relevant to the clients that I observed because it goes without saying that many of them tend to look back at their lives with a sense of disappointment due to their placement in a homeless shelter.
Family structures are typically in place for this life stage and are normally the individual’s primary and strongest form of support. Socially speaking, this age population is not known for regularly adding new friends. In fact, according to Siebert, “new and unfamiliar social contacts can behave in ways that could erode rather than strengthen an older person's self-perceptions so interventions focusing on enhancing existing positive support would be more effective and efficient than creating or linking a client with novel support” (Carstensen, 1991).
In other words, it is not an easy task for individuals in late adulthood to engage in new relationships, and atypical form a new family at this stage. Given this, individuals in late adulthood without stable and structural family, peer, and/or professional support typically suffer and this therefore becomes a risk factor. Members of this population without these supports may become depressed, engage in substance abuse, or develop other physical, social, or mental issues (Potts, M.K, 1997).
Cognitively, individuals in late adulthood can slip back and regress, especially if an individual is not being stimulated in the proper environment. The processing speed declines as the brain ages. This is detrimental because the speed of processing determines the ability to control what one pays attention to, which is vital for daily functioning (Rogers & Fisk, 2001; Tun & Lachman, 2008). This decline can cause various and troubling problems in late adulthood individuals. This is not to say they are completely depleted of their cognitive abilities, however. On the contrary, a study found that the late adulthood population’s capability to parallel process, which refers to the ability to process and complete two or more tasks, over-performed the young adult population (Lien et al., 2006). This type of processing includes word recognition, which is typically automatic in the elderly population because they have been reading for so long. This, of course, assumes that the adults had indeed been reading and placed in decent academic experience in their earlier lives.
As a whole, cognitive decline during late adulthood is typical, but largely depends on the individual and the experiences they had prior to entering the late adulthood life stage.
Through both learning and experiencing first hand the overarching themes of the late adulthood life stage, I realized that the homeless veterans generally do not fit in with the developmental tasks outlined in the physiological, cognitive, and the social and family structure theories.
As noted before, physiological development places much importance upon prior life accomplishments. Though these clients were once veterans and therefore highly respected individuals, any accomplishments they may have achieved in their lives is subdued and overtaken by their current situation, which is homelessness. Despite these individuals therefore defying the norm within the life stage, they truly exemplify the negative effects and warnings that are also a part of the theory. Erikson’s description of the stage also includes a sense of despair and hopelessness if a fulfilling life is not in front of individuals at this point. These clients are the poster children for what happens if an individual is unfulfilled at this point in their lives. Theoretically, this could account for a certain amount of mental illness and substance abuse within this specific population.
The social and family structure theories are another most prominent example of my observed group not fitting the theories of typical developmental tasks. If a client in the observed group did indeed have a family, which is not the majority, there must be a situation within the family that caused the individual to not live with them. Therefore, it can be assumed that these clients have not formed clear family structures like the theory alludes to. The social groups of the clients is skewed and differentiates from the norm as well, because once again, if these support systems were in place and functional, individuals would not have been forced to resort to homelessness in the first place. These are open assumptions, but overall tend to portray the clients as dissimilar to an individual who fits the familial structure task of the late adulthood stage.
Given the several distinctions of my clients and classic developmental tasks for this age population, the life cycle framework certainly differs from my observed group. This can largely be attributed to the fact that these individuals are homeless and are therefore in certain situations that others their age may not experience. I do not believe, however, that it speaks to holes in the various theories. The only discrepancies I see that are not explained by the difference of track the homeless veterans are on would be within the cognitive realm. Depending on the type of education an individual received, cognitive developments and changes could differ enormously. This seems to certainly be a gap in what is offered in the cognitive theories and could also be the reason why there is not an extensive amount of research done on the subject. Regardless, it leaves the question open-ended in terms of what exactly changes in the late adulthood brain and what is instead attributed to one’s early and current lifestyle.
References

Jokisaari, M. (2004). Regrets and subjective well-being: A life course approach. Journal of Adult Development, 11(4), 281-288.

Potts, M.K. (1997). Social support and depression among older adults living alone: The importance of friends within and outside of a retirement community. Social Work, 42, 348363.

Rasheed, J. M. (1998). The adult life cycle of poor African American fathers. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 1, 265280.

Rosen, E. (2005). Men in Transitions: The New Man. In B. Carter & M. McGoldrick (Eds.) Expanded Family Life Cycle: Individual, Family, and Social Perspectives.

Schulz, R. & Heckhausen, J. (1996). A life span model of successful aging. American psychologist, 51(7), 702714.

Siebert, D.C., Mutran, E.J. & Reitzes, D.C. (1999). Friendship & social support: The importance of role identity to aging adults. Social Work, 44, 522534.

Walsh, F. (2005). Families in later life. In B. Carter & M. McGoldrick (Eds.) Expanded Family Life Cycle: Individual, Family, and Social Perspectives.

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