Life Cycle: Elders/Old Age
Life Cycle: Elders/Old Age
The study of the human life cycle is primarily a study of the aging process. The question of why humans age has long intrigued social and biological scientists. While a fountain of youth has yet to be discovered, public health and hygiene interventions have lengthened the human life expectancy greatly over the course of the past hundred years. And yet life expectancy varies greatly within and between societies, relating to their relative socioeconomic status, gender, reproductive history, and environment, among other factors. Biologists have estimated the human life span to be approximately 120 years; however, there are no well-documented lives of this length. This discrepancy between life expectancy and life span raises the important and complex relationship between biological and cultural determinants of aging. In effect, an understanding of the life cycle and human aging is predicated upon exploring these determinants of physical, cognitive, and social decline in later life.
All societies possess some mechanism by which to denote or mark stages in the life cycle—in particular, the transition from youth to adult and from adult to elder. Anthropologists have enumerated many formal age classification systems. Age classification systems such as age sets—groups of persons born within a set number of years and considered to be the same age—are more rigid and formalized among horticulturist and pastoralist societies; industrialized societies tend to have less formalized mechanisms to denote elder status and often rely upon physical and chronological markers of aging. Gerontologists also conceptualize age in terms of age grades, cohorts, and social age. Age grades are status differences predicated on culturally defined social ages. Cohorts are generations of people who experience similar historically defining moments that shape their experience. Social age is a way of grouping elders based on particular cultural experience, such as retirement, widowhood, or grandparenthood.
Social Theories of Aging
Leo Simmons's is the first major work to explore the relationship between culture and the experience of old age. Using existing ethnographic works, Simmons evaluated the effects of selected societal traits on the social roles, treatment, and status of the aged across seventy-one globally distributed tribal groups. This work set the stage for further investigation into the sources of cross-cultural variation in the status of older people. In part drawing upon Simmons's work, Donald Cowgill and Lowell Holmes formulated one of the first substantive theories on variation in the life cycle and aging processes. This collection drew upon ethnographic examples from both tribal-and state-level societies and theorized that modernization was the driving force behind the wide range in elder treatment. As societies become increasingly drawn toward modernization, the productive and social roles available to older adults concomitantly grow fewer and less prestigious. With modernization, the status of elders decreases, the proportion of elders within society increases, and the responsibility for elder care is transformed from a domestic to a public sphere; cross-culturally, all elders are channeled into less physically demanding roles, and all cultures place a high value on a good and long life. Critics of modernization theory point to the ethnocentric bias inherent in modernization's naturalization of Western social structure.
The differentiation between what is biological and what is cultural in the aging process continues to drive research into the experience of aging as well as social theories of the aging process. Older adults' disengagement from social and economic life was first understood as a natural process predicated upon decreasing physical and mental capacities; later theories emphasized the importance of reciprocal relationships in determining an elder's likelihood of social withdrawal. Marxist approaches postulated that elders' circumscribed relationship to the means of exchange was the underlying cause of their social alienation. Carroll Estes's groundbreaking work on the "aging enterprise" introduced and explicated the political economic production of elders' relative disadvantage. The aging enterprise is the invention of new needs for the elder population, which are provided by new technologies, services, medications, and goods. This process exploits elders' economic and political power and works to isolate them further from the rest of society.
The 1980s brought a new direction in life-cycle research, one that focused less upon macrosocial functionalism and the ways in which elders as a group function within society and instead directed attention toward the effects of lifelong experiences and social locations on the status and experience of older age. The double-jeopardy hypothesis proposes that elders are first disadvantaged by age and that this disadvantage is intensified by other layers of their identity, such as ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference. In contrast, the life-course perspective seeks to understand elders' status as a product of their lifelong interaction with systems of discrimination and privilege as well as their individual personal experiences. The experience of older age is often positively affected by elders' social support system or their social networks. Social support networks can be characterized by the amount of reciprocity among members, the intensity of exchange, the complexity or number of activities performed by members, or the level of interconnectedness among different members of the network. Elders who possess intense, complex, reciprocal, and dense social networks experience greater social integration and may have greater relative status within the elder population.
Elders' relative status in society may often be predicated upon the various roles they fulfill. Some roles, such as grandparent, provide a high status, while other roles available to elders, such as the sick role, connote low status. All societies possess some unwritten rules for which roles are accessible to older adults. These age norms, while generally not formalized, can serve as a form of social control to discourage older adults from engaging in activities deemed unfit for their age. Another term used to describe this phenomena is "social clock," the culturally defined time of life for particular social activities to be performed. Marriage, employment, childbirth, grandparenthood, and death are just a few of the human activities governed by social clocks.
Aging as Stigma
While the status of older adults varies cross-culturally, in the United States and other industrialized nations, elders are ascribed low status. This low status may be attributed to the cultural associations of elders with disease, disability, death, and dying. In the United States, the emphasis on independence, autonomy, and bodily integrity casts persons who deviate from the norm as morally and socially suspect. The sick, disabled, dying, and elderly are often stigmatized and socially isolated. Undoubtedly elders experience these negatively valued states more often than any other age group; however, the cultural value of any one of these experiences depends upon a particular sociohistorical and cultural context. For instance, immigrant and minority subcultures in the United States may accord far greater prestige and importance to elders than is found in the dominant culture.
Many social scientists in aging studies have examined how to forestall or decrease disability and disease among older adults in order to improve their quality of life and ensure prolonged social integration. Activity theory was one of the first approaches to understanding elders' social experience. Activity theory asserts that older adults have better lives if they maintain a high level of varied activities. Somewhat commonsensical, activity theory does not address the underlying reasons for relinquishment of activities. This shortcoming may open the possibility of "blaming the victim"—if elders have a poor quality of life, it is because they chose to disengage from their social roles and activities.
Disengagement theory is a response to activity theory and seeks to remove the blame for relinquishment of activities from individual elders and instead houses responsibility within human biological change. It proposes that the biological changes accompanying the aging process naturally disincline elders toward continued participation in the productive spheres. However, disengagement theory has the potential to conflate aging with senescence and works to naturalize the segregation of older adults within society. Continuity theory might be conceived as a middle-of-the-road approach. It explains the circumscribed social experience of older adults as a product of role continuity. The roles one acquires as an adult do not change, and as elders age and relinquish physically or mentally demanding spheres, the remaining roles available to them become more rigidly claimed and new roles are not sought after. Continuity theory does not explain why some elders continue to seek new experiences and skills.
Critical and Constructionist Perspectives on Aging
The work that Estes began with The Aging Enterprise experienced a resurgence of activity in the later 1990s and the early twenty-first century. Critical gerontology aims to examine the sociopolitical processes and policies that conspire to disadvantage certain classes of people disproportionately. As a group, elders are often economically and socially disadvantaged, but critical theorists deepen the investigation of disadvantage by pointing to the heterogeneities within the elder population. Hence critical perspectives are often feminist ones, theories that investigate the ways in which women are systematically denied access to avenues of privilege. Critical theorists also explore the ways in which other markers of identity—race, ethnicity, native language, sexuality, disability, HIV status, educational attainment, employment history, or social class—intersect with age to exacerbate age-related disadvantage. Feminist gerontologists have been particularly vocal within critical gerontology in the study of gender bias in state-sponsored pension systems, health insurance programs, biomedical research, and paid and unpaid caregiving.
The constructionist perspective also gained steam from the late 1980s onward. Constructionists step back from an attempt to explain the totality of the aging experience and instead examine specific facets of experience in an effort to understand the roots of social problems or cultural beliefs. Constructionists differ from critical scholars (though they are in no way exclusionary of the others) in that their focus is on the cultural determinants of disadvantage rather than sociopolitical or economic systems. Many scholars within this vein turn toward narrative analysis to help explain the experiences of elders. Elders' narratives allow for an individual level of analysis as well as providing a means by which elders can be conceptualized as active agents in the creation of meaning and value in their lives rather than as products of political economic systems.
Geroanthropology: A Cross-Cultural and Holistic Inquiry
Jennie Keith characterizes geroanthropology as a tripartite endeavor consisting of the anthropology of old age, old age within anthropology, and the anthropology of age. Early and contemporary ethnographic works that did not focus on the experience of elders but rather referred to the knowledge and wisdom of elders as repositories and keepers of cultural traditions comprise "old age in anthropology." The anthropology of old age is represented by texts that seek to explore the experience of older adults across cultural or national boundaries. Works by Jay Sokolovsky and Margaret Lock represent just a few of the recent texts in this genre. The anthropology of age seeks to understand aging as a social and biological process and does not focus entirely on the end product of aging per se but looks to elders as active participants and creators of the meaning and experience of later life. All three of these endeavors have been dramatically influenced by three widespread processes: the demographic transition, globalization, and the medicalization of aging.
The world's population is aging, but demographic profiles differ widely among nations. The populations of the United States, Canada, and Western Europe are widely known to be "graying," yet the proportions of the populations that are grandparents in nations such as China, Kenya, or Mexico pose entirely different social and economic questions. Industrialized nations view their "aging problem" to be primarily one of social services, health care, and cost containment, whereas nations within sub-Saharan Africa struggle with ways to support elders who are caring for orphans of the HIV pandemic. China, the nation with the largest population in the world, will be facing a caregiver shortage of huge proportions due to shrinking family size and because its elders are concentrated in rural areas with fewer young adults to provide, informally or formally, caregiving support. The demographic transition is often thought to be of concern only to industrialized nations that have the longest life expectancies; however, elders in many nations are suffering the effect of low status and lack of support.
Globalization is often bandied about as a ubiquitous covering term referring to the confluence of goods, labor, and information traveling across national borders, but it is not often considered particularly germane to gerontological research. In fact, however, increased economic globalization since the mid-1980s has had an enormous impact on the status and quality of life of the world's elders. Among other things, globalization has decreased job security, decreased employment-related health and retirement benefits, increased the seasonal migration of low-paid workers, upset local economies, and increased international disease transmission. These changes have forced low-income workers to remain in the workforce longer in order to provide economic support for their households, have raided the retirement funds of those middle-income families who had planned for retirement, and have often increased the cost of prescription drugs and other health care products vital to elders. Globalization is often conceived as an economic boon to national economies and a harbinger of prosperity, but it has also worked to exacerbate the existing systems of relative disadvantage for elders.
Estes was one of the first scholars to point out the trend toward the medicalization of aging. Medicalization, broadly defined, is the transformation of behaviors, bodily states, or bodily functions from a state of naturalness or idiosyncratic or cultural behavior to disease states that can be defined, diagnosed, and perhaps treated. It has been characterized as a form of social control and a tool for the expansion of cultural hegemony. Medicalization affects health insurance policies, the quality of life of those living or working in long-term care facilities, the economic security of unpaid caregivers, notions of self and identity, and access to choice of healing modality. It is an interactional process that occurs between social structures, patients, health care providers, or medical technologies. However, medicalization is steeped in the legitimacy and authority accorded biomedicine. The authority and dominance of the biomedical model in the United States limits the range of appropriate responses to disease. Once medicalized, a disease is appropriately treated as a medical, physical (or psychiatric) problem. Further, medicalization does not necessarily imply an opportunity for efficacious treatment or health improvement. Alzheimer's disease, for example, could be considered a newly medicalized interpretation of senility in older adults. Those who are diagnosed with Alzheimer's are given the stigma and gravity of the diagnosis but are then offered limited care-giver support, pharmacological treatment, or long-term care assistance.
Geroanthropology has been profoundly changed by demographic transition, globalization, and medicalization. The demographic transition forces gerontologists to examine elders' status and quality of life cross-culturally while questioning ethnocentric ideas regarding the definition of old age, retirement, caregiving, and grandparenthood. Globalization has complicated cross-cultural research as national and cultural boundaries are increasingly understood as dynamic and historically contingent products of competing international political and cultural forces. Cultural ideas and beliefs are shared via electronic media at an unprecedented rate, and the values associated with specific cultural groups become taxed under new forms of economic exploitation or pressure. Medicalization has substantively changed the scope of geroanthropology. It has also compelled social-scientific researchers to couch their projects in terms of biomedical categories, contributing to an increasing emphasis upon short-term, problem-, or crisis-oriented research rather than longitudinal or prospective studies. This may have the unintended effect of further stigmatizing diagnosed persons as being artificially divorced from society.
These processes have encouraged gerontological research to work toward problem-solving rather than theory-building and ironically may have compartmentalized the experiences of elders while working toward their increased status and social integration. Research with or of the aged or about the aging process itself must remain as holistic as possible in order to encapsulate the complexity of social and physical experience at the end of life. The status of elders varies within and across cultural groups. The current study of cross-cultural variation tends not to focus on documenting these differences but instead looks at the effects of privilege and disadvantage on particular classes of elders in specific situations or alternatively examines meanings and values elders create as active participants in society.
See also Cycles ; Family ; Generation ; Life Cycle: Overview ; Life Cycle: Adolescence ; Wisdom, Human .
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Bengston, Vern L., and K. Warner Schaie, eds. Handbook of Theories of Aging. New York: Springer, 1999.
Browne, Colette V. Women, Feminism, and Aging. New York: Springer, 1998.
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Cowgill, Donald O., and Lowell D. Holmes. Aging and Modernization. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1972.
Estes, Carroll L. The Aging Enterprise. With contributions by Philip R. Lee, Lenore Gerard, and Maureen Noble. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1979.
Fry, Christine L., ed. Aging in Culture and Society: Comparative Viewpoints and Strategies. New York: Praeger, 1980.
Keith, Jennie. "'The Best Is Yet To Be': Toward an Anthropology of Age." Annual Reviews of Anthropology 9 (1980): 339–364.
Kertzer, David I., and Jennie Keith, eds. Age and Anthropological Theory. Foreword by Matilda White Riley. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.
Simmons, Leo W. The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970.
Sokolovsky, Jay, ed. The Cultural Context of Aging: Worldwide Perspectives. 2nd ed. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1997.
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