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Old Age


OLD AGE. From ancient to modern times in Europe, conceptions of the life cycle that recognized discrete "ages of man" counted old age as one of the stages of life. Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) separated life into three stages, and the model of life stages was endowed with additional spiritual meaning in the Middle Ages. By the early modern period, numerous schemes existed to define the steps, ages, or stages of life. Thus, the concept of old age carried with it a relatively coherent set of expectations and experiences including social and cultural signals as well as numerical thresholds of old age. Within these broad socially constructed markers of old age, however, lay a wide variety of experiences determined by social class, gender, and individual life experiences.


Certain physical signs marked an individual as old: toothlessness, balding or gray hair, hunched back, lameness, deafness. Increasing debility was the clearest signal that one was becoming old. This assumption is clearly visible in both didactic and fictional forms of literature, as well as in visual representations. Shakespeare's representation of the last stage of life in As You Like It as "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything," represents a common trope.

Most communities across Europe also recognized a "green" old age, in which an individual was considered old, but had not lost his or her basic faculties. This stage, though marked by the physical signs of old age noted above, carried with it connotations of social power and continued physical ability. Ballads regarding the life cycle often reveal the key characteristics of life stages. In the English ballad "The Ages of Man" (c. 1775), the earlier stage of old age is depicted as one of gradually failing health: "age did so abate my strength, / That I was forced to yield at length." But also, "My neighbours did my council crave, / And I was held in great request." Thus were continued wisdom and respect associated with green old age. In contrast, the last stage of life was one of advanced physical decay: "At nine times seven I must take my leave / Of all my former vain delight . . . my strength did abate." For women, the first stage of old age may have been signaled by the onset of menopause, but historians disagree about the extent to which menopause served as the transition into green old age.

Chronological markers of old age were recognized as well, and these grew increasingly important and consistent. The age of sixty was widely associated with the onset of old age, but several other agesespecially fifty, sixty-three, and seventywere also used as thresholds of old age, both by individuals and by those who wrote specifically to classify the ages of life. Still, pension schemes, legal statutes, and individual reflections most often give the age of sixty as a marker for old age in men. Women were more often identified as old while still in their fifties, but the same general rule holds for them as well. Poor-law records and diaries from eighteenth-century England, for example, rarely use the term "old" for women younger than sixty. Late-seventeenth-century government ministers and political arithmeticians used the age of sixty as a dividing point, in both domestic and colonial populations, to designate a portion of the population as too old to bear arms. Such bureaucratic tendencies were part of a more general trend, as some of the groundwork was set for the stricter and more restrictive age norms that grew from the end of the seventeenth century. The increased use of the age of sixty to define entry into old age represents a significant area of discontinuity in the history of old age in early modern Europe.


During the early modern period, life expectancy fluctuated dramatically in short-term cycles. In England, life expectancy at birth was 36.8 years from 15501599, but fell to 33.9 for the period 16501699 before rising again to 36.5 for the last half of the eighteenth century. Still, although average life expectancy at birth seldom rose above the late thirties throughout Europe, individuals who made it through those first precarious years of life could generally expect to live through middle age (that is, their forties).

In France, for example, while life expectancy for women at birth was only 25.7 years in the 1740s, at age twenty, women could expect to live into their mid-fifties. These average life expectancies increased throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century, so that by the 1790s, average female life expectancy at age twenty was 38.6 years. It is also clear that the aged accounted for a significant minority of the population; those aged sixty or more comprised as much as 10 percent of the population of England. These figures are similar to those calculated for early modern France and Spain. In contrast to popular misconceptions, then, the aged were present in significant numbers in pre-modern times.


Strands of veneration for and antagonism toward the aged coexisted in all early modern societies. The extreme views represented by these strands were in constant dialectical tension, underpinning the complex set of social relations that characterized individual older people's relationships within their communities. Historians have moved away from the sense that there is any grand narrative of either rising or declining status for the elderly and have instead highlighted the great heterogeneity and complexity of attitudes toward aging and the aged.

Older individuals often played highly valued roles. The Spanish proverb "The oldster who cannot predict is not worth a sardine" reflects the common perception that an older person's worldly experience was a valuable community resource. Similarly, many different kinds of sources, from diaries to law cases, demonstrate a pervasive reliance on the memory of older individuals as a source of history and custom, a tradition that persisted despite the ever-growing availability and importance of print to record public and private memories.

Attitudes toward old women varied. The image of the wise old woman and the nurturing elderly mother or grandmother played a role in literature, but representations of older women, especially widows, were more often negative, or even vicious. Images in cheap print stereotyped old women as witches, and literature frequently represented old women as lascivious fools, querulous gossips, or shrill scolds. While recent studies have deepened our understanding of the image of the witch as an old woman, the image of the witch as an old hag demonstrates the ways misogyny and antagonism toward the aged could interact in this period.


Because so much preindustrial work involved physical labor, and because even the middling sorts were often in vulnerable economic situations, old age often brought with it downward economic mobility. Older individuals generally tried to remain self-supporting, and there were expectations of familial aid, but the elderly poor often depended on public assistance. In most European countries, poor relief was not regulated, but individual communities provided assistance for some of their elderly members. Forms of poor relief varied by country, region, and city, but community assistance usually took one of three forms: statutory poor relief, institutions like hospitals and asylums, and charity.

England's "Old Poor Law" serves as the clearest example of statutory poor relief. Under the Elizabethan Poor Acts of 1601, unpaid churchwardens and overseers in each of the country's parishes collected poor-relief taxes and redistributed the money to the poor residents of the parish. The statute specifically called for "necessary relief" to be given to the aged and decrepit poor. Historians differ in their assessment of the scope, generosity, and regional variation of the Old Poor Law's provision for the elderly, but it is certain that this system generated assistance ranging from occasional handouts to subsistence-level pensions for a significant minority of the aged population in many parishes in early modern England. The nature of the assistance changed as poor relief grew more extensive throughout the country. By the end of the eighteenth century, especially in southern and eastern parishes, parish poor relief to the aged could be very extensive. The Old Poor Law provided an important safety net for the aged, especially old widows. This system should not be mistaken for a prototype of modern social security (there was always a very strong and moralistic social-control element to early modern poor relief), but its extensive presence in the economic landscape and cultural expectations of this period is a significant aspect of the history of old age.

In Protestant Germany, large hospitalscharitable institutions set up to serve the aged, young, poor, needy, prostitutes, and so forthsuch as those in Hesse, which were founded after the Reformation as a means to replace monastic charity, specifically served infirm people over sixty. If an old person's petition for entrance into the hospital was accepted, he or she could depend on the hospital to provide a bed and subsistence for the remainder of his or her life. Similarly, both the Hospital of Saint Sixtus and the Apostolic Hospital in Catholic Rome privileged the elderly poor as particularly deserving of assistance. Indeed, the early modern period witnessed a growing acceptance of the institutionalization of the elderly in the last stage of life.

In Protestant areas, these institutions were sometimes designed to replace Catholic charities, but in Catholic countries, religious foundations (including monasteries and confraternities) continued to be a vital source of nonfamilial assistance to the aged poor. Less easy to document, but undoubtedly pervasive in both Protestant and Catholic Europe, neighbors, employers, and friends all gave handouts to the aged as well. All of these sources of assistanceformal poor relief, local institutions, and charityhelped the elderly who fell into need maintain themselves in what Olwen Hufton has called the "economy of makeshifts" that characterized the economic lives of the early modern poor.


As they aged, individuals sought to stay closely connected to their children and/or to more extended networks of kin. These relationships were structured around reciprocal obligations and notions of familial bonds and duties as well as around ties of real affection and attachment in many cases. Spouses, especially, gave vital support to one another, and children's duty to support their aged parents was but one strand of the thickly woven thread that bound together the elderly and their families. Resources within families often flowed downward from the aged to the younger generations; in early modern sources, the efforts of the old for their families surface repeatedly and importantly.

Analyses of early modern household listings (informal and sporadic local censuses) have revealed the residential patterns of the elderly, though it is true that such sources can illuminate only a small piece of the broader picture of family life. Both family historians and historians of aging have generated a considerable body of work on the living arrangements of the elderly.

A wide variety of household forms existed throughout Europe. In England, where households were generally small and focused on the conjugal family unit, older men most often continued to head their own households. Even older women lived most frequently as the spouse of a householder or as head of their own domicile until advanced old age. In other parts of Europe, such as southern France, where the stem-family system was prevalent, an older couple's co-residential heir eventually supplanted the parents in home and farm. Historians of central and eastern Europe have found there the prevalence of multigeneration and complex households. In Castile, although most households were nuclear, older people lived in a wide range of household types. One way to make sense of this complexity is to note, as David Kertzer and others have pointed out, that most of western Europe followed a model of nuclear family households, but that older people were fairly often reincorporated into these households, especially after the death of an old parent's spouse.

The heterogeneity of old people's households mirrors the wide variety of experiences and the complex and even contradictory images and expectations regarding old age. An individual's view of old agewhether personal or second-handwas profoundly influenced by gender, class, health, and family status. Nonetheless, most older people shared a fundamental desire to stay closely attached to their families and friends as they strove to retain their economic self-sufficiency. They also shared, in the broadest terms, a culture that offered many different paths through the aging process, so that individuals were not narrowly restricted to norms of "acting one's age."

See also Charity and Poor Relief ; Childhood and Childrearing ; Family ; Marriage ; Poverty ; Widows and Widowhood ; Women ; Youth .


Botelho, Lynn, and Pat Thane, eds. Women and Ageing in British Society since 1500. Harlow, U.K., 2001. Botelho's essay focuses on the connection between menopause and old age.

Gray, Louise. "The Experience of Old Age in the Narratives of the Rural Poor in Early Modern Germany." In Power and Poverty: Old Age in the Pre-Industrial Past, edited by Susannah Ottaway, Lynn Botelho, and Katharine Kittredge, pp. 107124. Westport, Conn., 2002.

Johnson, Paul, and Pat Thane, eds. Old Age from Antiquity to Post-Modernity. London, 1998. A good example of the new trend toward focusing on the heterogeneity of the experience of old age in the past.

Kertzer, David, and Peter Laslett, eds. Aging in the Past: Demography, Society, and Old Age. Berkeley, 1995. Kertzer's conclusion has a good discussion of nuclear reincorporation.

Ottaway, Susannah. The "Decline of Life": Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge, U.K. Forthcoming.

Pelling, M., and R. M. Smith, eds. Life, Death, and the Elderly: Historical Perspectives. London, 1991. A classic work and an excellent bibliographical reference tool.

Rowlands, Alison. "Witchcraft and Old Women in Early Modern Germany." Past and Present 173, no. 4 (2001): 5089.

Thane, Pat. Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues. Oxford, 2000.

Troyansky, David G. Old Age in the Old Regime: Image and Experience in Eighteenth-Century France. Ithaca, N.Y., 1989.

Vassberg, David. "Old Age in Early Modern Castilian Villages." In Power and Poverty: Old Age in the Pre-Industrial Past, edited by Susannah Ottaway, Lynn Botelho, and Katharine Kittredge, 145166. Westport, Conn., 2002.

Susannah Ottaway

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"Old Age." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

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Old Age


OLD AGE. Attitudes toward and the treatment of old people have varied substantially in different societies and historical periods. In some preliterate cultures, elders were valued as custodians of wisdom and teachers of survival skills. In others, they were considered a liability and even abandoned when they could not keep up with nomadic groups or were a drain on a subsistence economy. Native American tribes respected elders, and among early colonial settlers such as the Puritans, elders were revered as evolved spiritual persons. However, in the United States, as in Europe, the industrial revolution and reliance on science and up-to-date education meant that older workers were often considered obsolete. And the rise of individualism and mobility rather than family and community meant that older people were apt to live alone.

Increasing Life Expectancy

Because twentieth-century advances in public health increased longevity, the number of old people increased tremendously as a proportion of the population in many developed countries, including the United States. In 1776, the average American lived to age thirty-five and in 1876 to age forty. In 1900, only one in twenty-five Americans was sixty-five or older. In 2000, 35 million Americans sixty-five or older represented 12.7 percent of the U.S. population, or about one in every eight Americans. As the U.S. Bureau of the Census reports, during the twentieth century the population under age sixty-five tripled, but the population over age sixty-five increased by a factor of eleven. The fastest-growing category of Americans is those aged eighty-five or older. In 2050, there will be 18.2 million Americans over eighty-five. More U.S. residents were also reaching age 100. In 2000, there were 68,000 people 100 or more, but in 2050, 834,000 people are expected to reach that age.

Life expectancy at age 65 increased by only 2.4 years between 1900 and 1960, but it grew 3.5 years between 1960 and 2000. People reaching 65 in 2000 had, on average, an additional life expectancy of 17.9 years, or 19.2 years for females and 16.3 years for males. The gender gap meant that over age 65 there were about 140 women for every 100 men, and over age 85, there were about 240 women for every 100 men. Baby boomers, the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, will begin to get social security benefits starting in 2011. By 2030, there will be about 70 million elders in the United States.

Public and Private Assistance

The increase in longevity and the growing aged population resulted in many government programs. The Social Security Act of 1935, passed during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency during the Great Depression, was a retirement insurance plan designed to provide retirees with some income and also to encourage them to leave the workforce to make room for younger workers. In 1965, Congress passed the Older Americans Act, which set up the Administration on Aging (AOA) as part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, now the Department of Health and Human Services. In 1972, the Older Americans Act was amended to set up Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for those without sufficient social security eligibility. The 1973 amendments to the Older Americans Act set up state and area agencies on aging and local service providers to dispense information and operate programs. As of 2002, more than 2,500 information and assistance programs across the country helped older Americans and caregivers through nearly 14 million contacts annually. Available programs included adult day care, community senior centers, congregate and home-delivered meals, consumer protection, elder abuse prevention, energy assistance, financial services, health insurance, counseling, home health care, home repair and modification, homemaker/chore services, housing options, legal assistance, pension counseling, respite services, reverse mortgages, SSI and food stamps, and transportation services.

The growth in the aged population and in the programs available to it have expanded the professions serving the old. Many new occupations arose, such as care managers for elders and lawyers working in elder law. Two of the leading organizations for professionals in aging, the American Society on Aging and the National Council on Aging, had their historic first joint conference in 2001, attended by 4,000 professionals.

Medicare, federal health insurance for seniors, was established in 1965, with Part A covering hospitalization for all social security recipients and the optional Part B covering other medical services. Medicare picks up 45 percent of an elder's health care costs but does not cover long-term care, although some private insurance does in part. Many senior citizens purchased so-called "Medigap" private insurance to supplement Medicare. The issue of financing Medicare and social security provoked much discussion and political activity in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. To lower costs, in 2000 the age at which social security became available was raised to sixty-seven for those born after 1960.

These government programs have been supported, supplemented, and criticized by senior-citizen advocacy groups. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), founded in 1958, advocates for older Americans and is the largest voluntary association in the world, with 35 million members. It provides discounts and services for members, who must be fifty or older. In an article entitled "'Long Goodbye' to Benefits" in its July/August 2001 Bulletin, AARP protested employers nationwide for cutting health insurance benefits to retirees. Families USA, another advocacy organization, also protested Medicare cuts and other benefit losses to elders.

As older Americans required more costly services, some resentment arose among those still in the workforce, and intergenerational programs began to combat "ageism." Benefits from the government and other sources were particularly crucial for older people with low incomes, a disproportionate number of whom were women. The poverty rate was nearly 12 percent for older women, compared to 7 percent for older men. Older people who lived alone were more likely to be poor, and most American widows did live alone. In 1999, 45 percent of women over sixty-five were widows. Older women's median income was $10,943 in 1999, while for older men it was $19,079.

Medicare cuts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries resulted in the closing of many nursing homes because costs exceeded reimbursement, according to the nursing home industry. New alternatives also reduced the number of seniors in nursing homes. The May 2001 issue of U.S. News and World Report stated that nursing home residents numbered just 1.5 million in the United States. About 800,000 elders lived in assistedliving facilities with private apartments and staff to provide some care, while 625,000 lived in continuing-care retirement communities that offered all levels of care from independent living to full care. In addition, some 6 million chronically ill and disabled elderly people received various levels of care at home. Another 1.5 million seniors living in independent apartments received simpler services such as prepared dinners, U.S. News and World Report found.

Many of the alternatives to nursing homes were very expensive and little was covered by the government. Some low-income elders lived in subsidized housing, but long waiting lists for these apartments were common. The assisted-living industry was not well regulated, and abuses occurred.


The racial and cultural diversity of the aged population also grew. By 2000, the elder Hispanic population was one of the fastest growing. In 1990, 5.6 percent of the Hispanic population was sixty-five or older, but demographers expected that the percentage would be 14.1 by 2020. In the Asian American and Pacific Islander populations, demographers expected the greatest increase of those over sixty-five—358 percent. Demographers also estimated that the number of African American elders would increase 102 percent by 2020. African American life expectancy in 2000 was only 70.2 years, compared to an average life expectancy of 76.5 years for all elders. This discrepancy is largely because more than 68 percent of old African Americans are poor, marginally poor, or economically vulnerable.

The Administration on Aging's budget under Title 6 of the Older Americans Act provided grants and aid to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiian elders, and those older persons received nearly 3 million congregate and home-delivered meals annually.

Diversity in sexual orientation is also significant. The AOA estimates that between 1.75 and 3.5 million Americans aged sixty and over are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, and that number will enlarge with the aging population's growth.


Mandatory retirement was a greatly contested issue in the late twentieth century. In 1967, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed. In 1978, due to the advocacy of the Gray Panthers and other organizations, the act was amended to raise the age of mandatory retirement from sixty-five to seventy for most occupations.

The options for activities after retirement increased along with the aging population. Millions of elders began attending special college programs or taking regular college courses. Many travel programs served elders of means, and corporations generally geared up to serve an aging market. Elderhostel sponsored learning vacations all over the world for older people, as well as sponsoring service programs in which elders volunteer. Many retirees volunteered in their communities, worked part-time, or started small businesses. A wealth of advice books were published on such topics as how to have a good old age, and some employers provided retirement counseling for those who left the workforce. Lifestyles became very different for the healthy old as creative pursuits expanded horizons.


Atchley, Robert C. Social Forces and Aging. 9th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2000.

Dychtwald, Ken. Healthy Aging: Challenges and Solutions. Gaithersburg, Md.: Aspen, 1999.

Jacobs, Ruth Harriet. Be an Outrageous Older Woman. New York: HayerPerennial, 1997.

Shapiro, Joseph P. "Growing Old in a Good Home." U.S. News and World Report, 21 May 2000, 56–61.

U.S. Administration on Aging. The Many Faces of Aging. Washington, D.C.: 2001. Available at

Ruth HarrietJacobs

See alsoAmerican Association of Retired Persons ; Gray Panthers ; Life Expectancy ; Medicare and Medicaid ; Retirement ; Retirement Plans ; andvol. 9:The New American Poverty .

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Old Age

299. Old Age

See also 3. AGE ; 18. ANTIQUITY ; 171. FOSSILS .

old age, when a person may be prone to regale others with anecdotes about his past. [A humorous blend of anecdote and dotage.]
the condition of behaving like an old woman, used especially of men. Cf. senility .
decrepit old age; senility.
the fear of growing old.
the study of the decline of life, as in old age. geratologic, geratological, geratologous, adj.
1. the science dealing with the diseases, debilities, and care of aged persons.
2. the study of the physical process and problems of aging; gerontology. geriatrie, adj. geriatrist, geriatrician, geriatry, n.
a dental specialty concerned with the care and treatment of the dental problems of the aged. gerodontist, n.
the condition of appearing older than one is.
the branch of science that studies aging and the special problems of the aged. Also called gerocomy . gerontologist, n. gerontological, adj.
the state of being in ones nineties. nonagenarian, n., adj. nonagenary, adj.
Medicine, Obsolete, the study of senility.
the state of being in ones eighties. octogenarian, n., adj. octogenary, adj.
1. a late education.
2. the process of acquiring education late in life.
the killing off of the old men in a tribe. senicidal, adj.
1. the state or quality of being old, especially, being afflicted with the infirmity of body and mind that sometimes comes with old age.
2. Informal. a condition of weakness of mind and body, usually associated with advanced age, characterized by the inability to remember simple, recent events, general confusion and bewilderment, and increasing debility. Cf. anility. senile, adj.
the state of being in ones seventies. septuagenarian n., adj. septuagenary, adj.

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Age, Old

8. Age, Old

  1. Alberich 500 years old, but still child-sized. [Ger. Legend: Walsh Classical, 13]
  2. Chuffey old clerk. [Br. Lit.: Martin Chuzzlewit ]
  3. Cumaean sibyl was granted long life by Apollo; when she rejected his love, he withheld eternal youth and she withered away. [Gk. Myth.: Metamorphoses, 14]
  4. Darby and Joan happily settled elderly couple. [Br. Ballad: Brewer Dictionary, 300]
  5. Elli personification of Old Age, he out-wrestled Thor. [Norse Myth.: Edith Hamilton Mythology ]
  6. Ezekiel portrayed with flowing white beard. [Art: Hall, 118]
  7. Father Time personification of the old year. [Folklore: Misc.]
  8. Geritol leading brand of tonic for geriatric health. [Trade marks: Crowley Trade, 230]
  9. Matlock, Lucinda vigorous old woman dies at 96, scorning the degeneracy around her. [Am. Poetry: Masters Spoon River Anthology ]
  10. Methuselah oldest man mentioned in Bible. [O.T.: Genesis 5:27]
  11. Parr, Thomas husbandman; lived through reigns of ten sovereigns. [Br. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 805]
  12. Philemon and Baucis fabled aged couple. [Rom. Lit.: Metamorphoses ]
  13. Prufrock, J. Alfred I grow old, I grow old. [Br. Lit.: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in Hart, 497]
  14. Rabbi Ben Ezra Brownings poem about old age. [Br. Poetry: Benét, 836]
  15. Storks Law obliged children to maintain their needy parents in old age. [Rom. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 862]
  16. Superannuated Man, The Charles Lambs essay on his growing infirmities and subsequent retirement. [Br. Lit.: Lamb, Charles in Benét, 563]
  17. Tithonus granted immortality but not eternal youth; continually got older. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz]

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Old Age

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"Old Age." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

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old age

old age • n. the later part of normal life: loneliness affects many people in old age. ∎  the state of being old: old age itself is not a disease.

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old age

old age: see geriatrics.

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