Old Age

views updated Jun 11 2018


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

Old Age

views updated Jun 08 2018



"Old age" is the most diverse of all age categories, including people in their fifties through those past a hundred. It embraces some of the richest and the very poorest in all societies, the highly active and the severely decrepit. In the twentieth century this diversity expanded more than ever before. Survival to old age was more common in earlier centuries than is sometimes thought, but it was only during the twentieth century that most Europeans lived to old age and more people lived to be very old. In Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century an average of seventy-four people per year reached the age of one hundred; by the end of the century three thousand did so. Expectation of life at birth in 1901 was fifty-one years for men and fifty-eight for women; in 1991 it was seventy-six and eighty-one, respectively. In general, women outlived men. The pattern was similar elsewhere in Europe, though in Russia and some other former communist countries male life expectancy fell at the end of the century.

Longer life and fitness were due to unprecedented improvements in living standards, especially in income, diet, and hygiene, together with leaps in medical knowledge and techniques. Curiously, this achievement was widely received with concern about the "burden" of costs that growing numbers of older people would impose upon shrinking younger populations. This was partly because the rise in life expectancy in the first forty years of the century coincided with a general fall in the birth-rate. Fears that populations were aging and declining led, particularly in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, to attempts to bribe women to have more children and penalize the childless with bonuses and medals for mothers of numerous children and tax penalties for celibacy. Elsewhere, particularly in Britain and France, the response was panicky predictions of the decline of the western powers as they aged, while Asian and African countries retained high birthrates and youthful populations.

These fears retreated after World War II, when birthrates rose. They returned at the end of the century, however, as births again fell. In the 1980s doom-laden predictions of the adverse social and economic effects of the aging of populations were issued by such institutions as the World Bank.

Aging occurred at a different pace and with different effects in different countries. France experienced a low birthrate much earlier than other countries. As early as 1836, 9 percent of the French population was sixty or older; by 1976, this had reached 18 percent. Sweden's over-sixty population did not reach 9 percent until 1876, but its age structure changed faster and it reached 18 percent in 1962.

Some people ended their longer lives in physical and/or mental decline, though only a minority experienced long periods of dependency. The incidence of conditions such as Alzheimer's rose, partly because more people survived the diseases that had ravaged younger people in previous centuries, such as tuberculosis, to die of sicknesses of old age.


A new language emerged for the stages of aging. A term coined in France, and widely used elsewhere in the later twentieth century, described the period of active old age as the "third age"; it followed the "first age" of childhood and youth and the "second age" of adult maturity. The later, less active and independent phase of life was the "fourth age."

Most older people throughout the century inhabited the third age. But the definition of the age boundaries and characteristics of old age changed. Subjective and everyday definitions of who was "old" and when old age began had long been variable and depended more on appearance and physical capacities than chronological age. Such subjective definitions increasingly collided with more-rigid bureaucratic boundaries, which were driven mainly by the introduction and spread of pensions. By the 1960s a pension was the normal expectation of older people throughout Europe. Pensions were most commonly payable starting at age sixty or sixty-five, sometimes fifty-five or seventy. The first state pensions were introduced in Germany in 1889 for workers, mainly male, at age seventy, or younger if they were permanently incapacitated. Denmark followed in 1892 with pensions targeted at the poorest people, mainly female, at age sixty. In 1908 they were introduced in Britain starting at age seventy; this age was lowered to sixty-five in 1925 and, for women only, to sixty in 1940. Increasingly, in noncommunist countries, the pensionage became the normal age of retirement from paid work, and the prevailing pension age became, in popular as well as official discourse, the boundary between middle and old age. Yet no sooner were such usages established than they were rejected, by some, as defining older people negatively, as dependent on the state or on the young, for what they were not—no longer productive workers or citizens—rather than for their positive qualities. As a result of the search for more positive language, "seniorcitizen"became common usage in the United States and elsewhere, and "the elderly" gained acceptance in Britain, until the 1980s, when this also came to be seen as pejorative and was replaced by the ambiguous "older people." There were similar linguistic changes elsewhere in Europe.

Such changes were driven by perceptions of the dissonance between language that described people above a certain age as helpless and dependent and the visible reality that increasing numbers of them were not. Change was encouraged by articulate older people themselves as well as by professionals in the internationally growing field of gerontology, a creation of the mid-twentieth century, who were devoted to studying aging and old age and advocacy for older people when required.


Retirement itself was new on a mass scale. At the beginning of the century those who could afford it chose when to retire. State officials and high-status employees in the private sector generally had secure pensions and a fixed retirement age, commonly sixty, sometimes fifty-five. Poor people worked for as long as they were able, sometimes to very late ages, generally at increasingly degraded tasks with diminishing incomes. In largely rural Finland, as in most other countries, old women worked as laundresses, cleaners, hawkers, laborers, or hod carriers on building sites. Old men took casual jobs as laborers on building sites or in road construction, work that disappeared during the long Finnish winter and that was seasonal everywhere. With unemployment normally came destitution.

If the poor old had surviving families (many did not given the high death rates of the early twentieth century), they were likely to also be too poor to give more than minimal support. Public welfare was minimal, and was generally stigmatizing. Better paid, mainly male, skilled workers often belonged to pension savings schemes. The first state pensions were designed to diminish this degradation and to raise the status of people whose poverty was not their own fault. But pensions were rarely enough to enable old people to give up work, nor were they intended to be. They did (as was intended) assist children in supporting aging parents, or supplement personal saving.

In capitalist countries in the 1920s and 1930s, occupational and private pensions and retirement at around age sixty to sixty-five spread through the lower levels of "white-collar," mainly male, workers. Poorer manual workers also increasingly left permanent paid work at earlier ages than before because high unemployment left them unable to find other jobs once unemployed.

The Soviet Union, by contrast, was committed ideologically to the valorization of work and workers and to exhibiting the long-lived vitality that was possible in a workers' democracy. The country also needed maximum employment if it was to expand its economy, and it could not easily afford to pay large numbers of pensions. Hence it had a strong incentive to keep people at work until as late in life as possible. In 1935 Joseph Stalin proclaimed the importance of exploiting to the full the experience of older workers. In the Soviet Union, "pensioner" was a respectable identity, implying age and seniority rather than dependency. The social security system was designed to encourage people to work as long as possible; turning them into welfare dependents, it was said, would rob them of full participation in Soviet society. Instead, as they became unfit for their accustomed jobs, they were transferred to lighter employment. A skilled electrician might become a watchman, a carpenter, or a toilet attendant—as he might in the west, without the accompanying ideological rhetoric. A difference from the west, though, was that old people were officially represented as privileged citizens. Their lives were often very poor, though this was also true of younger Soviet workers. After World War II pensions improved somewhat for Soviet citizens who were too old to work, especially for professionals and those who were deemed to have given distinguished service to the USSR, but pressure on older people to keep working remained strong.

Soviet political leaders practiced what they preached, if in greater comfort. Stalin himself died in office in 1953 at the age of seventy-four, as did Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 at age seventy-six. Elsewhere, Winston Churchill had reached the state pension age of sixty-five in 1939 when World War II began, and he sustained a punishing workload as war leader for the next six years. He became prime minister again in 1951 at age seventy-seven, though by then he was in poor health; he retired, reluctantly, four years later. Charles de Gaulle became president of France in 1958 at age sixty-eight and remained in office for eleven years. Old men dominated the politics of many states in the mid-twentieth century, sometimes, especially the dictators, outstaying their capacities for the role, as did Francisco Franco, who in 1975 reluctantly gave up control of Spain when he was close to death at age eighty-three.

It was only after World War II, especially from the 1950s on, that improved pensions were introduced in all European countries (more quickly in some than others) and that retirement at age sixty or sixty-five became a normal phase of life for most people. However, simultaneously, many governments, including those of Britain and France, reversed their previous attitudes and argued that earlier retirement should be discouraged. It was believed that the shrinking numbers of younger workers, due to the low prewar birthrates, necessitated older people staying in the workforce to sustain the buoyant postwar international economy.

Nevertheless, retirement at sixty or sixty-five gradually became almost universal. Workers wanted a period of rest after long working lives, understandable because manual workers who were in their sixties in the 1950s might have been working since the age of twelve or thirteen. Nowhere did their pensions make retired workers rich, but they did enable them to survive without working, and, as living standards improved, more were helped by their children. But the sudden experience of limitless leisure late in life was not always easy. Many of this first generation of early retired manual workers expressed bewilderment, even depression, in the face of their newfound, unaccustomed leisure. Also, employers were not persuaded of the value of older workers except in traditional marginal jobs, and, increasingly, modern technology provided efficient alternatives to aging cleaners or frail watchmen. There was a shortage of younger workers due to low prewar birth rates and the increasing number of young people staying longer in education after the war. In expanding European economies employers compensated for the shortage of younger workers by employing women and immigrants rather than older people.

Through the second half of the twentieth century Europeans lived longer and were fit to later ages, but instead of working longer, they retired earlier than ever before. This process speeded up in the 1980s. By the 1990s almost one-third of Western European workers had retired permanently by the age of sixty. Some left willingly, on comfortable pensions, to enjoy relaxation, travel, and consumption. A new generation of WOOPIES (well-off older persons) was identified by advertisers, but they were a minority. Others gave up work more reluctantly.

It was sometimes argued that early retirement was the unavoidable consequence of changing technology: skills and knowledge became obsolescent ever faster, and older people could not keep pace. But the evidence pointed in the opposite direction. Older workers suffered from the belief of employers and others that they had declining abilities and low adaptability, but, whenever it was put to the test, older people, even those in their seventies or older, proved highly adaptable and capable of learning new skills. In fact, they were well adapted to the hightech labor market of the late twentieth century, which required brain power rather than physical power. However, they were rejected from a shrinking labor market because they were more costly than younger people. But by the end of the century it was recognized that when they left the workplace, their experience and often greater reliability, compared with younger workers, departed as well. Also, enterprises and governments became concerned about the growing costs of pensions and the falling numbers of younger workers capable of paying the contributions required to fund the pensions of older people; accordingly, in the 1990s they sought to cut pensions. Both state and employer pensions were substantially cut in Britain and Denmark, though in France, Germany, and other Western European countries workers defended their pensions more successfully.

This alarm was due to the rising proportions of people sixty and older. In 1960, the percentages of these older people in the total population were 16 percent in France, 17.3 in Germany, 13.6 in Italy, 18 in Sweden, and 16.9 in the United Kingdom. By 1990, they were 19.1, 20.4, 20.2, 22.8, and 20.7, and they were projected to rise by 2020 to 26.1, 18.2, 30.3, 26.5, and 24, respectively, with corresponding reductions in the numbers of people aged fifteen to sixty, who were of actual or potential working age.

Workers, governments, and employers now had incentives to reverse the trend of the previous half-century by delaying retirement and extending the normal working life.


Longer, active lives were partly due to changing medical knowledge. Only in the twentieth century did medicine achieve the capacity to diagnose and cure extensively, and only in the midcentury did medical services become easily and cheaply available to people of all ages in most countries. Many of these advances benefited younger people, enabling them to survive to later ages, but diagnosis and treatment of conditions common among older people, such as heart disease, hypertension, and cancers, improved, and they also gained from such new procedures as implantation of cardiac pacemakers and joint and organ replacements. Hormone replacement therapy was hailed as bringing the longed-for rejuvenation to post-menopausal women, though by the end of the century there were reports of adverse side effects. Modern technology could also be used to keep older people alive but with a poor quality of life, posing new ethical dilemmas for medicine.

In the beginning of the century a specialized medicine of old age, known as geriatrics, developed internationally. The term was coined in the United States in 1909 by an Austrian-born medical practitioner, Ignatz Nascher (1863–1944). Nascher believed that doctors paid insufficient attention to the ill health of older people: because they did not have long to live, it was not thought worthwhile to cure them. The persistence of this belief slowed acceptance of his work and ensured that geriatrics remained marginalized internationally. Nascher believed that the health of older people could be improved by better diet, exercise, and mental stimulation and demonstrated its efficacy through experiments with older people in New York.

The desire to prolong active life, even to reveal the secret of rejuvenation, received stronger support in the Soviet Union, driven by the conviction that Bolshevism could revolutionize even the life span. Soviet gerontologists argued that human kind had the capacity to live much longer than the current norm, to age 120 and beyond, and that Soviet society could demonstrate its superiority by bringing this about. Statistics that demonstrated that the average Soviet life expectancy had improved since the Revolution of 1917 were invoked, though similar or greater gains were evident in non-communist countries. Experiments with hormones and glandular grafts from monkeys as a means to restore youthful vigor were encouraged. The Soviet press publicized feats of longevity that allegedly demonstrated that Soviet citizens were achieving exceptional life spans. A succession of Soviet medical researchers in the 1930s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s sought the secret of the apparently long life spans of Caucasian peasants, without success.

Geriatrics aroused more attention in non-communist countries as the numbers of older people, and the costs of their medical care, increased. By the 1930s large numbers of stroke patients were filling hospital beds because improvements in drug treatments kept them alive but did not restore their mobility. The increased use of physiotherapy and other forms of rehabilitation, pioneered in Britain, freed patients from hospitals in growing numbers. With the introduction in Britain in 1948 of a National Health Service that provided free health care for all citizens, and the establishment of similar systems throughout Europe, such practices became more widespread. Greater access to health care for poorer aging people revealed that attention to quite mundane but disabling conditions affecting their hearing, eyesight, teeth, and feet could greatly improve their lives. Conditions that had long been regarded as natural features of aging, to be endured, could be cured.

The outcome by the end of the century was the simultaneous survival of the largest numbers of fit people in their sixties and seventies ever known, and the largest numbers of chronically ill older people ever known. Many who recovered from acute conditions that would have killed them in earlier times succumbed to chronic disorders such as arthritis, diabetes, or Alzheimer's. But the majority of people surviving to their eighties and nineties at the end of the century did not suffer from acute illness and regarded themselves as in good health and capable of independent activity. For most people, even at very late ages, death was not preceded by a long period of serious dependency, though all of these experiences varied by age, class, and gender.


More old people lived alone in the later twentieth century. This was often interpreted as meaning increasing loneliness, especially when linked to the falling birthrate, increased divorce, and increased geographical mobility. Some people were old, alone, and lonely. Many older people, however, preferred independence to dependence on their children. They were in frequent contact with family and friends even when they lived alone. Family size fell over the course of the century, but more older people than ever before had at least one surviving child following the decline in the high infant mortality rates that had been the norm throughout history. Children did not necessarily live close at hand, but improved communications enabled families to keep in ready contact by telephone or, later, e-mail, and to get together by fast means of transport. Separation was not initiated only by younger people. Increasingly, affluent older people in northern Europe moved to enjoy retirement in Spain or southern France, often returning close to their families as they entered the "fourth age."

Older, like younger, people changed their appearances. How they were represented and represented themselves changed as their styles of life became more varied. Older people in the later twentieth century tended to look younger than people of similar age in earlier times, not least because they were healthier and had their natural teeth rather than false teeth or none. Medical specialists suggested that seventy-five-year-olds in 2000 were physiologically similar to sixty- or sixty-five-year-olds in 1900.

The age-specific dress codes of earlier centuries disappeared, more gradually both in the countryside than in the towns and in poorer than in richer regions. It became easier for men and women to disguise the signs of aging, as cosmetics and hair dyes improved in range and quality and became cheaper and more readily available starting in the 1930s. Cosmetic surgery became more effective and cheaper and was increasingly used by the end of the century.

Some argued that a "cult of youth" forced older people to disguise their ages, denying them the possibility to "grow old gracefully" and "naturally." Others responded that there was nothing "graceful" about the "natural" aging of all too many old people in the past, and no obvious reason why at a certain age they should become less free to alter their appearance or be bound by more-rigid style conventions than the young. At the end of the century more older people had more freedoms than ever before and age boundaries were being destabilized.

See alsoChildhood and Adolescence; Demography; Public Health; Social Insurance; Welfare State.


Falkingham, Jane, and Paul Johnson. Ageing and Economic Welfare. London, 1992.

Kirkwood, Tom. The End of Age: Why Everything about Ageing Is Changing. London, 2001.

Kohli, Martin, et al., eds. Time for Retirement: Comparative Studies of Early Exit from the Labour Force. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Lovell, Stephen. "Soviet Socialism and the Construction of Old Age." Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 51 (2003): 564–585.

Pifer, Alan, and Lydia Bronte, eds. Our Aging Society. Paradox and Promise. New York, 1986.

Quine, Maria S. Population Politics in Twentieth Century Europe. London, 1996.

Rahikainen, Marjatta. "Ageing Men and Women in the Labour Market—Continuity and Change." Scandinavian Journal of History 26 (2001): 297–314.

Sauvy, Alfred. "Social and Economic Consequences of Ageing of Western Populations." Population Studies 2 (1948): 115–124.

Thane, Pat. "The Debate on the Declining Birth-rate in Britain: The 'Menace' of an Ageing Population, 1920s–1950s." Continuity and Change 5 (1990): 283–305.

——. "Geriatrics." In Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, vol. 2, edited by William F. Bynum and Roy Porter, 1092–1118. London, 1993.

——. Old Age in English History. Past Experiences. Present Issues. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

World Bank. Averting the Old Age Crisis: Policies to Protect the Old and Promote Growth. Oxford, U.K., 1994.

Pat Thane

Old Age

views updated May 29 2018


cultural representations of old age
early welfare-state arrangements

Gerontologists and some historians often point to the demographic developments of the twentieth century as so extraordinary that in comparison the history of old age in earlier centuries appears as one great continuity. Yet, already in the late nineteenth century some parts of Europe had experienced the falling fertility that brought on demographic aging, and, more than such demographic alterations, changes in the economy and workplace had an impact on the status of the aged. Moreover, the nineteenth century saw important sociocultural developments in the history of old age, and European states began providing some support for the aged.

In most of Europe, the percentage of the population over the age of sixty remained relatively stable, ranging from seven to ten percent, but regional variation was important and some aging was already visible. In France, the percentage went from 10.1 percent in 1851 to 12.3 percent in 1881 and 12.7 percent in 1911. In Sweden, those over sixty increased from 7.8 percent in 1850 to 9.3 percent in 1880 and 12 percent in 1910, but little change was evident in England (7.5 percent, 7.4 percent, and 7.9 percent) or in Germany (7.5 percent, 7.8 percent, and 7.8 percent). A fall in adult mortality had a small impact on the age pyramid, but the definitive shift to an aging population resulted from declining fertility. Birth rates fell below thirty per thousand in the 1830s in France, from 1880 to 1914 in northern and central Europe, and only after 1914 further east and south.

French aging, which preceded the general European phenomenon, occurred unevenly from region to region, with older populations emerging to the southeast of the Paris basin, in Normandy, and in the southwest. Differential fertility rates played their role, but an increasingly important factor in regional variation was migration of younger people, leaving elders in rural communities. And by the turn of the twentieth century, some urban retirees, such as civil servants, retraced their paths and pioneered twentieth-century elders' retirement to the country.

The great economic transformation of Europe in the nineteenth century set people in motion, modifying old patterns of residence. Nuclear households had long predominated in England and northwestern Europe, with a higher incidence of complex households, characterized by coresidence of aged parents and adult children, to the east and south, but great variation could be found within regions. Historians have debated whether coresidence indicated greater authority of older people but have generally concluded that, given a choice and sufficient resources, elders have usually opted for independence. Still, notarial archives in much of Europe reveal contractual relations between generations. So much food or drink, a particular room or place by the fire, or some cash allowance might be guaranteed in households that saw transmission of ownership from generation to generation. Folkloric traditions all over Europe warned against premortem transmission of property, but individual and family strategies made use of such maintenance contracts.

The dynamic economy of the nineteenth century encouraged individualism, so even when generations remained together, older and younger workers often chose different occupations, elders practicing traditional techniques, and younger workers performing newer industrial tasks. Where artisanal trades or domestic production persisted, elders maintained their position or adapted to easier jobs, but where industrialization and urbanization drove a wedge between generations, elders lost some of their workplace authority, and traditional knowledge seemed increasingly irrelevant. Workforce participation by the aged began a decline that would accelerate in the twentieth century.

Skilled workers formed friendly societies to meet the challenges of sickness and aging, and late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century legislation created old-age insurance schemes across Europe. They supplemented savings and charitable assistance, as workers bundled income from a variety of sources. But before examining early welfare-state arrangements, it makes sense to look at cultural representations of old age across the period, for the image of weakened, superannuated workers coexisted with a very different picture of honored, vital aged elites.

cultural representations of old age

French Revolutionary and Napoleonic-era representations of old age yielded an ambiguous legacy. A rhetoric of revolution and regeneration encouraged an association of at least some older people with an antiquated past. Elders could be viewed as holdovers from the Old Regime, and even Revolutionary and Napoleonic War veterans would come to represent a receding era. Yet, the desire to anchor and legitimize a new regime extended to the creation of a revolutionary festival honoring old age and the production of plans for old-age support.

During the period of the Directory (1795–1799), French Revolutionary festivals celebrated the stages of life, substituting generational divisions for socioeconomic ones. In the Festival of Old Age, observed annually on 10 Fructidor (the twelfth month of the French Republican calendar), local administrators honored neighborhood elders, decorating their residences, parading them through the streets, and giving them a place of honor at public ceremonies. Hymns were sung, speeches given, and dramatic performances undertaken. Public speakers and writers evoked the names of Cato the Elder (234–149 b.c.e.) and the Byzantine general Belisarius (500?–565), and plays featuring elderly characters—for example, Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus and Shakespeare's King Lear—appeared on stage. Rhetoric that celebrated the aged appeared on other occasions as well. In the mass conscription of 23 August 1793, each cohort played its role: "Old men, taking up again the mission that they had among ancient peoples, will be carried to the public places; there they will enflame the courage of the young warriors; they will promote the hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic" (Troyansky 1989, p. 202). Honored elders in French Revolutionary culture grew out of Enlightenment precedent and anticipated nineteenth-century representations.

It may be an exaggeration to say, as did the French novelist George Sand (1804–1876), that the French Revolution invented grandparents, but rapid historical change and rising standards of living for middling and upper classes made grandparents a real presence in a culture of intimacy and sentiment between old and young. The image of the beloved grandparent represented the soft side of patriarchal or matriarchal authority. Whether in memoirs or fiction, paintings or prints, or in a new prescriptive literature, a new familial role for the aged received serious attention. Grandparents were seen as playing a major role in the education and socialization of children. Authors of memoirs affectionately recalled grandparents' roles in transmitting values, offering advice, and dominating holiday scenes.

Public life as well allowed an important role for elders. In the absence of a broad-based expectation of retirement at a particular age, business and political leaders continued to dominate European society well into advanced age. Contemporaries sometimes spoke of gerontocracy. One historian writes of gray heads triumphing in the second half of the century and evokes the names of Queen Victoria and the prime ministers Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone of England; Emperor William I of Germany; Prince Clemens von Metternich and Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria; and the presidents Louis-Adolphe Thiers, Maurice MacMahon, and Jules Grévy of France. The Vatican council of 1870 revealed that two-thirds of 766 bishops and archbishops were older than sixty, including twenty-five between the ages of eighty and ninety-six.

Yet, royalty, clergy, and parliamentary leaders do not quite represent all of society, or even its elite. Privileged grandparents described in loving memoirs of the nineteenth century were often retired. We do not know how typical they were, because their withdrawal from active life depended primarily on individual investments and savings, but we glimpse some retired businessmen renovating properties and leading a life of leisure. At least they could afford to retire. That was not the case for the majority, whose plight was addressed in social thought and legislation dating back to the Revolutionary era.

early welfare-state arrangements

In the early years of the French Revolution, the duc François de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt (1747–1827) and the Comité de Mendicité examined the problem of poverty and the particular needs of the aged poor. Their reports favored aid at home or with an adoptive family and, for those unable to be so cared for, a system of hospices. Welfare proposals of 1793 and 1794 addressed the needs of the aged, including farmers, artisans, and dependent parents, and grandparents of defenders of the Republic. Prospectuses for old-age pensions circulated, but military needs took precedence over more general schemes for social welfare, which generally failed to be enacted. Still, the humanitarian impulses of the time would be recalled in discussions over the course of the nineteenth century, and civil servants employed by growing state bureaucracies would exercise pension rights more immediately. Individual government ministries in France established pension plans in the first half of the nineteenth century; the government combined them in 1853. The British established a unified plan for public-sector pensions in 1859, the Germans in the 1870s and 1880s.

The aged poor had to wait longer. Indeed, labor leaders expressed skepticism about benefits that workers might never live to see. But eventually they stopped conceiving of pensions as deferred wages and weighed in on public debates concerning old-age security. Prussian miners received pensions in 1854, their French counterparts in 1894. Railroad workers gained pensions throughout Europe. Social insurance was first established in Germany in 1889. While the pensions established under the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck targeted disability more than advanced age, they served as an international model in a world beginning to pay attention to old age as a social problem. Bismarck emphasized the political and social significance of his legislation:

It is essential to generate a basic conservative conviction amongst the vast majority of unpropertied people through the feelings that come with the right to a pension. Why should the soldier of work not have a pension like the soldier of the civil service? That is state socialism, that is the legitimate operation of practical Christianity. (quoted in Scharf, p. 23)

In England, where traditions of local poor relief had been long established and undergone reform in the nineteenth century, debates over national policy occurred in the early years of the twentieth century. Changes in the labor market and a desire to discipline younger workers may have marginalized their elders. Certainly experts on social and economic questions throughout the Western world expressed ideas about the supposed obsolescence of aging workers, but the new concern for the aged poor could well have been part of a more general approach to defining particular aspects of the "social question." British old-age pensions were established in 1908 and began to be paid the following year. The majority of pensions were paid to women, and the greatest impact occurred in rural Ireland.

All across Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, politicians and social thinkers debated policies to be applied to the elderly. They evoked dreaded images of workhouses and almshouses, although entry into such institutions was always a minority experience. Policy details varied from country to country; however, ways of thinking about old age followed similar patterns. Older liberal ideas about individual thrift had encouraged the creation of optional and contributory plans, but governments increasingly turned toward ideas of mandatory and noncontributory pensions. The years leading up to World War I witnessed the creation of antecedents to the welfare-state systems that followed World War II. The initiative often came from working-class parties and labor unions, but middle-class agrarian parties in Scandinavia also lobbied effectively for social welfare institutions.

Gender was one element of the debate over aging and pensions. The image of the old worker was primarily an image of an old man, his very masculinity threatened by the weakening body. Older men experienced a kind of physical decline that the culture had already applied to women at an earlier stage of life. Ironically, women were already beginning to live significantly longer than men.

Gender differences were evident in medical discourses about aging, and the existence of separate institutions for men and women encouraged gendered research on the diseases of the aged. Despite the fact that hospitals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tried to concentrate their attention on curable diseases and the young, some institutions specialized in geriatrics. Most notable were the Parisian institutions of Bicêtre and the Salpêtrière, where Maxime Durand-Fardel (1816–1899) and Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) made lasting contributions to the medicalization of old age in the modern world.

See alsoChildhood and Children; Demography; Welfare.


Baldwin, Peter. The Politics of Social Solidarity: Class Bases of the European Welfare State, 1875–1975. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Bardet, Jean-Pierre, and Jacques Dupâquier, eds. Histoire des populations de l'Europe. Vol. 2: La révolution démographique, 1750–1914. Paris, 1998.

Bois, Jean-Pierre. Les vieux de Montaigne aux premières retraites. Paris, 1989.

Bourdelais, Patrice. Le nouvel âge de la vieillesse: Histoire du vieillissement de la population. Paris, 1993.

Conrad, Christoph. Vom Greis zum Rentner: Der Strukturwandel des Alters in Deutschland zwischen 1830 und 1930. Göttingen, Germany, 1994.

Dumons, Bruno, and Gilles Pollet. L'état et les retraites: Genèse d'une politique. Paris, 1994.

Ehmer, Josef. Sozialgeschichte des Alters. Frankfurt, 1990.

Gourdon, Vincent. Histoire des grands-parents. Paris, 2001.

Johnson, Paul, and Pat Thane, eds. Old Age from Antiquity to Post-Modernity. London, 1998.

Kertzer, David I., and Peter Laslett, eds. Aging in the Past: Demography, Society, and Old Age. Berkeley, Calif., 1995.

Macnicol, John. The Politics of Retirement in Britain, 1878–1948. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Quadagno, Jill S. Aging in Early Industrial Society: Work, Family, and Social Policy in Nineteenth-Century England. New York, 1982.

Scharf, Thomas. Ageing and Ageing Policy in Germany. Oxford, U.K., 1998.

Stearns, Peter N. Old Age in European Society: The Case of France. New York, 1976.

Thane, Pat. The Long History of Old Age. London, 2005.

——. Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Troyansky, David G. "Balancing Social and Cultural Approaches to the History of Old Age and Ageing in Europe: A Review and an Example from Post-Revolutionary France." In Old Age from Antiquity to Post-Modernity, edited by Paul Johnson and Pat Thane, 96–109. London, 1998.

——. "The Elderly." In Encyclopedia of European Social History, edited by Peter N. Stearns, vol. 4, 219–229. New York, 2001.

——. "Generational Discourse in the French Revolution." In The French Revolution in Culture and Society, edited by David G. Troyansky, Alfred Cismaru, and Norwood Andrews, Jr., 23–31. New York, 1991.

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

David G. Troyansky

Old Age

views updated May 23 2018


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 http://www.aoa.dhhs.gov.

Ruth HarrietJacobs

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

Old Age

views updated May 17 2018

Old Age


Modern and Ancient Definitions. Old age in American society, especially the modern view of when the period starts, has shifted dramatically in the last century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, life expectancy was approximately forty-four years, but at the start of the following century, it had lengthened to roughly seventy-two years. The useful definitions of old age are not expressed in years but rather in changes of function in society and the onset of biological decline. The Egyptians defined old age as the time when a person could no longer perform the functions of an active adult and when they experienced physical infirmity. Life expectancy at birth was roughly thirty-five years, but for those living beyond five years, life expectancy was higher. At age forty a person usually was considered quite old.

Infirmities. Egyptian texts deal specifically with the kinds of infirmities associated with old age. Ptahhotep, the Dynasty 5 (circa 2500–2350 b.c.e.) vizier who is credited with writing a wisdom text, described the old as feeble, tired, silent, and achy. He says the old are unable to remember the past, cannot taste their food, and have pain whether standing or sitting. The Egyptologists Rosalind and Jacobus Janssen have observed that the Egyptians emphasized the disadvantages of old age rather than noting the valuable wisdom acquired by the old, as is true in other traditional societies.

Terms for Old Age. The Egyptians used three different words—yau, teni, and kehkeh—for old age, but the nuances of these different terms are not clear. The determinatives used as the last hieroglyphic sign in these words are both a man leaning over supported by a stick and the pustule, which was also used as the determinative for the word for disease. These determinatives, meant to place the words into a general class of ideas, also reflect the idea that the Egyptians thought of old age in terms of physical decline.

Reliefs and Paintings. Depictions of the elite in old age are rare, while old workmen are more often portrayed in reliefs and paintings. Egyptian tombs, the source of most relief sculptures and paintings depicting people, were intended to rejuvenate the deceased for rebirth into the next world. It is unlikely that the deceased would want to be represented as old. The Janssens have suggested that representations of portly men in their tombs might be old people. Certainly such representations portray elite men at the height of their successful careers. In that sense they might be considered old. A rare New Kingdom (circa 1539–1075 b.c.e.) representation of an old nobleman, located now in the Brooklyn Museum, shows a man with a wrinkled forehead, deep wrinkles around the nose and mouth, a double chin, prominent collarbone, and a thin arm and wrist stretched out in greeting. Old servants or workers are

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

often shown as bald, portly, and naked. Sometimes the legs appear to be misshapen.

Statuary. The statuary of kings and other noblemen sometimes portrayed the subjects as aged. The most famous examples come from the reign of Senwosret III (circa 1836–1818 b.c.e.). Senwosret’s face is wrinkled and careworn, yet his body in the same statues is regularly shown as young, slim, and muscular. This same style was revived in late Dynasty 25 (circa 760–656 b.c.e.) and early Dynasty 26 (664–525 b.c.e.) for portraits of the Mayor of Thebes, Montuemhet.

Living With Family. Texts from Dynasty 12 (circa 1938–1759 b.c.e.) suggest that elderly mothers sometimes lived in the same household with their eldest sons after the death of their husbands. A census from the town of Kahun in Lower (northern) Egypt traces the changes in the household of a soldier named Hori. In the first census, Hori, his wife Shepset, and their infant son Sneferu, are living alone. In the next census, which occurred an unknown number of years later, significant changes had occurred. Now Hori’s mother, along with her five daughters, had joined Hori’s household. Probably this move occurred after the death of Hori’s father. In the next census, Sneferu is now the head of the household that consists of his widowed mother, his grandmother, and two of his aunts. The second text is a letter from a man named Heqanakht to his family. The household consists of his mother; his aunt; his married son, whose children also live with him; four younger, unmarried

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

sons; a second wife; and several servants. Both Hori and Heqanakht belonged to nonelite families. Clearly, for the majority of people, aged or widowed parents lived together with them.

Ideal Old Age. Many texts from ancient Egypt refer to reaching the ideal age one hundred and ten years. Often such an age is described as “beautiful,” probably meaning “whole” or “healthy.” No Egyptians are known to have reached such a great age, though a few historical figures such as Amenhotep son of Hapu, builder for Amenhotep III (circa 1390–1353 b.c.e.), lived into his nineties. Neferkare Pepy II is thought to have reigned ninety-four years (circa 2288–2224/2194 b.c.e.) and perhaps lived until his one hundredth birthday.

Staff of Old Age. The expression “staff of old age” referred to the son of a retired man. Upper-class Egyptians hoped that their sons would follow them in office. When a man reached the point that he could no longer perform all the functions of an office, he could request that his son be appointed a “staff of old age.” The son could then perform many of the functions of the office while the father still retained the title and presumably controlled the income from an office. The image, of course, is related to the tall sticks used by the elderly in Egypt to help support themselves. This title is attested in Dynasty 12 and Dynasty 18 (circa 1539–1295/1292 b.c.e.).

Pensions. Pensions took many forms in Egypt, none of which exactly correlate with modern ideals. Older laborers at Deir el Medina who could no longer work received a reduced ration. They probably were supported by a son who had become a member of the work crew. Soldiers in the reign of Ramesses II (circa 1279–1213 b.c.e.) received grants of land at the close of their service. This land, which they were required to work themselves, provided an income in old age. Higher officials received a kind of pension in the form of rations paid to their tombs. These rations might not have actually supported the family of the deceased though they did support the cult of a high official. Other high army officials became priests. A priestly position probably was less physically demanding than army life and the income could support an older person. In another unusual case, a standard bearer on a navy ship was appointed police chief by Thutmose IV (circa 1400–1390 b.c.e.) in order to provide for his old age.


Rosalind M. and Jac. J. Janssen, Getting Old in Ancient Egypt (London: Rubicon Press, 1996).

Janssen and Janssen, Growing Up in Ancient Egypt (London: Rubicon Press, 1990).

B. G. Trigger, and others, Ancient Egypt: A Social History (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Old Age

views updated May 17 2018


Three continuities and three changes characterize the history of old age in the United States between 1754 and 1829. The continuities provide a context for interpreting shifts in the meanings and experiences of being old. Having debated the magnitude of changes that occurred during the era, historians agree that it was no golden age. Developments from 1754 and 1829 set the stage for dramatic demographic, socioeconomic, and political transformations in late life during the twentieth century.

The first continuity worth noting is that throughout history, old age has been recognized as a stage of life. Unlike other stages of life like "adolescence" that were invented, almanacs, newspapers, and artifacts from this period document that scientists, ministers, farmers, and popular writers put the same chronological boundaries around elderhood as had seventeenth-century settlers. Americans at the time agreed that old age began at sixty-five, give or take fifteen years.

Second, because of late life's elongated, elastic end points, older Americans collectively were the most diverse segment of the population between 1754 and 1829. Some, like Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and John Adams (1735–1826), maintained their health and vitality well into their seventh decade. Others became increasingly frail with advancing years. Physicians and philosophers considered senescence a natural process, not a pathological disorder. Nor was mental decline deemed inevitable. Benjamin Rush (1745–1813), arguably the nation's first geriatrician, opined that a proper diet and exercise in moderation preserved the faculties. Extremes in wealth, as in health, existed in old age. A majority of the country's wealthiest men were either aged plantation owners and slaveholders or bankers and manufacturers in urban settings. That said, most elders died intestate, having managed to save little over the course of their lives.

Third, attitudes toward old age ranged from positive to negative, by turns ambivalent and ambiguous. Charles Willson Peale's luminous portraits of contented elderly gentry contrasted with images of widows and the disabled seeking refuge in almshouses or having to accept outdoor relief. Commentators between 1754 and 1829 frequently describe old people with status as "venerable," while others hurled disparaging invectives at those who were vulnerable and marginal with advancing years.

David Hackett Fischer's Growing Old in America (1977) sparked considerable interest in historical gerontology by arguing that there was a "deep change" in attitudes toward age and the elderly's behavior between 1790 and 1820. He cited changes in vocabulary and fashion, seating patterns in meetinghouses, and other indicators to substantiate his claim. Subsequent scholarship undermined Fischer's argument, but at least three changes took place during the period that set the stage for subsequent developments.

First, older men and women worked as long as possible between 1754 and 1829 and then relied on the (minimal) savings they had acquired. In a few instances—notably judgeships in thirteen states—sexagenarians were forced to quit the bench. These are the first instances of retirement in U.S. history. A provision of New York's 1777 state constitution set a precedent and forced Chancellor James Kent (1763–1847) off the bench; he then wrote his four-volumeCommentaries on American Law (1826–1830). Kent did not die until he was eighty-four years old, a year after the state rescinded the rule.

Second, the longevity of Americans became a measure of the nation's health. That there was a relatively higher percentage of octogenarians on this side of the Atlantic than in Europe was considered proof that the climate, food supply, and rural values in the New World were more conducive to salubrity than was the Old World. Graybeard Uncle Sam was an apt symbol, Americans felt, for the young Republic. Historical demographers nonetheless remind us that children born in 1790 had as great a chance of attaining their first birthdays as babies born in 1970 have of reaching age sixty-five. Hence, transatlantic comparisons were more valuable as an ideological tool than as a measure of increased life expectancy at birth during this period.

Third, the vast network of public measures to protect and empower older Americans that grew after the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 had its humble origins in the early years of the Republic. Thomas Paine and Alexander Everett in 1797 and 1823 respectively proposed nationally funded pensions to prevent old-age dependency, but they mustered minimal support. Then, building on its 1789 precedent for granting disability pensions, the federal government offered old-age pensions in 1818 to Revolutionary War veterans who had served nine months, needed assistance, and relinquished claim to any other pension. Congress liberalized benefits in the 1820s, a pattern of incrementalism that would characterize public policymaking thereafter.

See alsoDomestic Life; Medicine .


Achenbaum, W. Andrew. Old Age in the New Land. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Cole, Thomas R. The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Fisher, David Hackett. Growing Old in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

W. Andrew Achenbaum

Old Age

views updated May 29 2018

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.

Age, Old

views updated May 23 2018

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]

Old Age

views updated May 18 2018

old age

views updated May 21 2018

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.