Aging and the Aged: V. Old Age

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Every generation seems to yearn for some glorious era in a mythic past when older people were honored and suffered little from material deprivation, derision, or debility. In the late twentieth century, the aging society of the United States has many reasons to seek such comforting ideas about the experience of old age in Western history. Growing alarm about the "graying" of an unbalanced federal budget, concern about allocating expensive medical resources, fears of intergenerational conflict, anxiety about prolonged technological dying and medical indigence, all give a strikingly contemporary, secular resonance to the Psalmist's plea: "Do not cast me off in old age, when my strength fails me and my hairs are gray, forsake me not, O God."

Recent historical scholarship (Cole et al.) reveals no grand narrative, and certainly no "golden age," capable of unifying the diverse experiences of aging and old people in the past. Of all previously silenced groups, the elderly—"clothed as they were with official respect and buried, as they often were, in reality"—may prove the greatest challenge to historians (Stearns, p. 2). Despite the difficulty of generalizing about the historical experience of older people, we can follow the evolution of life in Western history. This entry will sketch these themes. It will also highlight research findings about aging and the life course in ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern Western societies and conclude with the problems posed by the end of modernity.

Every society creates symbols, images, and rituals that help people live meaningfully within the limits of human existence. Cultural meanings of aging and old age are linked to these symbolic forms. Western culture has traditionally relied on two archetypal images to represent the wholeness, unity, or meaning of human experience in time: the division of life into ages (or stages), and the metaphor of life as a journey. Classical antiquity first connected the ages of life and the journey of life, weaving them into its beliefs about the nature of human existence and the cosmos to which human life was intimately linked. In the Middle Ages, Christian writers adopted Greco-Roman ideas about the ages of life and conceived the journey of life as a sacred pilgrimage. Between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries, secular, scientific, and individualistic tendencies steadily eroded ancient and medieval understandings that aging was a mysterious part of the eternal order of things. Instead it became an individual experience that was best explained scientifically and divorced from larger communal rituals and cosmic meanings. In the early twenty-first century, we are living through the search for ideals adequate to contemporary culture, in which the recovery of cosmic and collective sources of meaning may stimulate appreciation of the spiritual and moral aspects of aging without devaluing individual development (Cole).

All traditions that preceded the modern, scientific effort to master old age share an appreciation of its mystery and complexity. The resulting tendency to view old age as both a blessing and a curse is therefore prominent in Hebrew, Greco-Roman, and Christian writings, each with its own variation.

Ancient Societies

Ancient Hebrew religious literature contained an ambiguous vision of old age. It commanded the young to honor their parents and respect the old for their wisdom, yet it also described the old as "apelike … and childlike," loathed by their children and household (Isenberg, p. 149). Despite the special place Jewish biblical culture reserved for the old, the ancient Hebrews acknowledged that not all old people would be wise, nor would all children support their elders in time of need. The Book of Job specifically challenges the view that old age brings wisdom and asks why God grants long life to the wicked. Later rabbinic law translated the Biblical injunction to honor one's parents as requiring children to provide care, a task that belonged primarily to women.

Greco-Roman literature on old age shares three common themes: the "relationship between wisdom and age; the social and political authority of the elderly; and the care of the aged" (Falkner and de Luce, pp. 4–5). While the Greeks of the classical era generally portrayed old people more harshly than did the Romans, they also viewed old age as one of life's great mysteries. Plato considered virtue a possibility, rather than a necessary by-product, of old age. Aristotle saw middle age as the peak of human life and considered old men unfit for political office. Weakness and poor judgment rendered them objects of pity or scorn.

Greek representations of old age also revealed practical worries. In ancient Greece, a son's coming of age did not absolve him of legally enforced filial duties. Greek drama emphasized that every hero's death deprived his father of threpteria, or support in old age. "Sons formed the only pension plan available to the elderly" (Falkner and de Luce, p. 15). While care of older family members also fell to Roman children, the absolute power of the Roman paterfamilias, who retained authority over his children as long as he lived, intensified the fires of intergenerational conflict (Bertman). Roman comedy, which openly flaunted rules of respect for elders, mercilessly portrayed old men as weak fools or aging lovers as objects of ridicule.

The evidence on attitudes toward and conditions of older women in Greco-Roman antiquity is scanty yet suggestive. Greek idealization of young men and emphasis on female fertility weighed against cultural appreciation for older women. Yet, postmenopausal women of substance may have experienced unusual freedom in a male-dominated, hierarchical society. Despite the literary contempt that older Roman women received, those with the necessary resources and relations apparently achieved a measure of personal freedom after the constraints of spousal roles and motherhood were removed (Falkner and de Luce). Roman custom accorded respect and authority to aging women and expected sons to support their older mothers (Banner). Even prior to menopause, Roman women did not experience the same exclusion from education or power that Greek women suffered.

The ancients divided the cycle of human life into ages or stages, each corresponding to a generation, each possessing its own set of natural characteristics. Aristotle formalized this threefold division in the Rhetoric. Hippocrates' four physiologically determined ages was the most common scheme until the late Middle Ages, when Ptolemy's astrologically based system of seven ages was translated into the vernacular and eventually immortalized by Shakespeare's cynical Jaques:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. (As You Like It, Act II, vii)

In De Senectute (On Old Age), Cicero identified the philosophical bedrock beneath these ages-of-life schemes, that is, the belief that despite the diversity of size, appearance, ability, and behavior that characterizes the different stages, the human life span constitutes a single natural order. "Life's racecourse is fixed," he wrote, "nature has only a single path and that path is run but once, and to each stage of existence has been allotted its appropriate quality" (cited in Burrow, p. 1).

Ancient writers such as Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates, and Cicero also sought to explain the nature and causes of aging. Associating old age with "dryness" and "coldness," they saw aging as a process of diminution of vital heat or fluids.

Medieval Societies

In the Middle Ages, Christian writers took up these explanations and added a supernatural cause—the Fall of Man. According to Saint Augustine, sickness, aging, and death were unknown in the Garden of Eden; they entered the world after the sin of Adam (Post). While Christian theology considered aging a punishment for original sin, medieval writers also envisioned the journey of life as a sacred pilgrimage to God and eternal judgment. Thus Christian writers fashioned a vision encompassing both physical decline and the possibility of spiritual ascent (Cole).

For the period after the decline of the Roman Empire and the emergence of a decentralized feudal society in Europe, generalizations about the material conditions of older people become even more perilous. The practical experiences of growing old in the chaotic and often violent Middle Ages are difficult to isolate. Early wills reveal the practice of notarizing contracts by which middle-aged peasants agreed to maintain their parents. This was a sign that loss of property or physical vitality rendered older people vulnerable. Such negotiated retirement practices were apparently most common among urban artisans and merchants (Troyansky). To date, there is little evidence on the socioeconomic status of older women in the Middle Ages. While old women and widows were cruelly attacked in both high and popular culture, older widows of substance may have often maintained the authority of their late husbands, while poor, single women and widows became even more vulnerable.

Early Modern Society

Early modern Europe—the age of Montaigne and Shakespeare, of Petrarch and the revival of Ciceronian Stoicism, and later of the Protestant Reformation—was an age of widely disparate images of old age (Troyansky). It was also the period when quintessentially modern ideas and images of the human lifetime were born (Cole). During the Reformation, the traditionally circular representations of life's stages were recast iconographically into a rising and falling staircase, a visual map of the life course, complete with virtues and vices for each stage of life. This new iconography encouraged urban burghers to envision life as a career, a sequence of events over which individuals had some control. Long before longevity became a realistic expectation, Protestant writers and artists urged people to seek a long, orderly, and stable life. They wove together qualifications for salvation with requirements for longevity, thus drawing the cultural cognitive maps for the secular, institutionalized life course of the modern era.

Historians no longer identify the transition to modernity as the key to understanding changes in the lives of older people. In the shift from rural, communal, preindustrial to urban, individualist, industrial society, old people did not simply lose venerated positions of power or security and become scorned outcasts of the past (Stearns). While historians have spilled considerable ink debating the power and status of older people in North America since the colonial period, we still lack sufficient empirical data to justify strong generalizations (Achenbaum; Fischer; Haber).

It is clear, however, that the experience of growing old in modernizing Western societies was shaped by basic changes in the structure of the life course conceptualized not simply as an aggregate of individuals, but as "a pattern of rules ordering a key dimension of life" (Kohli, p. 271). Beginning in the late eighteenth century, shifts in demography and family life, as well as the growth of age-stratified systems of public rights and duties, forged the modern life course. Demographically, age at death was transformed from a pattern of relative randomness to one of predictability (Imhoff). Average life expectancy rose dramatically, especially after 1900. By the mid-twentieth century, death struck primarily in old age, and with much less variance than in the past. (The AIDS [acquired immunodeficiency syndrome] epidemic that began in the 1980s altered this trend.) Meanwhile, the experience of a modern family cycle (including marriage, children, survival of both spouses to age fifty-five, "empty nest," and widowhood) became increasingly common and standardized (Hareven and Adams).

Modern Society

In the century roughly between 1870 and 1970, the social transition to adulthood (end of school, first job, first marriage) became more abrupt and uniform for a growing segment of the population. At the same time, the spread of universal, age-homogeneous public school and chronologically triggered public pension systems divided the life course into three "boxes": education, work, and retirement. In the modern life course, old age was transformed from a cultural category and a negotiated phase of work and family life into a separate, bureaucratically defined segment of the life course.

The rise of the welfare state facilitated the creation of old age as the capstone of the institutionalized life course. Following the example of Germany (in 1889) and other industrial democracies (e.g., Great Britain, 1908; Austria, 1909; France, 1910; the Netherlands, 1913), the United States instituted a national pension system in 1935 through its Social Security Act (Quadagno). In linking retirement benefits to a specific age, public pension systems provided the economic basis for a chronologically defined phase of life beyond gainful employment. During the middle third of the twentieth century, this "new" phase of life became a mass phenomenon. Increasing life expectancy, the dramatic growth of the elderly population, the spread of retirement benefits, the emergence (in 1965) of Medicare and Medicaid to help defray medical costs, a booming nursing-home industry, and the rise of gerontology as an area of scientific research and professional service transformed old age into the final stage of the institutionalized life course.

By the mid-1970s, increasing longevity, economic security, and medical care available to most older people testified to the success of welfare-state policies. Shortly thereafter, however, economic troubles, initially provoked by the 1973 oil crisis, helped undermine the political legitimacy of old age (Minkler). To a number of critics, an aging society threatened the welfare of other age groups. These critics, who focused on Social Security and Medicare, blamed the deteriorating condition of children and families on the graying of the federal budget, and raised questions of generational equity (Longman). Heightened awareness of an aging population blended silently with fears of nuclear holocaust, environmental deterioration, economic decline, social conflict, and cultural decadence.

Fears about the economic consequences of an aging society framed in terms of generational equity seemed especially troubling, because modern U.S. culture offered no convincing answers to questions of meaning or purpose in old age. During the long period between the Reformation and the modern welfare state, old age was removed from its ambiguous place in life's journey, rationalized, and redefined as a scientific problem. The triumph of mass longevity was not accompanied by culturally rich notions of what old age could or should mean for individuals or society. Instead, modern old age became a permanent threshold, marked by exit but devoid of entry into a world of shared ideals, a season without a purpose.

In the early twenty-first century, which coincides with the end of the modern era, we are living through a search for ideals and roles in later life—a search involving renewed concern about the moral and spiritual dimensions of growing old (Cole). The outcome of this search, which attempts to integrate the ancient value of submission to natural limits with the modern value of unlimited individual development, will influence the answers to many pressing ethical questions in our aging society (Moody).

thomas r. cole

martha holstein (1995)

bibliography revised

SEE ALSO: Autonomy; Death; Future Generations, Reproductive Technologies and Obligations to; Harmful Substances, Legal Control of; Human Dignity; International Health; Justice; Life, Quality of; Natural Law; Population Ethics; Right to Die, Policy and Law; and other Aging and the Aged subentries


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