Sunday, December 11, 2005

Age

Age - One of the most useful and yet misleading of all folk sayings in America relates to age: People often declare "You're as old as you feel!" Psychologists have found this saying to be true in the respect that inwardly people remain "themselves" throughout life. They experience inner continuity as they age irrespective of the way that they change physically and socially. Gray hair, wrinkles, and a bulging waistline may come upon one, others may think of one as "old," and one may even qualify for certain government benefit programs for the elderly and fit into elderly social categories (Social Security or the label "Grandpa" or "Grandma"), but these events do not mean that one has become another person when he or she enters advanced stages of maturity. Inwardly people still feel that they are the same "selves" as they were when they were children, teenagers, young adults, or at any other point on the journey of life.
Yet, this commonplace piece of folk wisdom can be misleading because it may grow out of an attempt to deny to oneself and to everyone else that one has become "old." People do not like to think of themselves as "old," they do not like to be called "old," and many conceal their age throughout their maturity. When people assert that "You're as old as you feel," they often fling the words out aggressively as if to say, "You'd better not say or think that I'm old" no matter how old they may appear to others.
Gerontologists agree with the statement to the extent that they know the way one feels about oneself does not necessarily coincide with one's chronological age (age in years), nor even with one's biological or social age. As a result they use several different terms when they speak of age. One of these is cognitive age. which has been defined as the age that one thinks of oneself as being; often one feels that one is younger than other people who are the same chronological age.
Chronological age is also recognized as a way of classifying people socially; one tends to think of someone under 10 as a child, someone 15 or 16 as a teenager, a person in their forties as middle-aged, and 70- and 80- year-olds as old, and so forth. Chronological age is also used as the official standard for qualifying for certain social services---children must be age 6 to qualify for admission to school in some states, and older people must reach 65 before they qualify for full Social Security benefits.
The tendency to classify people into age categories has also led to the idea of social age. It has been observed that people in different countries, centuries and circumstances have thought about age differently. In Africa, for instance, people have used a system known as functional age as a way of assigning age classifications. Functional age refers to an individual's ability to walk distances and carry out tasks without need to rest.
Different times and societies have looked on the status of being old more or less favorably. Americans tend to view the idea of being old with aversion, but some social groups consider age the greatest period of life. The old hold a high status and are esteemed for their WISDOM because they understand the traditions of their social group, and they stand nearest the ancestors who can help the group in day-to-day life. In some nations with such beliefs the old must be supported by their children, a practice that some gerontologists describe as a kind of social security system.
Yet another concept used in speaking about age scientifically appears in the term age cohort. This applies to people born in a particular year, or set of years, who share in common the experiences of their historical period. While each individual may have experienced his or her times in a unique way, people over 85 in 1991, for example, were born about the time that the Republican Party was ascendant under Teddy Roosevelt, lived through World War I, the Jazz Age, the depression, World War II, the television and computer ages, Vietnam era, etc. The BABY BOOM GENERATION did not experience the depression and the two world wars but came to maturity during the explosion of youth culture and tribulations of the 1960s, lived through the difficulties of the 1970s and early 1980s, and then was able to join in riding on the wave of prosperity of succeeding years.
Because of their times each generation shares unique characteristics. For example, the old are more religious than the young today and have different attitudes about divorce and sex because they grew up in more religious times. New arrivals at age 65 are also less likely to experience poverty than were people who reached 65, and died before the improvements in Social Security benefits adopted in the early 1970s.
Many people in America today think that the old in this country had greater social status and enjoyed better treatment in times gone by, or that the old in nations like Japan are much better off than they are in America. The reality is that the status of older people has changed little in America since at least 1790 and, further, that every country that has become modernized assigns older people a lesser status than they hold in countries that have not yet achieved modernization. The simple fact is that the great majority of Americans long ago did not live long enough to enjoy an old age (the average life expectancy remained less than 50 years until after 1900), and the old did not, as many people think, receive extensive support from nor live with their children.
It was through the introduction of science and technology that the trend toward modernization wiped out the special status for the old. In past times the older population possessed knowledge and skills in crafts and farming that could be learned only slowly over a life time. Today science, technology, and the educational revolution have transferred the highest levels of skills and knowledge to the younger generation. Tied to the superior knowledge and skill of the old was the fact that most people before 1800 were farmers, and the old held the economic power and dominated daily life because they owned the farms. Wherever it has occurred, modernization has destroyed the historic foundations of status for the older generation. This worldwide trend has been rooted in our history, and has made our attitude toward age what it is today.
Yet, whatever changes have occurred in the status of the old since times long ago, old people in America today are better off than they were in the past. As David Wolfe, founder of the National Association of Senior Living Industries, has said, America's old people today are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived older generation in our history. America may not yet have reached the pinnacle of perfection in attitudes, services, and status for the old, but this nation has reached a level where each person as an individual can convert the last years of a long life (a life that has increased more than one-third--over 25 years-in length since the turn of this century) into their best years.
Achenbaum, W. A. Old Age in a New Land: The American Experience Since 1790. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.
Birren, J. E., and Cunningham, W. R. "Research on the Psychology of Aging: Principles, Concepts, and Theory" in Birren, J. E., and Schaie, K. W., eds., Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1985.
Simmons, L. The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945.

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