Sunday, January 15, 2006


Gerontology, a field that is defined as "the scientific study of the processes and phenomena of aging," originated as a unique area of research and service at the end of World War II. The cause of this development rested in part with the growth of the older population, which increased almost 60 percent, from 7.8 million persons over 65 to 12.4 million, in the brief span of 15 years between 1935 and 1950. The growth of the Social Security system and the increasing recognition of elderly people's need for support services further strengthened consciousness about the subject of aging. As early as 1945 researchers and providers of professional aging services came together to form the Gerontological Society of America, and the following year this organization launched the Journal of Gerontology. The federal government's commitment to aging, which began with passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, was boosted to a new and higher level by the White House Conference on Aging of 1951 and 1961. Another White House Conference was held in 1971, but in the meanwhile Congress had adopted the Older Americans Act that provided for the establishment of a U.S. Department on Aging, introduced the Medicare system to provide health insurance for the elderly under the umbrella of the Social Security system, and passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Following the 1971 White House Conference, Congress indexed Social Security benefits to the cost of living, and later approved the Employees Retirement Security Act. All of these events greatly strengthened America's awareness of aging as a new factor in society and brought the field of gerontology to full maturity. A distinctive feature of gerontology is its broad inclusion of the wide range of specialties engaged in research and service to the aged. Whereas most professional societies focus narrowly on one particular field (for example, law, or medicine, or nursing, or psychology, or history), the leadership in gerontology has insisted on an interdisciplinary approach that encompasses four areas: the physical (including biological research and medicine), the psychological, the social psychological, and the social (human services as well as sociological research). As a consequence, the annual meetings of the Gerontological Society of America include a pleasing diversity of subjects and attract social workers, psychologists, sociologists, physicians, physiologists, scholars in literature and the humanities, operators of nursing homes and retirement communities and other services for older persons, and personnel at all levels of government. The annual meeting of this society provides an exceptionally diverse arena for thought and action on behalf of aging.
The root idea that animates this broadly representative organization is that a simple "maturation-maturity" model of aging, one that merely concentrates on physical change to describe later life, cannot adequately cover the full range of human experience in the advanced years. Psychological aspects of aging, for example, go beyond neurological changes in the structure of the brain to include the way that people think and feel and how the personality develops as one grows older. Besides this, people in society carry certain attitudes about aging, and there are specific social definitions, such as the one in Social Security, which has established 65 as the age for full retirement benefits, that define the characteristics, experience, and process of growing old. All of these factors must be considered if one is to understand aging and to create a satisfactory quality to late life.
Gerontologists recognize, also, that there is great variability in the way that people age. Physically, for example, diastolic blood pressure in men can vary from 45 to 105, and when one takes this type of variation into account along with other factors and experiences in life (i.e., being rich or being poor, divorced or married, living in a family or alone, etc.) it is obvious that no two persons can age in exactly the same way. Research clearly shows that most people age comfortably and enjoyably, but the way that each individual ages is unique.
Along with the uniqueness of the experience of aging, it is also true that the life of older people has improved markedly in the last 30 to 50 years. Not only are people living longer, remaining more healthy, and having a more financially secure old age, but according to a national poll conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, the old realize that things are better now than they were for past generations. For the future, the wide-ranging activities of gerontologists will help to combat stereotypes and misinformation, increase fundamental knowledge of life processes, and help to establish an even higher quality of life for oncoming generations of older people. Gerontology stands out as a key agent in the effort to bring about a satisfying future for the growing older population.
Atchley, R. C. Social Forces and Aging, 4th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1985.
Ward. R. A. The Aging Experience, 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.


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