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Chapter 6


Aging and Ageism

Social Problems in the News


“Still Working: Economy Forcing Retirees to Re-enter Workforce,” the headline said. The story featured four seniors, ranging in age from 66 to their eighties, in southern California who had retired several years ago but were now trying to get back into the labor force. Because of the faltering economy and rising costs, they were having trouble affording their retirement. They were also having trouble finding a job, in part because they lacked the computer skills that are virtually a necessity in today’s world to find and perform a job. One of the unemployed seniors was a retired warehouse worker who did not know how to fill out a job application online. He said, “To say I have computer skills—no, I don’t. But I can learn. I will do anything to get work.” An official in California’s Office on Aging indicated that employers who hire older people would be happy they did so: “You know the person’s going to come in and you know they’re going to accomplish something while they’re there. And, they are a wellspring of knowledge.”

Source: Barkas, 2011 [1]

The number of older Americans is growing rapidly. As this news story suggests, they have much to contribute to our society. Yet they also encounter various problems because of their advanced age. We appreciate our elderly but also consider them something of a burden. We also hold unfortunate stereotypes of them and seemingly view old age as something to be shunned. Television commercials and other advertisements extol the virtues of staying young by “washing away the gray” and by removing all facial wrinkles. In our youth-obsessed culture, older people seem to be second-class citizens. This chapter discusses views about aging and the ways in which old age is a source of inequality.


[1] Barkas, S. (2011, September 5). Still working: Economy forcing retirees to re-enter workforce. The Desert Sun. Retrieved from http://www.mydesert.com.

6.1 The Concept and Experience of Aging



LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Define social gerontology.

  2. Distinguish biological aging, psychological aging, and social aging.

Here is why you should want to know about aging and the problems older people face: You will be old someday. At least you will be old if you do not die prematurely from an accident, cancer, a heart attack, some other medical problem, murder, or suicide. Although we do not often think about aging when we are in our late teens and early twenties, one of our major goals in life is to become old. By studying age and aging and becoming familiar with some of the problems facing the elderly now and in the future, we are really studying something about ourselves and a stage in the life course we all hope to reach.

The study of aging is so important and popular that it has its own name, gerontologySocial gerontology is the study of the social aspects of aging (Novak, 2012). [1] The scholars who study aging are called gerontologists. The people they study go by several names, most commonly “older people,” “elders,” and “the elderly.” The latter term is usually reserved for those 65 or older, while “older people” and “elders” often include people in their fifties as well as those 60 or older.



Dimensions of Aging

Age and aging have four dimensions. The dimension most of us think of is chronological age, defined as the number of years since someone was born. A second dimension is biological aging, which refers to the physical changes that “slow us down” as we get into our middle and older years. For example, our arteries might clog up, or problems with our lungs might make it more difficult for us to breathe. A third dimension, psychological aging, refers to the psychological changes, including those involving mental functioning and personality, that occur as we age. Gerontologists emphasize that chronological age is not always the same thing as biological or psychological age. Some people who are 65, for example, can look and act much younger than some who are 50.

The fourth dimension of aging is social. Social aging refers to changes in a person’s roles and relationships, both within their networks of relatives and friends and in formal organizations such as the workplace and houses of worship. Although social aging can differ from one individual to another, it is also profoundly influenced by the perception of aging that is part of a society’s culture. If a society views aging positively, the social aging experienced by individuals in that society will be more positive and enjoyable than in a society that views aging negatively. As we shall see, though, the perception of aging in the United States is not very positive, with important consequences for our older citizens.

KEY TAKEAWAYS


  • The study of the elderly and aging helps us understand problems in a state of the life course we all hope to reach.

  • Biological aging refers to the physical changes that accompany the aging process, while psychological aging refers to the psychological changes that occur.

  • Social aging refers to the changes in a person’s roles and relationships as the person ages.

FOR YOUR REVIEW

  1. Think about an older person whom you know. To what extent has this person experienced psychological aging? To what extent has this person experienced social aging?

  2. The text states that the perception of aging in the United States is not very positive. What do you think accounts for this?

[1] Novak, M. (2012). Issues in aging (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.



6.2 Perspectives on Aging



LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. State the assumptions of disengagement, activity, and conflict theories of aging.

  2. Critically assess these three theories.

Recall that social aging refers to changes in people’s roles and relationships in a society as they age. Social gerontologists have tried to explain how and why the aging process in the United States and other societies occurs. Their various explanations, summarized in Table 6.1 "Theory Snapshot", help us understand patterns of social aging. They fall roughly into either the functionalist, social interactionist, or conflict approaches discussed in Chapter 1 "Understanding Social Problems".

Table 6.1 Theory Snapshot



Theoretical perspective

Major assumptions

Disengagement theory

To enable younger people to assume important roles, a society must encourage its older people to disengage from their previous roles and to take on roles more appropriate to their physical and mental decline. This theory is considered a functionalist explanation of the aging process.

Activity theory

Older people benefit themselves and their society if they continue to be active. Their positive perceptions of the aging process are crucial to their ability to remain active. This theory is considered an interactionist explanation of the aging process.

Conflict theory

Older people experience age-based prejudice and discrimination. Inequalities among the aged exist along the lines of gender, race/ethnicity, and social class. This theory falls into the more general conflict theory of society.

One of the first explanations was called disengagement theory (Cumming & Henry, 1961). [1] This approach assumed that all societies must find ways for older people’s authority to give way to younger people. A society thus encourages its elderly to disengage from their previous roles and to take on roles more appropriate to their physical and mental decline. In this way, a society effects a smooth transition of its elderly into a new, more sedentary lifestyle and ensures that their previous roles will be undertaken by a younger generation that is presumably more able to carry out these roles. Because disengagement theory assumes that social aging preserves a society’s stability and that a society needs to ensure that disengagement occurs, it is often considered a functionalist explanation of the aging process.

A critical problem with this theory was that it assumes that older people are no longer capable of adequately performing their previous roles. However, older people in many societies continue to perform their previous roles quite well. In fact, society may suffer if its elderly do disengage, as it loses their insight and wisdom. It is also true that many elders cannot afford to disengage from their previous roles; if they leave their jobs, they are also leaving needed sources of income, as the opening news story discussed, and if they leave their jobs and other roles, they also reduce their social interaction and the benefits it brings.

Today most social gerontologists prefer activity theory, which assumes that older people benefit both themselves and their society if they remain active and try to continue to perform the roles they had before they aged (Choi & Kim, 2011). [2] As they perform their roles, their perception of the situations they are in is crucial to their perception of their aging and thus to their self-esteem and other aspects of their psychological well-being. Because activity theory focuses on the individual and her or his perception of the aging process, it is often considered a social interactionist explanation of social aging.

One criticism of activity theory is that it overestimates the ability of the elderly to maintain their level of activity: Although some elders can remain active, others cannot. Another criticism is that activity theory is too much of an individualistic approach, as it overlooks the barriers many societies place to successful aging. Some elders are less able to remain active because of their poverty, gender, and social class, as these and other structural conditions may adversely affect their physical and mental health. Activity theory overlooks these conditions.

Explanations of aging grounded in conflict theory put these conditions at the forefront of their analyses. A conflict theory of aging, then, emphasizes the impact of ageism, or negative views about old age and prejudice and discrimination against the elderly (Novak, 2012). [3] According to this view, older workers are devalued because they are no longer economically productive and because their higher salaries (because of their job seniority), health benefits, and other costs drive down capitalist profits. Conflict theory also emphasizes inequality among the aged along gender, race/ethnicity, and social class lines. Reflecting these inequalities in the larger society, some elders are quite wealthy, but others are very poor.

One criticism of conflict theory is that it blames ageism on modern, capitalist economies. However, negative views of the elderly also exist to some extent in modern, socialist societies and in preindustrial societies. Capitalism may make these views more negative, but such views can exist even in societies that are not capitalistic.



KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Disengagement theory assumes that all societies must find ways for older people’s authority to give way to younger people. A society thus encourages its elderly to disengage from their previous roles and to take on roles more appropriate to their physical and mental decline.

  • Activity theory assumes that older people will benefit both themselves and their society if they remain active and try to continue to perform the roles they had before they aged.

FOR YOUR REVIEW

  1. Which theory of aging—disengagement theory, activity theory, or conflict theory—makes the most sense to you? Why?

[1] Cumming, E., & Henry, W. E. (1961). Growing old: The process of disengagement. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[2] Choi, N. G., & Kim, J. (2011). The effect of time volunteering and charitable donations in later life on psychological wellbeing. Ageing & Society, 31(4), 590–610.

[3] Novak, M. (2012). Issues in aging (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.



6.3 Life Expectancy and the Graying of Society



LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Describe the differences in life expectancy around the world.

  2. List the potential problems associated with the growing proportion of older individuals in poor nations.

  3. Explain the evidence for inequality in US life expectancy.

When we look historically and cross-culturally, we see that old age is a relative term, since few people in preindustrial times or in poor countries today reach the age range that most Americans would consider to be old, say 65 or older. When we compare contemporary societies, we find that life expectancy, or the average age to which people can be expected to live, varies dramatically across the world. As Figure 6.1 "Average Life Expectancy across the Globe (Years)" illustrates, life expectancy in North America, most of Europe, and Australia averages 75 years or more, while life expectancy in most of Africa averages less than 60 years (Population Reference Bureau, 2011). [1]

Figure 6.1 Average Life Expectancy across the Globe (Years)

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig06_001.jpg

Source: Adapted from Population Reference Bureau. (2011). The world at 7 billion: World population data sheet: Life expectancy. Retrieved from http://www.prb.org/publications/datasheets/2011/world-population-data-sheet/world-map.aspx#/map/lifeexp.
What accounts for these large disparities? The major factor is the wealth or poverty of a nation, as the wealthiest nations have much longer life expectancies than the poorest ones. This is true because, as Chapter 2 "Poverty" noted, the poorest nations by definition have little money and few other resources. They suffer from hunger, AIDS, and other diseases, and they lack indoor plumbing and other modern conveniences found in almost every home in the wealthiest nations. As a result, they have high rates of infant and childhood mortality, and many people who make it past childhood die prematurely from disease, starvation, and other problems.

These differences mean that few people in these societies reach the age of 65 that Western nations commonly mark as the beginning of old age. Figure 6.2 "Percentage of Population Aged 65 or Older, 2011" depicts the percentage of each nation’s population that is 65 or older. Not surprisingly, the nations of Africa have very low numbers of people 65 or older. In Uganda, for example, only 3 percent of the population is at least 65, compared to 13 percent of Americans and 20–21 percent of Germans and Italians.



Figure 6.2 Percentage of Population Aged 65 or Older, 2011

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig06_002.jpg

Source: Adapted from Population Reference Bureau. (2011). 2011 world population data sheet. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved fromhttp://www.prb.org/pdf11/2011population-data-sheet_eng.pdf.

Despite these international disparities, life expectancy overall has been increasing around the world. It was only 46 years worldwide in the early 1950s but was 69 in 2009 and is expected to reach about 75 by 2050 (Population Reference Bureau, 2011). [2] This means that the number of people 65 or older is growing rapidly; they are expected to reach almost 1.5 billion worldwide by 2050, three times their number today and five times their number just twenty years ago (United Nations Population Division, 2011). [3] Despite international differences in life expectancy and the elderly percentage of the population, the world as a whole is decidedly “graying,” with important implications for the cost and quality of elder care and other issues.

As life expectancy rises in poor nations, these nations will experience special problems (Hayutin, 2007). [4] One problem will involve paying for the increased health care that older people in these nations will require. Because these nations are so poor, they will face even greater problems than the industrial world in paying for such care and for other programs and services their older citizens will need. Another problem stems from the fact that many poor nations are beginning or continuing to industrialize and urbanize. As they do so, traditional family patterns, including respect for the elderly and the continuation of their roles and influence, may weaken. One reason for this is that urban families have smaller dwelling units in which to accommodate their elderly relatives and lack any land onto which they can build new housing. Families in poor nations will thus find it increasingly difficult to accommodate their elders.

Life Expectancy in the United States

Life expectancy has been increasing in the United States along with the rest of the world (see Figure 6.3 "Changes in US Life Expectancy at Birth, 1900–2010"). It rose rapidly in the first half of the twentieth century and has increased steadily since then. From a low of 47.3 years in 1900, it rose to about 71 years in 1970 and 77 years in 2000 and to more than 78 years in 2010. Americans born in 2010 will thus be expected to live about 31 years longer than those born a century earlier.




Figure 6.3 Changes in US Life Expectancy at Birth, 1900–2010

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig06_003.jpg

Sources: Data from Arias, E. (2010). United States life tables, 2006. National Vital Statistics Reports, 58(21), 1–40.

During the next few decades, the numbers of the elderly will increase rapidly thanks to the large baby boom generation born after World War II (from 1946 to 1964) that is now entering its mid-sixties. Figure 6.4 "Past and Projected Percentage of US Population Aged 65 or Older, 1900–2050" shows the rapid rise of older Americans (65 or older) as a percentage of the population that is expected to occur. Elders numbered about 3.1 million in 1900 (4.1 percent of the population), number about 40 million today, and are expected to reach 89 million by 2050 (20.2 percent of the population). The large increase in older Americans overall has been called the graying of America and will have important repercussions for elderly care and other aspects of old age in the United States, as we discuss later.



Figure 6.4 Past and Projected Percentage of US Population Aged 65 or Older, 1900–2050

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig06_004.jpg

Source: Data from Administration on Aging. (n.d.). Projected future growth of the older population by age: 1900–2050. Retrieved from http://www.aoa.gov/AoARoot/Aging_Statistics/future_growth/future_growth.aspx.



Inequality in Life Expectancy

We have seen that inequality in life expectancy exists around the world, with life expectancy lower in poor nations than in wealthy nations. Inequality in life expectancy also exists within a given society along gender, race/ethnicity, and social class lines.

For gender, the inequality is in favor of women, who for both biological and social reasons outlive men across the globe. In the United States, for example, girls born in 2007 could expect to live 80.4 years on the average, but boys only 75.4 years.

In most countries, race and ethnicity combine with social class to produce longer life expectancies for the (wealthier) dominant race, which in the Western world is almost always white. The United States again reflects this international phenomenon: Whites born in 2007 could expect to live 78.4 years on the average, but African Americans only 73.6 years. In fact, gender and race combine in the United States to put African American males at a particular disadvantage, as they can expect to live only 70.0 years (see Figure 6.5 "Sex, Race, and Life Expectancy for US Residents Born in 2007"). The average African American male will die almost 11 years earlier than the average white woman.



Figure 6.5 Sex, Race, and Life Expectancy for US Residents Born in 2007

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig06_005.jpg

Source: Data from National Center for Health Statistics, US Department of Health and Human Services. (2010). Health, United States, 2010, with special feature on death and dying. Retrieved fromhttp://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus10.pdf.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Life expectancy differs widely around the world and is much higher in wealthy nations than in poor nations.

  • Life expectancy has also been increasing around the world, including in the United States, and the increasing number of older people in the decades ahead will pose several serious challenges.

  • Inequality in life expectancy exists within a given society along gender, race/ethnicity, and social class lines.

FOR YOUR REVIEW

  1. As our nation and the world both “gray,” what do you think is the most important problem that will stem from the increasing number of older people?

  2. Write a short essay in which you discuss the problems that an elderly person you know, perhaps a grandparent, has experienced related to being older.

[1] Population Reference Bureau. (2011). 2011 world population data sheet. Washington, DC: Author.

[2] Population Reference Bureau. (2011). 2011 world population data sheet. Washington, DC: Author.

[3] United Nations Population Division. (2011). World population prospects: The 2010 revision. New York, NY: Author.

[4] Hayutin, A. M. (2007). Graying of the global population. Public Policy & Aging Report, 17(4), 12–17.

6.4 Biological and Psychological Aspects of Aging



LEARNING OBJECTIVES


  1. Describe any four biological changes associated with aging.

  2. List any three steps that individuals can try to undertake to achieve successful aging.

Like many other societies, the United States has a mixed view of aging and older people. While we generally appreciate our elderly, we have a culture oriented toward youth, as evidenced by the abundance of television characters in their twenties and lack of those in their older years. As individuals, we do our best not to look old, as the many ads for wrinkle creams and products to darken gray hair attest. Moreover, when we think of the elderly, negative images often come to mind. We often think of someone who has been slowed by age both physically and mentally. She or he may have trouble walking up steps, picking up heavy grocery bags, standing up straight, or remembering recent events. The termsenile often comes to mind, and phrases like “doddering old fool,” “geezer,” and other disparaging remarks sprinkle our language when we talk about them. Meanwhile, despite some improvement, the elderly are often portrayed in stereotypical ways on television and in movies (Lee, Carpenter, & Meyers, 2007). [1]

How true is this negative image? What do we know of physical and psychological changes among the elderly? How much of what we think we know about aging and the elderly is a myth, and how much is reality? Gerontologists have paid special attention to answering these questions (Novak, 2012). [2]

Biological changes certainly occur as we age. The first signs are probably in our appearance. Our hair begins to turn gray, our (male) hairlines recede, and a few wrinkles set in. The internal changes that often accompany aging are more consequential, among them being that (a) fat replaces lean body mass, and many people gain weight; (b) bone and muscle loss occur; (c) lungs lose their ability to take in air, and our respiratory efficiency declines; (d) the functions of the cardiovascular and renal (kidney) systems decline; (e) the number of brain cells declines, as does brain mass overall; and (f) vision and hearing decline. Cognitive and psychological changes also occur. Learning and memory begin declining after people reach their seventies; depression and other mental and/or emotional disorders can set in; and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, can occur.

All these conditions yield statistics such as follows: about half of people 65 or older have arthritis or high blood pressure; almost one-fifth have coronary heart disease; more than one-fifth have diabetes; and about 60 percent of women in their seventies have osteoporosis (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention & The Merck Company Foundation, 2007; Crawthorne, 2008). [3]

Still, the nature and extent of all these changes vary widely among older people. Some individuals are frail at 65, while others remain vigorous well into their seventies and beyond. People can be “old” at 60 or even 50, while others can be “young” at 80. Many elders are no longer able to work, but others remain in the labor force. All in all, then, most older people do not fit the doddering image myth and can still live a satisfying and productive life (Rowe et al., 2010). [4]


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