The Evolution of “Aging”


By Katherine Ott SUMMER 2009


Old age, the state formerly known as senility, dotage, or one’s winter years, is undergoing an unprecedented makeover.  The language of aging is changing, attitudes and perceptions are changing, and physical and social experiences are changing.   Retirees of today and the future will revise much of the received wisdom about aging—they will bring aging “back from the dead.” To grasp the depth of these changes and to prepare our thinking about the future attitudes toward aging, it is illuminating to look at historical perspectives on aging.

The ageism of which we are inheritors dates from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Before the mid-18th century, “old age,” typically age 50 and beyond because life expectancy was much shorter, was unusual and considered a blessing, though a somewhat mixed one, from God.   Those older adults who did live beyond 50 were considered fortunate, even if physically afflicted, and were seen as assets in terms of their capacity to transmit memory and traditions to succeeding generations.  They were usually accorded a special status in the workplace and in the community.   But mid- and late-19th-century capitalism produced forces that contributed to age discrimination.  With the adoption of high-speed machinery and factory efficiency during the Industrial Revolution, managers and owners saw older workers as problems rather than assets.  Unlike the earlier craft tradition that depended on master craftsmen with years of experience to train the next generation of young apprentices, older workers were less useful in a highly industrialized work environment.  The new system did not need the knowledge rooted in the hands of those who had made furniture or flatware or shoes for many years. A mechanized die could cut the shoe parts just as well as scissors, and younger men, eager for wages, would work for less. Unions fought this inevitable devaluation of skills for decades; eventually seniority, or length of time on the job, substituted for expertise as an important way to calculate a worker’s value.

Attitudes that marginalized older adults intensified in the Victorian era as several new assumptions about health and the body in general became entrenched, resulting in a growing hostility toward aging—hostility not toward the aged but toward the inevitable bodily changes.  Leading health reformers such as Sylvester Graham and Russell Trall, both of whom were born in Connecticut, inadvertently influenced the trend toward negative attitudes about aging.

Sylvester Graham, born in West Suffield in 1794, was a Presbyterian minister who advocated for a life lived in keeping with Biblical teachings that addressed temperance, moderation, and rejection of various “modern” indulgences such as over-eating and alcohol consumption.  He rejected refined foods, especially commercial bread with its additives. Graham urged the use of whole-wheat flour without the whiteners and other chemical treatments that had come into common use. His flour became famous as Graham flour. His eponymous crackers are still popular today, although he would likely not approve the varieties dipped in chocolate or sugar or roasted with marshmallows. Trall, born in Vernon, Connecticut in 1812, was a physician, a Graham acolyte and a proponent of vegetarianism who claimed that people are “naturally” healthy and could achieve a long and robust life by various means such as vegetarianism, cold-water bathing, lung exercises, and a variety of other regimens.

The impact of Graham, Trall, and other health reformers of their time is hard to underestimate.  They planted the seeds of the notion that moral living and personal responsibility lead to wellness. Those seeds bore unintended fruit as a new stigma attached to the cumulative conditions associated with being older, such as arthritis, stroke, and loss of muscle and nerve agility.   Disease began to be viewed as a transgression and an individual failing, as was the mere fact of senescence. The natural bodily changes that came with age gradually came to be defined as afflictions and conditions of which to be ashamed.

By the mid-20th century, being old was an individual rather than a communal experience.  Sentimental images of wisdom, the old sage, the revered elder with a lifetime’s accumulation of wealth and influence were displaced by the decrepit “old geezer.”   These attitudes became embedded in attitudes and policies that assumed older adults to be burdensome and dependent.  Communities saw the “old-age home” as a depository for elderly people who had no family or financial means.

We have inherited the prevailing 19th- and 20th-century attitudes about debility and aging.   But those attitudes are now being challenged by the health, fitness, diversity, and large numbers of today’s older adults.  Benefiting from advances in nutrition, medical care, and work conditions, increasing numbers of adults previously considered “elderly” are living independently, experiencing relatively good health, and participating actively in economic and community life. In many states the fastest growing portion of the population is also the oldest:  By the year 2030 one in every four Americans will be older than 60.

The current “age wave” shifts our perspective as Baby Boomers become what a generation ago we called “senior citizens.”  This new, enormous generation of healthier, fit, and expressive older adults is proving those attitudes to be historical artifacts.  The generation that said “Don’t trust anyone over 30” when they were 20 is now redefining at what age they themselves become “old.”

Assumptions about aging as a declining stage are being superseded by alternatives that offer older people new possibilities for how and when they get old.   Many trends underway reflect new attitudes:  “encore” careers, university-based lifelong learning institutes, Elderhostel and other experiential learning programs, increases in older-adult enrollment in community colleges, bone replacements and reconstructive surgery, older adult business entrepreneurs, vital aging networks, intergenerational activities, and expanding older adult participation in artistic and creative activities all speak to the sentiment that old age is not a time to wind down. Just as people with disabilities are rejecting definitions of themselves as being ill, so, too, older people are beginning to recognize that age, in and of itself, is not an affliction but in fact may be a new beginning.

One of the most interesting—and, to the experts, surprising—recent trends is the phenomenon of “aging in place.”  Today’s older adults are less inclined to move to age-segregated communities or particular parts of the country that used to be associated with retirement than they are to remain in their own homes and serve as active participants in their communities.

The new attitudes about aging are not only a function of greater health and increased longevity.  Since the 1950s, scientists and other researchers have significantly altered our understanding of humans’ physical and cognitive capacities as we age and have come up with ways to treat or mitigate many of the effects of aging.  Understanding of everything from memory, athleticism, and sex drive to creativity and reproduction has undergone revision.  For a medical historian such as myself, there are dozens of histories waiting to be written and revised and revised again.  I am thinking of such innovations as pacemakers and heart valves, lens implants, insulin, advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment, surgical interventions, rehabilitation medicine, and organ transplants.  Health reformers such as Graham and Trall, who focused on behavior, have been replaced by a new generation of specialists in a variety of disciplines—chemistry, psychology, reconstructive surgery, cardiology, geriatrics, and medical technology—who see aging as an increasingly important part of the life cycle, offering new opportunities for human development, self-discovery, and renewal.

People have always gotten old, but today they are doing so differently.   Today’s retirees want to rock and roll.  The new generation of retirees, a generation that is used to turning things on their head, is becoming older en masse.   They are rewriting the narrative about aging, focusing on action and purpose and vitality.  They will turn around our thinking about aging.

Katherine Ott is curator, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, specializing in the history of the body, disability, ethnic and folk medicine, medical technology, and visual and material culture.  She is author of Fevered Lives, Tuberculosis in American Culture Since 1870 and co-author of Glued to the Page: Scrapbooks in America.


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