The aging of the U.S. population has significant ramifications for institutions such as business, education, the healthcare industry, and the family, as well as for the many cultural norms and traditions that focus on interactions with and social roles for older people. “Old” is a socially defined concept, and the way we think about aging is likely to change as the population ages.
- 13.0: Prelude to Aging and the Elderly
- People over ninety years of age now account for 4.7 percent of the older population, defined as age sixty-five or above; this percentage is expected to reach 10 percent by the year 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau 2011). As of 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 14.1 percent of the total U.S. population is sixty-five years old or older.
- 13.1: Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society
- Many media portrayals of the elderly reflect negative cultural attitudes toward aging. In the United States, society tends to glorify youth and associate it with beauty and sexuality. In comedies, the elderly are often associated with grumpiness or hostility. Rarely do the roles of older people convey the fullness of life experienced by seniors—as employees, lovers, or the myriad roles they have in real life. What values does this reflect?
- 13.2: The Process of Aging
- Through the phases of the life course, dependence and independence levels change. At birth, newborns are dependent on caregivers for everything. As babies become toddlers and toddlers become adolescents and then teenagers, they assert their independence more and more. Gradually, children come to be considered adults, responsible for their own lives, although the point at which this occurs is widely varied among individuals, families, and cultures.
- 13.3: Challenges Facing the Elderly
- Aging comes with many challenges. The loss of independence is one potential part of the process, as are diminished physical ability and age discrimination. The term senescence refers to the aging process, including biological, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual changes. This section discusses some of the challenges we encounter during this process.
- 13.4: Theoretical Perspectives on Aging
- What roles do individual senior citizens play in your life? How do you relate to and interact with older people? What role do they play in neighborhoods and communities, in cities and in states? Sociologists are interested in exploring the answers to questions such as these through three different perspectives: functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory.
Thumbnail: How old is this woman? In modern U.S. society, appearance is not a reliable indicator of age. In addition to genetic differences, health habits, hair dyes, Botox, and the like make traditional signs of aging increasingly unreliable. (Photo courtesy of the Sean and Lauren Spectacular/flickr)