Skip to main content
9.S: Aging and the Elderly (Summary)
- Last updated
Save as PDF
- Gerontology is the study of aging. Gerontologists study the biological, psychological, and social dimensions of aging. Social gerontologists focus on social aging and distinguish several dimensions of aging, which refers to changes in people’s roles and relationships as they age.
- The perception and experience of aging vary from one society to another and within a given society over time. Studies of preindustrial societies indicate that at least two factors affect the perception of aging and the aged. The first is the physical and mental health of older people. When their health is better, the perception of them is more positive. The second is the status of a society’s economy. The better the economy, the more wealth elders have and the less of a burden they are on relatives and others, and the more positive the view of aging and the elderly. Changes in a society’s economy or in other aspects of its social structure can affect how it views its older population.
- Ancient Greece and Rome respected their elders but at the same time extolled youthfulness and considered old age a declining period of life. The Middle Ages were a time of great disease, starvation, and other problems, and so the elderly were considered a burden. The Puritans of Massachusetts venerated their older members, who had considerable property, but this respect lessened as the new United States put more emphasis on equality and democracy and as industrialization in the 19th century put more money in the hands of young capitalists.
- Sociological explanations of aging include disengagement theory, activity theory, and conflict theory. Disengagement theory emphasizes the need of society to disengage its elders from their previous roles to pave the way for a younger and presumably more able generation to take over those roles. In contrast, activity theory assumes that elders need to remain active to enhance their physical and mental health. Conflict theory emphasizes ageism, or discrimination and prejudice against the elderly, and the structural barriers society poses to elders’ economic and other aspects of overall well-being.
- Life expectancy differs dramatically around the world and within the United States, where it’s lower for men and lower for people of color. Because life expectancy has increased, people are living longer, resulting in a “graying of society.” In the United States, the imminent entrance of the baby boom generation into its older years will further fuel a large rise in the number of older Americans. This “graying of society” may strain traditional economic and medical programs for their care and affect views of aging and the elderly.
- Although aging involves several physiological and psychological changes, negative stereotypes of aging and the elderly exaggerate the extent and impact of these changes. Proper exercise, nutrition, and stress reduction can minimize the effects of aging, as can religious involvement and informal social support networks.
- As a diverse group, the U.S. elderly differ greatly in terms of wealth and poverty, education, health, and other dimensions. They face several problems because of their age, including illness and disability, financial security, employment obstacles, and elder abuse. For several reasons, older Americans generally hold more conservative views on social and moral issues. At the same time, groups working on behalf of older Americans in the political arena have succeeded in bringing elder issues to the attention of public officials and political parties.
- As the ranks of older Americans swell in the years ahead, elders will be better educated and wealthier than their predecessors, but their sheer numbers may impose considerable strain on social institutions. Already there are signs of perceived conflict between the needs of the elderly and those of younger generations. However, advocates for older Americans believe that efforts to help elders now will in the long run help younger Americans when they finally reach their old age.