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Chapter 1 A Cultural Problem The Meaning of Old Age - so quickly meaning


Chapter 1 A Cultural Problem The Meaning of Old Age-so quickly meaning

I. The Backdrop: What we must contend with and why we must act now
Chapter 1 A Cultural Problem
The Meaning of Old Age
Population ageing presents a cultural problem.2 The dramatic increase
in the numbers of people who are making it to their 80s, 90s and beyond
is generating a profound mismatch between the cultural norms that
Laura L. Carstensen and Linda P. Fried guide us through life and the length of our lives.3 Humans are creatures
Even at the beginning of recorded history, a handful of people survived
of culture. We look to culture to tell us when to get an education, marry,
to old age. Many of those who did served important functions in
start families, work and retire.
societies. Elders featured in religious texts, mythology and lore have Because life expectancy has increased so quickly, we are still immersed
been portrayed as prophets, saints, tribal leaders and healers, providing in cultures designed for lives half as long as the ones we are living. The
cultural continuity, wisdom and concern for the common good. Thus, life course itself is a cultural construction. Two hundred years ago,
there is a twist of irony in the fear and anxiety that characterizes human development did not include a distinct stage of life called
contemporary national and international discussions about anticipated "adolescence". There was no more significance afforded to 65 than 55
coming hardships imposed by ageing societies. or 45 years of age. We must ask the question: How can societies and
But a preparatory state aimed solely at bracing for a crisis presents more
individuals profit from old age?
than irony. It ensures that the crisis will arrive. If we are to realize the Yet to approach the topic of population ageing with rose-coloured
potential opportunities older populations offer, we must appreciate how glasses, overlooking the real vulnerabilities associated with advancing
ageing individuals construct meaning in their lives and the social context age, would be foolhardy. Societies today are enormously ill prepared for
that surrounds specific cohorts' collective understanding of ageing. We populations in which there are more people over 60 than under 15. Not
must also actively begin to build infrastructure, norms and policies that only are cultures youth-oriented in the popular sense of favouring the
exploit the potential contributions older people can make to societies.1 young, but physical and social environments and institutions are quite
It is not the case that life has suddenly been extended beyond a point
literally built by and for young populations. The implicit users of
where people can live healthy, productive lives. Indeed, there is no
staircases, automobiles, telephones, furniture, parks, highways, train
reason to believe that the human life span - the length of time the
stations, airports and housing are young people. Workplaces and
species can live - has changed much, if at all, throughout evolutionary
working lives - and even most hospitals - are tailored to those with
history. Until the 20th century, on average, lives were short. Fewer than
considerable endurance.
half of those born reached 50 years of age. What has changed is the Medical science, a key part of culture, has focused on cures for acute
sheer number and proportion of each birth cohort that now routinely live diseases far more than prevention of the chronic diseases that unfold
into their 80s, 90s and 100s. over years and decades. Expectations of workers include speed, agility
In less developed regions of the world, life expectancies remain far
and facility with new learning. Further, many societal roles were
shorter; however, societies there, too, are beginning to live longer and
designed when life expectancy was 47 and without the knowledge of
age rapidly. Within a decade they will be on demographic trajectories
the unique capabilities that older adults could bring to the workplace
that will reshape the distribution of age in every country in the world. The
and society. Though ageism is often invoked as the reason for the focus
profound and global phenomenon driven by ageing will transform all
on youth, and though it may play a role, we live in a world that only
aspects of life.
recently included large numbers of older adults.
Will these changes be for better or for worse? Will such demographic Age-Related Changes in Biological Systems
shifts inevitably burden economies, or offer unparalleled benefits? Will Worlds built for the young are often difficult for the old to navigate.
older people consume resources that would otherwise go to children? Normal ageing brings with it myriad changes, many of which are
Or will older people become the resource children and societies in unwelcome. Slowing is a key hallmark of ageing. The effects are
general so badly need? ubiquitous. People move more slowly, metabolize toxins over longer time
We maintain that if we play our cards right, prolonged lives can allow us
courses. Feeling stiff and sore when you wake in the mornings,
to redesign them in ways that improve quality at all ages and across
recovering from injuries and illness more slowly, straining to hear a
generations. The gift of time we received from our ancestors in the 20th
conversation, reflect "typical" age-related changes. Difficulty retrieving
century presents us with unprecedented opportunities. To be sure,
the name of a person you know well, forgetting why you walked
these opportunities will be missed if we do not begin to prepare for
downstairs as you find yourself at the bottom of a staircase, drifting off
them. The real challenge, as we see it, is only partly about finding ways
as you read the morning paper all represent real consequences of
to care for dependent elderly. Ageing societies will succeed or fail largely
age-related changes in biological systems.
as a function of the new meanings we ascribe to both healthy and Towards the end of life, disease and disability are typical. Thus, older
unhealthy longer lives. societies have greater morbidity and more functional limitations than
younger populations. There is a diminution of physical reserves,
culminating for many, at the end of life, in the onset of frailty, a medical
syndrome of decreased reserves and resilience, and - for some -
disability and loss of independence.4,5 Even those who escape frailty
experience diminished resilience and reserves as they get older.
Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise? 15
I. The Backdrop: What we must contend with and why we must act now
Gains Come with Age Importantly, ageing trajectories also vary wildly across individuals.
The vulnerabilities of ageing must not be overlooked when planning for Scientists have documented considerable variability in older people in
ageing societies. Importantly, however, just as sure as there is loss, there physical, social, emotional and cognitive capacity. This observation is
are gains that come with age. The gains have been largely overlooked. important for at least two reasons. For one, variability speaks against
Paul and Margaret Baltes,6 professors of lifespan development, wrote inevitability. It suggests that ageing per se is not the culprit when
compellingly about the need to recognize the gains and losses inherent negative outcomes arise. Second, variability is far from a random
in all developmental stages. Young people, for example, may be fast and process. It is important to emphasize that, in developed countries such
agile, but they lack experience and knowledge. Their futures demand as the United States, only a fraction of adults 65 and older are frail (7% to
that they focus on their own personal advancement more than the 10% of those in any given community), disabled (20% or less with
broader community. The impressive physical resilience in the young is difficulty or dependency in managing households and/or basic self care,
not matched by emotional resilience, which comes much later in life. We although half may have some difficulty walking), or in need of long-term
do not populate the state and federal courts with 20-year-olds, despite care (5% to 10%).17
their cognitive agility. Individuals who are educated and affluent have less functional disability
In fact, though historically most of the literature on cognitive ageing has and live longer than those who are disadvantaged in society. Not
focused on deficiencies, there is growing literature pointing to unique surprisingly, individuals who exercise regularly are more physically fit
strengths of older adults. As noted above, normal ageing is associated than those who do not, and they also show less cognitive decline- into
with slowed cognitive processing, memory impairment and difficulty the oldest ages. Although age is a powerful predictor of length of life, in
concentrating. Barring dementia, however, knowledge continues to adulthood, education is even better.18
grow. Especially in areas of expertise, practice compensates well for
declines in processing efficiency.7 Experts - whether musicians, chess Understanding Variability
players or scientists - often reach peaks in their advanced years.8 From a societal perspective, variability means that age-based policies,
Even in the general population, vocabularies are larger and knowledge
programmes, beliefs, and communities are inherently problematic.
about the world is greater in the old as compared to the young. Recent
People in their late 60s who are extremely sick, possibly facing the end
findings suggest that older people are more likely to change attitudes in
of their lives, have more in common with 80-year-olds in the same
light of new information,9 and they appear better able to take the
physical state than with healthy counterparts at either age. Discussions
perspective of younger people than younger people are able to adopt
about older workers often draw on literature about cognitive decline in
perspectives of the old.10
the very old when they should be comparing 55- to 65-year-olds with
65- to 75-year-olds, where differences are far smaller and sometimes
Presented with cultural and economic disputes over resources, older non-existent.
people generate more even-handed and acceptable solutions than Frailty is far more frequent among the very old than the young old. Again,
younger counterparts.11 Indeed, there is intriguing evidence that there social class and its correlations place people on very different ageing
may be potential upsides even to deficits, like distractibility. Lynn Hasher trajectories. Thus, forward-thinking societies should plan for older
and her colleagues recently demonstrated that unsuppressed populations that are heterogeneous and develop plans to help those
extraneous information in one situation often becomes relevant and is who need it, while tapping the resources of those who can contribute.
utilized by older adults when solving problems that later arise. In elegant Without doubt, the category of "old age" will be parsed into multiple
experiments, she showed that older people gain advantages from stages, just as adolescence was carved out as a special transitional
access to extraneous information downstream; younger people do not.12
stage into adulthood.
In everyday life, this can be associated with creative problem solving that Because of the magnitude of the demographic shifts underway, ageing
emerges at older ages. Especially in emotionally charged situations, will inevitably have profound implications for entire societies. Societies
older people tend to generate more effective solutions.13 In addition, top heavy with frail, dependent and disengaged people with relatively
emotional experience and emotional balance improve with age. Older few younger people to support them will endure many hardships. We
people have lower rates of clinical depression, anxiety and substance maintain, however, that societies top heavy with experienced citizens will
abuse.14 They regulate their emotions better, avoiding extreme highs and have a resource never before available to our ancestors: large numbers
lows.15 In other words, while ageing is associated with declines in some of people with considerable knowledge, emotional evenness, practical
aspects of cognitive processing, age-related gains also come with age. talents, creative problem-solving ability, commitment to future
Greater understanding of the world coupled with emotional balance and generations, and the motivation to use their abilities can improve
improved perspective is, for many, the definition of wisdom.16
societies in ways never before possible.
16 Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise?
I. The Backdrop: What we must contend with and why we must act now
Understanding the Meaning of Age Endnotes
The meaning of age will continue to be a fluid concept and will be 1 MacArthur Network on an Ageing Society (2009) Facts and fictions about an ageing America.
Contexts, 8(4), 16-21.
constructed through complex and iterative processes for decades, if not 2 Carstensen, L. L. (2011) A long bright future: Happiness, health and financial security in an age of
centuries, to come. As the odds of reaching advanced old age increase increased longevity. New York: Public Affairs.
around the globe, people will gradually come to extend their individual 3 Riley, M. W., Kahn, R. L., Foner, A., & Karin, A. (1994) Age and structural lag: Society's failure to
provide meaningful opportunities in work, family, and leisure. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.
time horizons and engage in more philosophical thinking about the 4 Fried, L.P., et al. (2001) Frailty in older adults: Evidence for a phenotype. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med
meaning of lives that last far longer than ever imagined by our Sci, 56(3), 146-56.
ancestors.19 5 Bandeen-Roche, K., et al. (2006) Phenotype of frailty: characterization in the Women's Health and
Ageing Studies. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci, 61(3), 262-6.
In Europe and the United States, because of their numbers, baby 6 Baltes, P. B. & Baltes, M. M. (1990) Successful ageing: Perspectives from the behavioral sciences.
New York: Cambridge University Press.
boomers will transform the culture of ageing. Because boomers came of 7 Salthouse, T. A. (2010) Major issues in cognitive ageing. New York: Oxford University Press.
age during an historic era of considerable progress in gender and race 8 Ericsson, K. A. & Charness, N. (1994) Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition.
equality, they tend to view themselves as rebellious and "youthful" American Psychologist, 49(8), 725-747.
despite their advancing age. The birth cohorts comprising the boomers 9 Eaton, A. A., Visser, P. S., Krosnick, J. A., & Anand, S. (2009) Social power and attitude strength
identify more strongly with younger generations than older ones and blur over the life course. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(12), 1646-1660.
long-standing lines that mark age.20 10 Sullivan, S. J., Mikels, J. A., & Carstensen, L. L. (2010) You never lose the ages you've been:
Affective perspective taking in older adults. Psychology and Ageing, 25(1), 229-234.
11 Grossmann, I., et al. (2010) Reasoning about social conflicts improves into old age. Proceedings
Future generations will continue to write and rewrite the meaning and of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 107(16), 7246-7250.
purpose of advanced stages of life. Societies that find ways to 12 Thomas, R. C., & Hasher, L. (2011) Reflections of distraction in memory: Transfer of previous
collectively advance new meanings of life that utilize all of their citizens distraction improves recall in younger and older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology:
Learning, Memory, and Cognition. (Advance online publication August 15)
will prosper far more than ones in which social structures constrain 13 Blanchard-Fields, F. (2007) Everyday problem solving and emotion: An adult developmental
contributions. To the extent that societies actively build cultural perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(1), 26-31.
infrastructures that take advantage of new possibilities, they will realize 14 Charles, S. T., & Carstensen, L. L. (2010) Social and emotional ageing. Annual Review of
Psychology, 61(1), 383-409.
many opportunities and benefits. To fail to do so would represent a 15 Scheibe, S. & Carstensen, L.L. (2010) Emotional ageing: Recent findings and future trends. J
tragic squandering of this gift of life. Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci, 65(2), 135-144.
16 Ardelt, M. (2004) Wisdom as expert knowledge system: A critical review of a contemporary
operationalization of an ancient concept. Human Development, 47(5), 257-285.
Conclusion 17 Fried, L.P., et al. (2004) Untangling the concepts of disability, frailty, and comorbidity: implications
for improved targeting and care. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci, 59(3), 255-263.
As we stand at the beginning of the 21st century, there is a tension 18 Olshansky, J. (2011) Two Americas at the dawn of the ageing society: The impact of race and
between advocates for the elderly and others with concerns about the education on survival. (Manuscript submitted for publication)
inability to provide seemingly limitless support. In the United States now 19 Laslett, P. (1991) A fresh map of life: The emergence of the third age. Cambridge: Harvard
that more than half of the federal budget is allocated to care for older University Press.
people, it makes sense to worry about other societal needs. 20 Biggs, S., Phillipson, C., Leach, R., & Money, A. (2007) Baby boomers and adult ageing: Issues for
social and public policy. Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, 8(3), 32-40.
We argue for a three-pronged approach:
? First, it is essential that we think programmatically about investments
throughout life in health, education and social integration that pay off
at all ages. Just as early investments in health and early education
paid off with huge reductions in premature death and early morbidity
a century ago, we must now conceive of lifelong investments that
will produce healthy and engaged populations at all ages, especially
among all future cohorts of older persons.
? Second, we must improve the care and autonomy of disabled older
adults; in part for their own quality of life and in part because only at
its extremes does disability render people completely dependent. To
the extent that those who have functional disabilities still have
access to opportunities to contribute, we believe that there is reason
to predict that contributions will continue.
? Finally, but arguably most importantly, we must build infrastructures
that tap the real talents and potential contributions that healthy older
people can make to societies. We must get rid of mixed messages
about working and replace them with calls for all able citizens to
contribute to the welfare of societies.
Population ageing will transform the global community. The question is
whether such changes will improve societies or extract net tolls. Either is
possible. If we continue to view the life course as our ancestors did and
simply tack added years on at the end, we face sure calamity. If instead
we begin to modify the life course and build infrastructures that support
long life, societies can begin to utilize the strengths of older people and
support the real vulnerabilities advanced age brings.
Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise? 17

What is the difference between quick and quickly? Quickly is a derived term of quick. Quick is a related term of quickly. As adverbs the difference between quick and quickly is that quick is (colloquial) with speed, quickly while quickly is rapidly; with speed; fast.