Sunday, March 02, 2014

Why does our culture denigrate old people?

1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas
Bear with me. This is a little convoluted, but I think interesting.

A few weeks ago I browsed through a New England Journal of Medicine article by a doctor named Lisa Rosenbaum who recalled asking women who visited a cardiology clinic where she worked: "What do you think is the number-one killer of women?” She was distressed that most answered "breast cancer" instead of the accurate response: "heart disease."

I too would have disappointed Dr. Rosenbaum -- my answer to that query would be "old age."

That's how I grew up -- being told what happened to my older relatives: they aged; their parts wore out; they sometimes sickened and usually shrank and withered; eventually they died. Not a scientific or medical picture, but not a false one either.

I shared what I was reading with my ever-so thoughtful partner and she offered her own slant on it, a passage from the political philosopher Iris Marion Young's Justice and the Politics of Difference. My partner likes to throw this out to her young college students to chew on:
The aversion and nervousness that old and disabled people evoke, the sense of their being ugly, arises from the cultural connection of these groups with death. Thomas Cole (1986) shows that prior to the nineteenth century old age was not linked to death; indeed, just the opposite was the case. In a time when death might come to persons at any age, and often took children and young adults, old age represented a triumph over death, a sign of virtue. During this time of patriarchal family domination, old people were highly regarded and venerated. Now, when it has become increasingly likely that people will live to be old, old age has become associated with degeneracy and death.
Intriguing, isn't it? Was there really a time when being old was not so associated with disability and immanent demise -- because disability and death were more evenly spread across all ages?

I was interested enough to dig up the essay Young references in an obscure volume, Old Age in a Bureaucratic Society. Thomas Cole argues that "old age", for the rising 19th century US bourgeoisie class, came to signify a dying social order they were overthrowing and to constitute an assault on the value system they were substituting for the former order.
…old age not only symbolized the eighteenth-century world of patriarchy and hierarchical authority, it also represented an embarrassment to the new morality of self-control. The primary virtues of civilized morality -- independence, health, success -- required constant control over one's body and physical energies. The decaying body in old age, a constant reminder of the limits of physical self-control, came to signify dependence, disease, failure, and sin.
Well, maybe. I instinctively suspect Mr. Cole is stretching his theory a bit beyond his evidence and his short essay does not prove his point to me.

But I do find Young's suggestion that the contemporary shape of agism may well reflect the novel cultural reality that, in well-off countries, most people can expect to live to old age. I'm immediately aware how historically novel this is.

My own grandmother bore five children before 1910; three grew to adulthood and the proportion of survivors was not unusual. When I was in my twenties, I listened to a friend's stories of being a newly graduated nurse working during the influenza pandemic of 1918 which killed 50-100 million people worldwide, 3-5 percent of the world's population. It decimated young adults in particular. My own generation of LGBT folks have seen our male age peers drop in droves in early middle age from HIV related causes; we too don't assume death is only the domain of the old. In the United States we've been spared war's desolation of all ages at home for over a century; not many lands can say that.

As attaining old age has become a reasonable expectation for most US people, do we seek to quarantine most of our fear of decrepitude and death amid elders? This seems likely. Iris Marion Young points to what society loses from agism: old people have (sometimes) accumulated wisdom. Yes, the world changes. But a society that walls off its elders loses the benefit of hard acquired experience.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

I have mixed feelings on this one. I am 70 years old which means elderly by many definitions. I think to deny that being old is different is ridiculous. Of course it is, and to deny it is to deny being a teenager is like being a child. Old age changes things and it lends itself eventually to deterioration. Why not admit that and deal with it? Old people might be denigrated because they have figured out a way to get the lion's share of the pie based on politics. The generation before mine came out the best with putting very little into SS but getting a lot. My generation will come closer to break even, but still is likely to get what the children need also. How do we resolve that? I don't have an answer but do think to pretend old age is like any other age is ridiculous. Those of us entering into the old realm are experiencing something we haven't before. That is life for every animal species.

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