How far have we come from our ancestors in the way we now speak of aging, and where might we be headed? This journal issue provides examples pointing readers to the many ways to recognize the forms in and levels from which we talk about aging. Each article’s topics addresses a different way talk about aging surrounds us and shapes the life and experiences of old age.
aging, narrative, paradigms, diversity, design
We have come a long way since the early part of the 19th century in our capacity to talk meaningfully about aging. Scholars working to determine a systematic count of older persons earlier in history found it is not simply a matter of enumerating older individuals from historical records. Those records embody ideas about who counts as a case of the “older person” that persists in contemporary societal stereotypes.
During the 19th century, one of the earliest population censuses featured one category that lumped together a diverse set of people and situations, composed of persons who were either poor, aged, infirm, or disabled, as described by an early gerontologist Jill Quadagno (1982).
This census category challenged her efforts to construct a demographic profile of older adults living in early industrial society in England, which she used to help debunk presuppositions that problems of old-age dependency did not exist in the 19th century because family provided such care. Social policy developed in that era, voiced in the legislative idiom of Poor Laws, created a centralized bureaucratic system for societal support to people based upon personal poverty.
Recognition of older persons as a separate category from the poor evolved later in that era when “pensions” emerged in policies designed to allocate resources solely based upon old age. This category expressed the societal-level value of collective accountability and responsibility for elder care beyond that resting on an individual’s family or locality. We are still on the long road to devising adequate policies that account for the national-level impact of growing numbers of older adults and ensuring socially and personally meaningful later life for everyone.
One ambition for this Generations Journal issue is to provide examples pointing readers to ways to recognize the multitude of forms in and levels at which we talk about aging. The hope is that increasing recognition of the varieties of ways in which we talk about aging can help illuminate fresh opportunities to advance knowledge about aging, how it is lived, and strategies for building more just futures for later life.
This journal issue is deeply grounded in a comparative perspective that seeks commonalities and differences in aging across levels of life from the vantage of cross-cultural, cross-national, intergenerational, and individual differences. We can learn from a global, cross-cultural view of alternative solutions for organizing human society, plans and meanings for life, and responses to change, as well as from exploring diversities in how individuals envision and construct their life biographies. The utility of this perspective is evoked by the adage “Laboratories of democracy” for the American system of individual states, attributed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1932). He drew attention to the strengths of granting states the capacity to experiment and devise practices and social and economic solutions to pressing issues independently, without risk to the rest of the country. In this fashion, various strategies may arise to benefit all later.
What Comprises the Salient Case of “Aging”?
One takeaway for readers is analytic. It should engender a greater curiosity about our commonsense notions of who and what is salient to include in considerations of aging and where aging occurs. By that, I mean continuing to question what is the most valid, salient unit of social and personal experience required to advance our understanding of aging and the relevant issues. What is the “case” we define as aging, and what are the nature and variety of forms of “narrative” in stories of aging?
Consider how we define the elements that make up the “case” (Ragin & Becker, 1992) of aging. A paradigm shift has occurred. Until recently, aging was narrowly conceived of using the individual as the basic unit for study and site of interventions. Our obsolete historical legacy conceived of aging mainly in the body, defined chronologically by the passing of calendar days, on a single undifferentiated path where it is “natural” to lose capabilities and health and become passive and isolated.
‘We are still on the long road to devising adequate policies that account for the national-level impact of growing numbers of older adults.’
Today, to understand the relevant aging unit, we conceive of it as the complex product of intersections of biological, sociocultural, economic, historical, and local contexts and processes. Illustrations include initiatives targeted at the level of urban design to create dementia-friendly cityscapes in Bruges, Belgium, and Washington, DC. We now conceptualize aging in terms of lives lived through a diversity of times and places in concert with others (people and contexts), a composition of larger societal life-course scripts that provide life meanings played out across a score of world events, opportunities, and constraints. This perspective incorporates “intersectionality” at higher levels of analyses than the narrower boundary-driven sciences of the past, and by doing so, opens fresh new avenues to change societal-level designs for living in later life, the treatment of older adults, and societal structures to reduce ageist structural violence.
Other significant expansions to our lens on the case of aging include newly recognized assemblages of connectedness, rather than the individual body, localized brain centers, or the individual. These wider lenses, or levels of analyses, now include the brain connectome, the neural network of individual brain regions, gut biome interactions with brain function, social contagion of depression and well-being, to the human-built environment that can be dementia-inclusive and “friendly” rather than impediments.
Thus, today, the focus of discovery and interventions indexes not just services to individuals but also integrates contexts including interpersonal, economic, policy, and human-made environments. At each level, gerontologists and others are working to define relevant phenomena and events and assemble them into patterned relationships to create meaningful accounts—new notions of narratives about and for aging. These narratives are explicit and highly visible (as scientific paradigms, cultural traditions, and popular stereotypes), implicit deeper (assumptions), and emerging. As narratives, they provide a particular script, present tensions and dilemmas, and explanations for life. Such narrative modes of reasoning are a focus of this issue of Generations Journal.
Sticks and Stones Will Break My Bones, But Words Will Never Harm Me
Perhaps the most readily familiar way to think about how we talk about aging is in terms of the linguistic vocabulary of words. How we talk about older people is becoming more socially regulated with shifts in what are publicly acceptable terms. We have moved from the era of “sticks and stones will break my bones” (Christian Recorder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1862) to a deep appreciation of the tangible suffering from pejorative stereotypes and verbal abuse. For example, “the elderly or aged” as a master identity has come to be displaced with inclusive neutral terms such as “older people” to foster broader notions of age as only one feature of the whole complex person rather than the only feature. Yet, interestingly, in ageist styles of talking to older persons, “elder speak” persists (Shaw & Gordon, 2021), observable in the use of singsong tones, simplifications, and repeating in ways similar to baby talk, evoking a paternalism and infantilization of the older person. In these ways, vestiges persist from those early associations with infirmity in daily interactions with older persons.
Analysis of 25,000 movie dialogues from across the globe showed how popular media speaks about older adults negatively across all regions (Ng, Indran, & Wang, 2023). Ageist discourses stigmatize older persons in care contexts and those who care for them (Manchha, 2023).
The word stew of ageist terms and stereotypes that encode demeaning microaggressions remains a worthy focus of policy, study, and social action. The need for change is heightened given what we now know about the corrosive health and well-being effects of denigration and isolation due to systemic institutional and daily stigma experiences. Hopefully, progress toward more equitable lives for people in later life will continue to improve, whether due to the raw pressure of sheer numbers of older adults or the growing anti-ageism policies and socially progressive movements such as age-friendly university initiatives and advocacy groups for the environment (Pillemer, 2017) led by older persons themselves.
Understanding Continuity and Change Through Narrative Idioms
Narratives come in several flavors and sizes—larger and smaller scale ones. There are grand sweeping master narratives (e.g., Successful vs. Productive Aging, Manifest Destiny, Black Lives Matter) embodying an overarching cultural ideal, design for living, and definition of the “good” life or society. Calls for a new narrative for aging are a familiar idiom for arguing about needed social transformations (Diehl, Smyer, & Mehrotra, 2021). Master narratives have the power to create and explain events, conflicts, and resolutions as manifestations of that ideal. Autobiographic narratives craft life themes over time from the unfolding of life journey’s events, beliefs, and experiences acquired across life course stages, transitions, and developmental eras lived in historical periods, family events, and conditions.
Constructing narratives about individual lives, bodies, or society is a common form of talking about aging by scientists and popular media. A narrative account provides a higher order idea or meaning by explaining events and facts. Narratives are a distinctively human form of reasoning and meaning-making beyond words or phrases. In the sociolinguistic view, narratives report a sequence of events, experiences, and an evaluation or a moral to the account. A narrative differs from merely listing events, facts, or ideas.
‘The word stew of ageist terms and stereotypes that encode demeaning microaggressions remains a worthy focus of policy, study, and social action.’
The critical point is that understanding narratives about aging can contribute insights into foundational issues in creating meaning, particularly those that shape how we envision and meet challenges, appraise, and regulate relationships among people, places, and events. This issue of Generations Journal features a spectrum of narratives from the individual to the global in scope.
Gerontologists are increasingly developing specialized languages to expand our capacity to discern and build accurate narratives about aging. These languages are needed to give voice to the nature of aging across scalar levels (social, biological, or historical eras within a society), from the cross-national and cross-cultural harmonized datasets social epidemiologists construct to create conversations about global and local patterns of later life, health, (see Kobayashi) to the individual actively constructing lifelong personal biographies, which challenge stereotypes of what later life should be and can be when national culture changes, such as when the politics of Poland shifted from Soviet Socialism to Capitalism (see Robbins-Panko). At both scalar levels, we have learned to talk about aging as a larger unit, produced at the intersections of diverse historical conditions, social policy and political economies, natural events, and cultural definitions of gender.
Less visible but rich conversations about aging are embedded in the materiality of our everyday taken-for-granted life. Silent, unending conversations with older persons are expressed in a vocabulary whose terms are those of the physical materials and designs created by our human-built environment and technologies. That is, the designs and devices we use for buildings, streets, and everyday items, such as electronic door keypads and microwave controls, actively support and limit possibilities for people to engage in the routines and habits needed for participating in daily life. Such designs shape differently and disenfranchise legitimate expectations and experiences for moving through spaces and engaging in everyday technologies’ affordances (see Gaber and Brorsson).
Yet, while talk about aging is coming to occupy a public center stage, from a justice perspective, some dialogues for aging remain less spoken or silenced and wait in the wings offstage of our mainstream communities. In this issue, we also hear talk of aging from the worlds of persons aging differently and marginalized due to contemporary beliefs and social practices related to gender, ethnicity, and their intersections in LGBTQ communities of color (see Pickard, McCoy. Curiously, even in genres where the author’s purpose is to create imaginary future societies, such as in science fiction, seldom include older persons. Even the alternative socially just worlds of science fiction too often replicate negative attitudes toward aging women in a quest to return them to a state of youth (Wrigley, 2019).
The final section of this issue circles back in two ways from the societal level by returning to a rich axiom of how gerontologists talk about aging, that is, as individual “lives lived through times and places.” Individual differences are in the protean variety of self-biography–making as it unfolds over time, the autobiographic narrative enterprise. One’s stance and understandings, resistances to, and embrace of aging changes fluidly over the lifetime leading Achenbaum to urge appreciation of “distinctive journeys of living into death.” Randall argues for talking about aging as a time for seeking and relishing possibilities for new adventures, and against more familiar biographical enterprises where making sense of the life lived and one’s future in later life feature railing against or mourning losses and declines, or relatively complacent continuity with the past.
Considering how we talk about aging would be incomplete without attention to questions that arise by recognizing that aging concerns, issues, and experiences are inherently intergenerational. We invited two generations of gerontologists to talk about aging. Senior scholars who devoted careers to studying aging were asked to reflect on the parallels of a life lived studying aging and their development, while being and becoming one of those persons. The resulting essays, not unexpectedly, offer distinctly different formats for talking about their life, the articulation and focus of what comprised career and aging experiences (see Borell, Lichtenberg, Markides, Morrow-Howell, and Ory).
The final article takes up an unusual opportunity to ask questions about how and in what way the thoughts of senior scholars are heard as meaningful to the newest generation of scholars who are starting to chart their careers and lives and doing so at different times and states of gerontological knowledge (see Daugherty et al.). An intergenerational dialog was created by sharing the essays with emerging scholars (doctoral, post-doctoral, and junior faculty) who report here on the themes and takeaway messages from their dialogue discussing the articles.
Ultimately, the hope is that the seeds of this collection’s ambitions to describe the complexity of ways we talk about aging take root and help grow better designs for lives lived long and meaningfully.
Mark R. Luborsky, PhD, is professor of Gerontology at the Institute of Gerontology, and professor of Anthropology in the department of Anthropology, at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. He also serves as co-director in its Social Work and Anthropology doctoral program. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/BrAt82
Brandeis, L. (1932). New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262 https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/285/262/.
Christian Recorder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. (1862, March 22). [Microfilm Reel]. https://www.loc.gov/item/sn94090215/
Diehl, M., Smyer, M. A., & Mehrotra, C. M. (2020). Optimizing Aging: A Call for a New Narrative. American Psychologist, 75(4), 577–89.
Manchha, A. V., Tann, K., Way, K. A., & Thai, M. (2023). Reconceptualizing Stigmas in Aged Care: A Typology of Stigmatizing Discourses in the Aged-Care Context. The Gerontologist, 63(6) 1000–11.
Ng, R., Indran, N., & Yang, W. (2023). Portrayals of older adults in over 3,000 films around the world. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 71(9), 2726–35.
Pillemer, K., Wells, N. M., Meador, R. H., Schultz, L., Henderson, Jr., C. R., Tillema Cope, M. (2017). Engaging Older Adults in Environmental Volunteerism: The Retirees in Service to the Environment Program. The Gerontologist 57(2), 367–75
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Shaw, C. A. & Gordon, J. K. (2021). Understanding Elderspeak: An Evolutionary Concept Analysis. Innovations in Aging, 5(3): 1–8
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