The chapter opens with the description of the life of an elder who is 107 years "young." She, like most elders, describes her life as happy, but seniors often face lower income, prejudice, and abuse, along with deteriorating health.
A powerful revolution is reshaping Canada. It is referred to as the greying of Canada. In just over a century, life expectancy has doubled and the average number of children has declined by half. Figure 15-1 (p.381) shows the changing population pyramid of Canada. In 2001 the population over 65 made up 13% of the whole, but by 2041 the percentage will be 23.8%. The two causes of this shift are the tremendous post-WW II baby boom, followed by a sharp decline in birth rates. Canada Map 15-1 (p. 382) shows the distribution of the over-65 population across Canada. The industrialized societies, along with the countries of the old Soviet Union, will experience population decline.
In industrialized societies, children are a major expense rather than an economic asset and women are choosing careers. The birth rate typically goes down.
Women can expect to live to 83.4 years of age, and men to 76.4 years. The possible consequences of the massive increase in the elderly population are immense. The old-age dependency ratio will double in the next fifty years as the proportion of non-employed adults soars and the costs of health care also rise. There are those, however, who suggest today's seniors are healthier than previous generations.
Age segregation will decline but a "culture of aging" is unlikely in such a diverse society.
The "young" old are between 65 and 75 years of age and are living in reasonable health and financial security, while the "old" old, those over 75, are increasingly dependent on others. This total older segment of the population, however, will not be growing rapidly until the boomers reach 65 around 2010.
Gerontology is the study of aging and the elderly. This field examines biological processes, personality changes, and the impact of culture and social definitions in different societies as people age.
While aging does lead to some bodily deterioration, cultural labels have a major impact on how we perceive these changes. In Canada's youth-oriented society, growing old is seen as growing down. Older people do suffer more chronic illnesses and life-threatening diseases such as cancer and heart disease and experience some decline in sensory abilities. Dementia, progressive cognitive impairment, affects 5% to 10% of those over 65 years of age and 20% of those over 80, but the vast majority of the elderly population are neither discouraged nor disabled by their physical or mental condition. Patterns of aging vary greatly, however, between social groups. Because women live longer, they suffer more chronic illness and income is positively related to preventative care and perceptions of happiness.
Most elderly people do not suffer from mental or psychological problems. While research suggests that measures of intelligence focusing on sensorimotor coordination do show decline in aged persons, intelligence tests focusing on knowledge show no decline. The capacity for thoughtful reflection and spiritual growth actually increases. Psychological research has also shown that personality changes little as we grow old.
The significance of growing old is a matter of cultural definition. Old is a relative term as Global Map 15-1 (p.386) illustrates. In many of the poorer countries the average lifespan is fifty years, while a Canadian of sixty years is not identified as old. Advances in medicine and health have made a difference, but cultural definition is just as important, as shown in the Applying Sociology Box (p. 387).
Age stratification is defined as the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and privileges among people at different stages of the life course. This varies by societal development and the old seem to generally have more power in societies in which they can accumulate wealth. In hunter/gatherer societies age is seen as a burden. Pastoral, horticultural, and agrarian societies, on the other hand, have the technological capabilities to produce surpluses to enable accumulation to occur. Such societies tend toward gerontocracy, a form of social organization in which the elderly have the most wealth, power, and prestige. Industrialization tends to create a decline in the relative power and prestige of the aged, as the prime source of wealth shifts away from the land and geographical mobility undermines the strength of families. The rapid change in technology also diminishes the expertise of the elderly and they are pushed toward nonproductive roles. Japan is a culture in which the productive role and status of the elderly in the family and labour force has remained intact, providing the aged with greater prestige. But even Japan is becoming more like other industrial societies where age means giving up a measure of social importance.
Of all life stages, old age presents the greatest personal challenges. The body is in some measure of decline and lives are nearing an end.
Although some face the end with despair, those who learn to accept their past mistakes and successes fare well. There are illnesses to face but as Table 15-1 (p. 389) indicates, most elderly people are at least somewhat happy with life, especially those who are healthy and who have spouses who are healthy. People who were well adjusted earlier in life tend to be well adjusted as they age.
Central among the adjustments an individual must make during old age is the accommodation to increased social isolation. Negative stereotypes, retirement, and physical problems diminish social interaction. The most profound social isolation occurs, however, with the death of a significant other, particularly a spouse.
Almost three-quarters of widows and widowers cite loneliness as their most serious problem. The problem of social isolation falls mostly on women as Table 15-2 (p. 390), on living arrangements of the elderly, shows. Spouses provide emotional support for men but women rely on more varied support, particularly daughters, after their husbands die. (See Figure 15-2, p. 390.) Women who are widowed later in life (65-74) are less likely to move in with their children, perhaps because grandchildren have reached adulthood. Many elderly choose to live in retirement residences or communities. The Media Perspectives Box (p. 392) looks at issues related to these residence options.
Work figures prominently in personal identity. The loss of work, therefore, generally entails less income, less prestige, and loss of purpose. Some organizations, like universities, ease the transition and for many older people new challenges like volunteer activities fill the void. Retirement is a recent phenomenon prompted by the need to use fewer workers and to bring in younger workers in a rapidly changing society.
Pension plans have eased the financial burdens in Canada where the aged are now less likely to be poor. While there is a debate about the constitutionality of mandatory retirement, and in many provinces, it has been eliminated, only about 1% of the workforce would continue past 65 if given the choice. Recently, global restructuring and government downsizing has led to many early retirements and the launching of new careers.
The image of the elderly as poverty stricken is somewhat unfounded. While retirement leads to a decline in income, expenses also decline. But women and visible minorities suffer proportionately greater deprivation. The pride of many older citizens leads them to hide even from their families their economic difficulties.
Care giving refers to informal and unpaid care provided to a dependent person by family members, other relatives, or friends. Current middle-aged adults are often referred to as the "sandwich generation," as they care for their aging parents while still caring for their children.
Family members provide 80% of care to elders, and 75% of it is provided by women. Daughters-in-law are more likely to provide the care than sons. These are people (daughters and daughters-in-law) who are likely working as well.
Three to five percent of the elderly suffer from abuse at the hands of relatives or care givers in the home or institutions. Abuse is most likely to occur if the care giving is difficult.
Ageism refers to prejudice and discrimination against the elderly. While old people are more likely to be mentally and physically impaired, the majority are not. Unwarranted generalizations lead to stereotypes that result in overt (e.g., loss of job) and subtle (condescending tones) discrimination. Betty Friedan suggests that older people have much to contribute and would, if negative definitions in the media and elsewhere were to disappear.
Sociologists vary in their opinion concerning the classification of the aged as a minority group. Certain general characteristics of the aged population seem consistent with such a status, however, the social disadvantages faced by the elderly are less substantial than those experienced by other categories of people labelled as minorities. Their situation is labelled as an open status, not permanent or exclusive. The old are simply a part of the Canadian population who face challenges based on age.
Disengagement theory links the disengagement by elderly people from positions of social responsibility to the orderly operation of society. This theory, based on Talcott Parson's structural-functional analysis, suggests that the orderly transfer of various statuses and roles from the old to the young provides benefits for both society and individuals with diminished capacity. A problem with this view is that many older people do not want to relinquish their statuses and roles and are quite capably functioning within them. As well, workers cannot freely disengage unless they have financial security and the costs of loss of independence are considerable. Finally, with a low birth rate, society needs their older workers in the workforce.
Activity theory links personal satisfaction in old age to a high level of activity. Disengagement is viewed as diminishing satisfaction and meaning in life. While disengaging from certain statuses and roles, the elderly shift to new ones based on their own distinctive needs, interests, talents, and capabilities. This approach may, however, underestimate the loss of competency among the aged.
This approach sees different age categories across the life cycle competing for scarce resources. The status of the elderly relative to younger people is viewed as being disadvantaged as a result of the emphasis in capitalist societies on keeping costs down. While focusing our attention on the age stratification that does exist in society, this approach tends to ignore the improvement in social standing of the elderly in recent decades, and focuses upon capitalism when industrialization may be the major culprit.
There are two certainties: the fact of birth and the inevitability of death. The changing character of death is discussed in this section.
Throughout much of human history death was a natural part of everyday life. Disease and catastrophes were widespread. In pre-industrial societies, less productive people (infants and the aged) were sometimes put to death (infanticide/geronticide) for the sake of preserving the group. As societies began to gain some measure of control over death through technological advances, attitudes about death changed. It was no longer an everyday experience in the lives of people. Now old age and death have become fused.
Death is now looked at as something unnatural, separate from life. Death and dying are now physically removed from everyday activities and typically occur away from the family, in a hospital.
As the capacity to extend life through "heroic measures" and artificial means increases, the question about when life ceases becomes ever more problematic.
Many individuals would like the capacity to choose when their life should end, sometimes as a release from suffering. The Thinking Critically Box (p. 398) indicates that the Dutch provide people the opportunity of euthanasia, but it remains illegal in Canada. Should we allow people the right to end their suffering or is this the "slippery slope" towards forcing death on those who are becoming medically expensive? The Sue Rodriguez case (she had ALS) was our own confrontation with the ethical issue of euthanasia, which was resolved by the Supreme Court by denying her the opportunity of assisted suicide.
It can be argued that Kübler-Ross's stages of death can be applied to the bereavement process. Hospice is a program that helps people, through palliative care, to have better deaths. Bereavement, however, may last a long time and cause profound grief, unless a satisfactory closure to a relationship is attained.
There are reasons for both concern and optimism as we look ahead. Within the next fifty years, one in four Canadians will be over 85. They will require support services that a smaller working population will be hard-pressed to provide (See the Thinking It Through Box (pp. 399-400). On the positive side, those seniors will be more healthy and wealthy than previous generations and medical technology will continue to improve.
On balance we will have mounting responsibilities to care for the aged but death will perhaps become again, a natural part of the life course.