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Biological and social definitions of aging


There should be no personal and institutional discrimination

against individuals on the basis of age.


From the moment of birth each of us is involved in the process of aging. That is one thing we can all count on. As we live on, our bodies inevitably undergo some subtle and often visible changes. Somewhere along the way we are deemed “old,” based on popular social definitions held by those who are chronologically younger. Often such social definitions bear little relation to and draw enjoyment from the society of which we are a part. Census statistics show a dramatic increase in the proportion of persons who have entered “old age” in this century. (Old age is arbitrarily, but commonly, considered to commence at age sixty-five.) Statistics on life expectancy have led to predictions of further dramatic increases in the number and proportions of the population who will enter old age by the year 2012 and beyond.

Biological and social definitions of aging

Aging is a natural and inevitable biological process, one that begins at birth. With increases in chronological age, all people undergo physiological changes - some visible, others hidden – that precede an end to life. Physical appearance undergoes a marked alteration with time, including the loss of skin elasticity, the appearance of wrinkles, the graying of hair (because of pigment loss), and signs of frailty. Hidden changes may affect sight and hearing. The circulatory, respiratory, and other major body systems lose their operating efficiency. Susceptibility to illness and disease increases, and aging persons may lose their ability to combat sickness as well as when they were younger. The rate of biological aging varies among individuals. Thus, a given chronological age does not automatically dictate when the types of changes involved in aging will occur. As yet poorly understood genetic factors may contribute to variations in the aging process among different persons. Certainly environmental influences play a role. One’s life-style, dietary and nutritional practices, exercise habits, amount of exposure to physically harmful conditions and substances, access to adequate health care services, and degree of contact with psychologically stressful experiences are thought to affect the biology of aging. Hence, older persons are in reality a heterogeneous group in physiological terms. Despite this heterogeneity and the wide differences in mental and physical capacity associated with it, members of society tend to share a common view of when old age commences. This social definition of old age is largely chronologically based and is accompanied by a set of often erroneous assumptions about persons who are reaching their later years. In general, old age is thought to commence at age 65. This view has been encouraged by the institutionalization of 65 as the age of eligibility for certain federal social insurance benefits, such as social security and the age of mandatory retirement from employment. While an individual may be no different at age 65 than at age 64, except in chronological years, by social definition this one year arbitrarily signals old age. Some people think that those who are over 65 move and think slowly. Such people are not considered to be creative. They are bound to themselves and to their past and can no longer change or grow. They can learn neither well nor swiftly and if they could, they would not wish to... They enter a second childhood, caught up in increasing egocentricity… they become irritable and cantankerous, yet shallow and enfeebled. Reaching chronological age 65 does not automatically mean entering into a state of “mental and physical failure.”

The social definitions bearing on old age also differ by gender. While gray hair for a man who is aging is likely to give him a “distinguished appearance,” for a woman it is a sign of “getting old.” Because of our social and cultural emphasis on women's role as a sex object, any movement away from the artificial mass-media ideal of youth and feminine beauty is widely considered a step toward old age, as well a as step down. Whole industries (cosmetics, hair styling, clothing, and footwear) thrive on women’s commercially induced fear of age obsolescence. The mass media do not maintain an artificial ideal of youthful beauty for males with anywhere near the intensity that they do for females. Socially, women are informally defined as old at an earlier age than men. This dual standard has a variety of ramifications. Older men may freely marry women who are chronologically much younger without drawing social criticism, but older women may not marry younger men with such freedom.

The social definition of women as being old chronologically earlier than men also has significance in the sphere of employment. There is widespread subtle discrimination toward the hiring of women whose appearance is within or not far from the artificial mass-media ideal of youthful beauty. This is particularly the case in situations where employed women are expected to have extensive public contact by virtue of the work performed. But it is also the case that many male employers believe it is within their prerogative to include “decorating the office” as one unspoken criterion for who will be hired. Many older women face difficulty in finding employment, and this difficulty is not necessarily related to their job skills or record of work experience. Again men have an advantage in not being as constrained in employment opportunities by such invisible, discriminatory standards. The social definitions of old age arbitrarily set the beginning of old age at 65, lump a heterogeneous group of older persons together as “mental and physical failures,” and treat women as old at earlier ages than men. These social definitions affect millions of people.

Date: 2016-01-03; view: 1121

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