Aging & Society

Aging & Society

For the 37 million seniors in the United States, there are 37 million styles of aging.  Each senior has a personal story, as we all do.At the same time, there are general patterns that can be observed in aging and adult development. This section will discuss some of the most identifiable patterns as described by gerontologists and others who have studied them. In addition, it covers other major tropics that are important for you to understand about aging and society. The topics are:

  • ageism
  • age discrimination in employment
  • retirement as a major role in later life
  • widowhood as a major role in later life
  • activities during later life
  • community involvement during later life
  • crime and fear of crime
  • elder abuse
  • social policy and aging

 Introduction to the Studies of Gerontology and Social Gerontology

In order to study aging and society it is important to know some definitions and concepts.

Gerontology is the study of aging. It includes analysis of information from many disciplines ranging from science to the humanities.

Geriatrics is the medical study of aging

Society is a human group that shares the same territory and culture, has a sense of unity and a feeling of belonging, and engages in activities that satisfy its needs and interests.

Social Gerontologyis the study of the social lives of older people. According to Jay Gubrium and James Holstein,

This covers a large territory, ranging from interpersonal relationships, living arrangements, and retirement, to social inequality, the politics of age, health, care giving, and bereavement.

Defining and Describing Aging and Later Life

Gerontologists use various measures to describe people's aging process in a social context. The measures include chronolical age, social roles, fictional age, subjective age, cohorts and generations, and life stages. In addition, Erikson'sstages of psychosocial development are frequently used to describe tasks of later life. You should be familiar with these concepts and attitudes and know how they affect seniors today.

Chronological Age

Chronological age is used by many public programs to define age groups. However, it is not an accurate measure to describe the characteristics of a group of people, whether they are teenagers, 30-somethings, or seniors. Such chronological age breaks often differ. For example:

  • Until recently in the United States eligibility for full Social Security benefits came at age 65.
  • the age for eligibility for Medicare remains at age 65, even though the age of eligibility for full retirement benefits from Social Security is increasing.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects workers who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age.
  • to be eligible for Older Americans Act programs, individuals must be at least 60 years old or be married to someone 60 or older.

These chronologically determined qualifications or restrictions have far reaching impacts on the lives of seniors. FOr example, some older people put off important surgeries until age 65, when Medicare will cover much of the bill. And some employers avoid hiring people over age 40 because they are afraid that if the arrangement does not work out and they have to let the employee go, they will be sued for age discrimination.

Some gerontologists also use chronological age to make a distinction between the young-old (ages 65 to 74), the old-old (ages 75 to 84), and the oldest-old (Ages 85 and older).

It is also important to remember that senior population spans from age 65 to 105 or thereabouts, and the needs and resources of the youngest seniors are very different from those of the oldest seniors. It is important to think about how seniors needs and resources might change as they move through these age categories.

Functional Age

Functional age is determined by what people can do. According to Jill Quadagno (2002),

In functional terms, people become older when they can no longer perform the major roles of adulthood. Among the Intuit Eskimos, for example, a man becomes old around 50 when he can no longer hunt during the winter. Women become old about a decade later because the roles they perform are less physically strenuous.

Functional age may also be measured by such normal physical changes as stiffness of joints or decreased skin elasticity (Schneider, 1983).

We all age differently, and while one person may have a chronological age of 65 and functional age of 45, another with a chronological age of 65 may have a functional age of 85. In addition, different parts of the body may age at different rates. You may have great hearing and poor eyesight at age 65, while your neighbor of the same age has poor hearing and great eyesight.

Subjective Age

Subjective age is how old people feel. One person may be 75 and feel young; a 55-year old may feel old (Vierck & Hodges, 2003). But the perception of when people become old shifts by age group. For example, people ages 60 and over think of others as old at age 77, while those ages 18 to 29 think old age starts 10 years earlier, at age 67.

Another study by Harris Interactive for the National Council of Aging found that nearly half of people ages 65 and older consider themselves to be middle-aged or young (The National Council on Aging, 2000). There were no noticeable gender or education group differences in these findings. And only 15 percent of people ages 75 and over consider themselves "very old."

Life Stages 

Life stages are another way of describing life's transitions. Robert Atchley describes life stages as a combination of physical and social attributes such as adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, later maturity, and old age (Atchley & Barusch, 2004).

Middle Age

Middle age is when physical changes become noticeable.  It is also the age at which people are thought of as part of the "aging population" (but not the elderly population).

  • People seek less physically demanding activities.
  • Recovery from exercise takes longer.
  • Minor chronic illness becomes more prevalent.
  • Vision and hearing begin to decline.

Chronologically, middle age begins sometime near the 40s.  During this stage, a number of social changes may occur:

  • Children leave home and become independent.
  • Married Couples often grown closer.
  • People sometimes make midlife job changes.
  • Community involvement may increase.
  • Stay-at-home mothers enter the workforce.
  • Most women experience menopause.
  • Some middle-aged people retire with no continuation of employment.

Atchley and Barusch (2004) comment that this is a time marked by social transitions-at home, on the job, and in the family. Physical transitions come later.

For many, midlife is a time of reflection and the "beginning of an inner process of developing personal life meaning" (Atchley & Barusch, 2004). In addition, middle-aged people often experience the deaths of those close them, such as parents.

Later Adulthood

Later adulthood generally occurs sometime in the 60s.  Declines in physical functioning and energy continue during this period, and chronic illness becomes more common.  Most people are active, but the prevalence of activity limitations is more common. Middle-aged people experience more frequent deaths among family and friends. The changes that occur during this time are primarily social, as is the case with middle age.

Retirement usually occurs during this period. For most people this is welcome, although income is often reduced. During this period many are caring for aging parents.

Atchley and Barusch (2004) sum up later adulthood with this positive note: "Most people retain a fair amount of physical vigor in later adulthood that, coupled with freedom from responsibilities, makes this life stage one of the most open and free for those who are prepared to take advantage of it".

Old Age

The onset of old age typically occurs in the late 70s to early 80s (although many people in their 80s and 90s show few signs of it).  Old age is characterized by extreme physical frailty.  In addition:

  • Disabling chronic conditions are more common.
  • Mental processes slow down.
  • Chemical brain conditions become more common.
  • People feel that death is near.
  • Activity is decreased.
  • Social groups change due to deaths of family and friends (but, even in old age, most people have frequent contact with family and friends).
  • Physical dependency and institutionalization are common.

Old age is defined more by physicaland mental changes rather than the social changes that accompany middle age and late adulthood. However, Atchley points out, "most people die before they reach extreme disability".

Aging: The Cultural Life Course

When you hear people express some of the following thoughts, they are expressing changes in social roles and the impact such changes have on their feelings about their aging:


  • "When my mother died, I suddenly thought, ' I'm no one's daughter any more."
  • "When my last child graduated from school, I thought, ' That's it-the next step is the retirement village."
  • "I won't let my grandchildren call me 'Grandma.' It makes me feel really old. They call me by first name, Louise.


  • "Now that we're retired, we can make love in the morning."
  • I like being able to decide for myself what work is significant and meaningful for me to do."
  • "Even though my best friend has been dead for 15 years, I think of her often. I can imagine her take on things, and it still gives me perspective."
  • "I looked forward to not having the heavy weight of day-to-day responsibility for children. I love them completely, but it was a major relief when they left the next and took responsibility for their own lives."


The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.