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Aging in Literature

At the start of the 21st century, stories about aging began to emerge. The significant increase in the aged population has given rise to new literature, as well as an academic and professional interest in gerontology.

In the 1990s, a book series on "Rethinking Aging" was planned in the U.K. Realization became evident that there was a gap in knowledge. Information regarding aging traditionally came from gerontologists. Heightened interest professionally and personally came to the fore. The series was an attempt to narrow the gap in knowledge and accessible information. Books focusing on topics of interest and concern were created.

The aim of the literature on aging was not only to expand knowledge broadly and to gain insights into old age but also specifically to address issues such as ageism, elder abuse, health in later life and dementia. The premise was that each book in the "Rethinking Aging" series would address two fundamental questions: "What is known about this topic? And what are the policy and practice implications of this knowledge?" Books were to be scholarly but also written in a clear, non-technical way for a broad audience appeal. Age, Race and Ethnicity by Kenneth Blakemore and Margaret Boneham was the first book to be published. The subject matter of the books has comprised ageism, reminiscence, community care, pensions and residential care.

The next decade presented a new arena for writing, with age and aging now prominent topics in the media and government. Increasing interest and topicality have resulted in additional topics emerging. Books reflecting this change include Maureen Crane's Understanding Older Homeless People and John Vincent's Politics, Power and Old Age. Promoting Health in Old Age by Miriam Bernard combines aspects of previous mainstream literature as well as the emerging field.

Mike Hepworth's Stories of Ageing is considered a groundbreaking book. Hepworth is the first author to explore literary fiction as a gerontological resource. The book is grounded in sociological theory as well as detailed analyses of contemporary novels dealing with aging.

One of the significant themes addressed regarding aging and literature is how fictional descriptions of aging can facilitate understanding of the aging process within a sociopsychological context. Moreover, stories about aging are an invaluable cultural resource with respect to gaining appreciation related to the experience of growing old.

Further literature includes the concept of communication related to the elderly and how this study can enhance understanding. The Handbook of Communication and Aging Research by J. Nussbaum details the experience of aging; images of old age; attitudes towards aging; adaptation; development and growth into later years; language, culture and social aging; and age in social and sociolinguistic theory. Also covered are aspects relating to the role of age stereotypes in interpersonal communication, intergenerational communication, cultural issues, nature of family relationships between and within generations and friendships later in life. Retirement and leisure, the political power of seniors, health communication, senior adult education and instructional communication and older adults are relevant issues discussed.

The treatment of age in literature is analyzed by Anne Wyatt-Brown in Literary Gerontology Comes of Age (1992). Cross-cultural studies compare the treatment of aging in literature within different cultures. Age in literature is also looked at from a psychoanalytical perspective. New subgenres have been created. Thus, "Bildungsroman" is a new type of "concluding" work with regard to the representation of aging; and "Refungsroman" comprises the "ripening" category. Additionally, there is the "midlife progress novel."

New topics include the aging male and female in literature. The former includes studies of aging in Shakespeare's King Lear and The Tempest. How Shakespeare teaches geriatrics is surmised through Lear and Prospero as case studies of the aged. Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah, Ernest Hemingway's aging heroes and the concept of "phronesis" and Bertrand Russell's aging and "the problems of biography" are further examples. The aging female in literature can be viewed in works of Hawthorne, Faulkner and Dickens, with types such as old maids and barren sisters. The aging female artist is seen in the case of Virginia Woolf.

Aging in the community is also learned through the literature of different cultures. The Sacred Ghost depicts the role of the elderly in Native American literature. Further examples include Ernest J. Gaines and aging in the African-American community. Marguerite de Navarre and Madame Palatine deal with aging and the continental community.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

From the Hearth to the Open Road: A Feminist Study of Aging in Contemporary Literature
Barbara Frey Waxman.
Greenwood Press, 1990
Aging and Identity: A Humanities Perspective
Sara Munson Deats; Lagretta Tallent Lenker.
Praeger Publishers, 1999
Stories of Ageing
Mike Hepworth.
Open University Press, 2000
Folklore, Culture, and Aging: A Research Guide
David P. Shuldiner.
Greenwood Press, 1997
Second Thoughts: Reflections on Literature and on Life
François Mauriac.
Books for Libraries Press, 1976
Promoting Positive Attitudes toward Aging: Literature for Young Children
McGuire, Sandra L.
Childhood Education, Vol. 69, No. 4, Summer 1993
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