Perceptions of Aging in America

By Achenbaum, W. Andrew | National Forum, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Perceptions of Aging in America

Achenbaum, W. Andrew, National Forum

"So, you want to be an historian," my father (then age fifty-one) said to me, his eldest son (then aged twenty-four). His eyes conveyed the disappointment that he did not dare utter - Dad hoped that one of his boys would be a lawyer. "What will you write about?" "Old age," I smartly replied. "No one has written a history of aging in America. I think that I can create a niche for myself in the profession." "What do you know about old age, boy?" Dad snapped back. "Hell, I don't know much. And you - you have not even begun to experience life."

In this dialogue, still vivid in my memory, lie the central themes of this essay. Most of us really do not know much about growing older. Unless we are quite advanced in years, old age always looms as a gray stage of life to be experienced sometime down the road. Its contours are ill defined. The lack of clarity scares us - almost as much as when we contemplate the alternative.

Many of our ideas about what aging means, as a consequence, are mainly projections (including fears and hopes) about our future selves. We would like to be spared the aches and woes of older men and women whom we know - or at least we try to deny that a similar fate awaits us. Most of us want to live long, fruitful lives surrounded by kin and good friends. If we are fortunate enough to pass along the wisdom of experience to rising generations, so much the better.

My father and I wanted pretty much the same things for me happiness, well-being, security. But as the dialogue indicates, we had different notions of how I should aim to achieve them. Generational differences were a factor: he was a child of the Depression, while I was born amidst postwar affluence. Our perspectives on where I was likely to end up were grounded in past events that were shared, but not fully. Assumptions we made at the time were in any case shattered by decade's end.

Dad died suddenly a few years after our conversation about my career - before he retired, before l published my first book on historical gerontology. His withering sarcasm notwithstanding, I did learn some things about old age by poring over dusty magazines and books. I discovered that there are certain enduring universals of aging.

But my father was also on the mark. Only by coming to terms with who I am, by raising children with my wife, by enjoying good times with friends, by grappling with chronic pains and other maladies, and by suffering disappointments personal and professional, have I really come to comprehend the multifaceted dimensions of aging. And now that I am fifty, past continuities and changes in perceptions of old age in the United States appear different - but only somewhat - from the way that they did to me two decades ago. What surprises me is how much that I did not anticipate about aging in the proximate future.


Many aspects of aging in America today resemble conditions in times past. Ideas about old age in classical texts, ranging from books of the Bible and Greek mythology to Eastern medical guides, resonate with our current perceptions of senescence. Physical changes embody decline. Invariably writers then and now seize on the telltale signs of age thinning, graying hair; slowing gait; stooped shoulders; and wrinkles. There are at least three other universals of aging that transcend particular times and places.

First, old age has always been considered the last stage of existence before death. None of us "knows" the precise moment of our dying, and very few of us live as long as theoretically possible. Gerontologists generally agree that the maximum human life span is one hundred to one hundred twenty-five years; life expectancy at birth currently is around eighty years. Wear and tear occur decades earlier, as our bodies succumb to the cumulative adverse effects of genetics, bad habits, or an unhealthy environment.

But when do we fall apart? Should most of the deterioration take place at the end of life?

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