Academic journal article Generations

Moving beyond Place: Aging in Community

Academic journal article Generations

Moving beyond Place: Aging in Community

Article excerpt

In 1519, the Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta was among those who accompanied Captain Ferdinand Magellan on the three-year voyage that became the first known circumnavigation of the earth. During his travels, Pigafetta kept a detailed diary in which he noted that the lifespan of the average Brazilian Indian was between 124 and 140 years (a longevity he attributed to the Indians' retention of what he called a primitive innocence similar to that of the Biblical patriarchs).

The standard for exaggerated claims had been set by Christopher Columbus thirty years earlier. In one of the explorer's early letters, he gushed over the seemingly limitless supply of food available in the New World, calling it "a veritable Cockaigne," or land of plenty.

Such observations were welcomed by rich and poor alike because they offered hope at a time when few people lived past the age of 40 and devastating famines were a common occurrence. Pervasive scarcity, back-breaking labor, and the prospect of early death led people to imagine a land where food and good health came effortlessly- to everyone. They dreamed of a utopia called Cockaigne, in which there was no need to work, the streams ran with water that restored the full bloom of youth, and the houses were roofed with meat pies.

Today, of course, the fanciful legends of Cockaigne can seem juvenile and might make it easy for us to believe that we have outgrown the need to console ourselves with imagined utopias. But such is not the case, certainly for many people growing old now.

Today's Fear: Old Age in an Institution

The paradox of modern societies is that they provide the stability and affluence that enable many people to grow old, all the while denying older people a suitable role within the social order. Old age does not occur in a vacuum. How we define, experience, and perceive old age is influenced by a number of complex and interrelated factors that include social policies, politics, demographics, economics, and cultural values, as well as class, gender, and race/ethnicity (Estes, 2001). While theories of aging evolve over time within gerontology, it is apparent that social policy and public opinion are often slow to catch up. In public discourse and policy, aging is still largely defined by a biomedical perspective that emphasizes dependency, loss, and decline (Estes 2001) Not surprisingiy) the proposed solutions are rooted in the same soil. As a consequence, more than 70 percent of longterm-care dollars are spent on skilled nursing facilities, or nursing homes, that conform to the medical model (Estes, 2001).

At the beginning of the past century, an American could reasonably expect to die at home, surrounded by loved ones and consoled by the most familiar of surroundings. Today, most older adults die in unfamiliar and impersonal hospital and nursing home environments. While a relatively small percentage of older adults find themselves living in nursing homes on any given day (5 percent of the population over age 65), the risk for a 65-year-old of entering a nursing home for some period of time is 46 percent and increases with age (Spillman and Lubitz, 2002). With an increased survival rate to age 65, it is estimated that the number of 65-year-olds who will spend some time in a nursing home will double by 2020 (Spillman and Lubitz, 2002).

People fear nursing homes. Indeed, when asked what they fear most, 26 percent of older people ranked loss of independence, and 13 percent ranked placement in a nursing home highest, while only 3 percent ranked death highest (Clarity, 2007).

Aging in Place: Still 'Dreaming of Cockaigne'

This brew of fear and loathing inspires millions of older Americans to dream of growing old in their longtime homes, or "aging in place." Indeed, the ideal of growing old in one's own home has developed into a powerful idealized counter-narrative, the opposite of a dreadful old age cursed with indignity, a loss of autonomy, and the looming terror of institutionalization. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.