Can Aging Be Interpreted as a
Healthy, Positive Process?
Eric T. Juengst
Ever since the MacArthur Foundation’s catalytic collection of research projects on “successful aging” in the 1980s, there has been an effort within gerontology to destigmatize aging and reinterpret it as a normal, healthy, and even positive feature of the human life cycle (Rowe 8c Kahn, 1997; Gergen & Gergen, 2001). The chapters in this volume represent the cutting edge of that movement (see Moody, e.g.). For these gerontologists, the aging process, far from being pathological, deserves as much cultural celebration as we give to the complementary processes of growth and maturation. For them, the fact that normal aging has become medicalized and pathologized is only an unfortunate artifact of a cultural bias in favor of youth and is a particularly stigmatizing feature of the ageism that infects our society (Hazan, 1994).
Gerontology’s efforts to put a positive face on aging are philosophically interesting because, as others have pointed out, human aging looks very pathological from most theoretical perspectives (Caplan, 1982). From the perspective of the biomedical model of pathology, human senescence carries all the hallmarks of a disease process: specific underlying molecular changes create abnormalities in cells that inhibit the functional efficiency and structural resiliency of tissues and organs, causing disabilities, deformities, and distress at the systemic level that fall into stable patterns of specific signs, symptoms, and complaints (Thagard, 1999). From clinical medicine’s