Aging in Society: Selected Reviews of Recent Research

By Matilda White Riley; Beth B. Hess et al. | Go to book overview

1
Introduction: A Mosaic of Knowledge

Matilda White Riley National Institute on Aging

This book is concerned with the social, cultural, economic, and psychological factors that affect both the process of growing old and the place of older people in society. Research already shows the power of these factors; it shows that aging and the status of the elderly are not inevitably fixed but are subject to social modification and change. But more research is needed on how these factors operate. In order to enhance the quality of life for older people and to contain the personal and social costs of health care and dependency, more knowledge is required to strengthen the scientific basis for professional practice and public policy.

Bit by bit, the necessary science base -- a mosaic of knowledge -- is being established. For example, we already know that individuals differ widely in the ways they experience aging: some are "old" at 40, while others find the passage of time of little consequence. We know that chronological age produces quite different "markers" for racial and ethnic minorities than for the so-called majority populations: blacks, like Hispanics, have comparatively short lives on the average, although some blacks live to an extraordinarily old age. We know that historical time is not unrelated to age and aging: to have been 65 in 1881 was very different from being 65 in 1981, and becoming 65 in 2081 will be unimaginably different. We know that the life course varies with the characteristics of the birth cohort into which people happen to have been born: on the whole, the chances of a good life have been better for people in small cohorts than for those born during a "baby boom." We know from the classic anthropological studies that growing up in Samoa or New Guinea is very different from growing up in the United States. We know that the life course is experienced not in a vacuum, but in societies that are continually changing. In myriad ways aging reflects alterations in dietary habits, changing sex roles, shifting minority group

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