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What is human aging?

By Robert Atchley and Amanda Barusch

Aging is a broad concept that includes physical changes in our bodies over adult life, psychological changes in our minds and mental capacities, social psychological changes in what we think and believe, and social changes in how we are viewed, what we can expect, and what is expected of us.

Aging is not one process, but many, including: biological psychological, social psychological, and social aging. Aging has many possible outcomes, some positive and some negative. On the one hand, increasing age brings greater experience and expanded opportunities to become skilled in a variety of activities ranging from politics to music. Wisdom and experience can give an older person the kinds of long-range perspective that is invaluable in an advisor. Older people can also be keepers of tradition. They know about many unrecorded events that have taken place over the years in families, at workplaces, in communities, and in the nation. Aging can also bring a sense of personal peace and mellowing. Later life can be a time of extraordinary freedom and opportunity once the responsibilities of employment and child rearing are set aside.

On the other hand, aging is a losing proposition for some people. They may lose physical or mental capacities, good looks, opportunities for employment and income, or positions in organizations to which they belong. They may outlive their spouse and friends.

Aging is neither predictably positive nor predictably negative. For some people it is mainly positive, for others it is mainly negative, and for still others it is somewhere in between.

How aging is viewed by society also reflects the tow-sided nature of aging. Some realms, such as politics, stress the advantages of age. Other areas of life, such as employment, emphasize the disadvantages of aging. Still others, such as the family, incorporate both positive and negative aspects of aging. The double-edged nature of aging is also reflected in current literature on the subject. Some researchers emphasize the negative when they study aging people, focusing on sickness, poverty, loss of social roles, isolation, and demoralization. Their theories seek to explain how people arrive at such an unhappy state. They tend to see aging as a problem. Other writers emphasize the positive, viewing most elders as being in good health and in frequent contact with family, and as having at least adequate incomes and a high degree f satisfaction with life. The theories they develop try to explain how aging can have such positive outcomes. For these researchers, the problems of aging apply to a minority of older people.

Because aging can have both positive and negative outcomes, neither view is wrong. Certainly, both kinds of outcomes exist, and understanding both is essential. However, it is also important to acknowledge that in the older population as a whole, positive outcomes outnumber negative by at least 2 to 1. Even in advanced old age, there is usually a balance of positive and negative aspects of existence.

The positive-negative nature of aging is further reflected in the fact that aging is both a social problem and a great achievement. For a sizable minority of older Americans, the system does not work. These people have difficulty securing an adequate income, are discriminated against because of their age at work and in social programs, lack adequate health care, and need better housing and transportation. That these problems recur regularly is a significant social problem.

Yet he majority of older Americans do not encounter such problems, so for them the system works. They are in good health, have modest but adequate retirement pensions, own their own homes, drive their own cars, and need little in the way of social services. Believing that all older people are needy or that they all are self-sufficient are pitfalls to be avoided. Both types of people exist. The fact that most older people do not need assistance makes it possible to help those who do. For example, in times of strong resistance to new taxes, most state governments are fortunate that less than 5 percent of the older population needs publicly funded long-term care.

The Positive Face of Aging
Mr. G bounced into my office to submit an essay for a contest being held at his senior center. He had parked two miles from the office and walked the distance as part of his daily exercise program. Since his beloved wife died five years before, Mr. G had pursued an active campaign of “getting to know new people.” He volunteered as a driver for the 2002 Olympics and delivered Meals on Wheels every week. As we talked, he pulled his chair close to mine and paid careful attention to my lips. In time I became aware that he had significant hearing loss. But Mr. G compensated for this loss so well that it did not interfere with our communication. Mr. G is coping effectively with the social and physical changes of age. He is well loved by family and friends, actively engaged in seeking new experiences, and remarkably fit for a man of 85 years.

The Negative Face of Aging
Mrs. D spends most of her days sitting in her easy chair and chain smoking in front of her television. She suffers from osteoporosis that severely limits her mobility. This condition has exacerbated the depression that keeps her in bed for days at a time. She is estranged from her family. Although most of her nutrition comes from drinking Ensure, Mrs. D does go to Denny’s once a week for a big meal. The waiters there greet her and make small talk, providing the most significant social contact she has all week. Her life is structured around visits to her physician, which she tries to arrange as frequently as possible. At the age of 69, Mrs. D is socially isolated, severely depressed, and functionally limited.

Adapted from: Ashley, Robert and Amanda Barusch. 2004. Social Forces and Aging: An Introduction to Social Gerontology. 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

What is
normal aging?

»Essay by Robert Atchley

Interview with Tom Cole


Additional resources

The 12 secrets of healthy aging

Health information every older adult should know

The pocket guide to staying healthy at 50+

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