Aging Elderhood and Old

From a biological standpoint aging involves structural and functional changes over time, both maturational and senescent, which normally occur among males and females when they pass puberty. Maturing over a prolonged life span is one of the species-specific traits of Homo sapiens (Crews & Garruto, 1994). While most other primates live in multi-aged communities, only human societies have developed systems that require high levels of prolonged material and social interdependence between generations. Moreover, humans are the only primate species where substantial numbers of females survive well past their reproductive span and where surviving older adults past the fifth and sixth decades of life are supported by kin and community when their functional capacity declines. A recent study of Hadza foragers in Africa showed that it was in fact grandmothers and elderly aunts who had the most to do with assuring the survival of children into early adulthood (Hawkes, O'Connell, Blurton Jones, Alvarez, & Charnov, 1998).

The cultural construction of the human life cycle creates substantial variation in how aging and a society's most aged individuals are perceived and treated (Ikels & Beall, 2000). Human cultural systems recognize the importance of life cycle patterns by linguistically creating labels delineating a stage of late adulthood. The conception of being "old" is a near human universal and is culturally constructed by a variety of measures. Only one study to date has systematically used worldwide data to examine this issue. Anthropologists Anthony Glascock and Susan Feinman (1981) found that in a random sample of 60 societies there were three basic means of identifying a category of "old": change of social/economic role; chronology; and change in physical characteristics. Their study produced the following conclusions:

1. A shift in social/economic roles was the most common marker of being designated as old. Typical examples are: one's children having their own kids; changes in a person's productive activities; or beginning to receive more goods and services than you give.

2. A change in physical capabilities is the least common marker. Severe frailty or dementia are quite rare as initial indicators of being called old. This suprising result happened because sampled societies typically create a category of old starting before many people encounter much radical signs of physical decline.

3. About half of the societies use multiple definitions of being aged. Such varied markers of aging are commonly applied to distinct categories of the "old" itself, which can include a phase of oldness linked to images associated with a movement toward death and the loss of normal functioning.

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