The Cultural Construction of Elderhood and Older Adulthood

Steve Albert and Maria Cattell in Old Age in Global Perspective (1994) make a helpful distinction between elders, old age, and ancients. A notion of elderhood appears to exist in most non-Western societies and is largely based on combining social and functional definitions of one's place in the life cycle. It is used as a marker of social maturity for population cohorts in relation to others in the community. This is contrasted to boundaries of old age which can take some of the criteria of elderhood and combine them with how a person's individual physical being and behavior reflect the biological aging process. In many tribally organized societies elderhood is accomplished by passing through ritual transitions and is not necessarily tied to extended chronological years. Persons who do not pass these ritual markers will not be considered elders, no matter what their age. Among Australian aboriginal tribes as well as in Africa's pastoral peoples, persons could enter the beginning ranks of elderhood in their early 30s, and proceed over time and through ritual passage into different elder statuses.

Cultural perceptions of older adulthood or old age link changes in the person's physical being (reduction of work capacity, beginning of menopause) with social changes (such as the birth of grandchildren) to create a culturally defined sense of oldness. Like elderhood, this social boundary can have various gradations that can even extend beyond the point of death into a category of ancestors (Kopytoff, 1971). However, many societies also recognize those truly ancient adults who show sharp declines in functioning as a different category of old. For example, to the Ju/'hoansi people of Botswana old age is perceived to begin relatively early and can start in a person's mid-40s when and if changes in physical capabilities begin to diminish functional ability. Here there are three levels of "old," a beginning early stage, a frail but functional stage, and a physically disabled designation. Counterbalancing the Ju/'hoansi linkage of older adults with physical decline is a powerful association with greater spiritual and emotional strength often put to use by the aged in healing rituals or settling disputes (Rosenberg, 1997).

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