Old

Every generation seems to yearn for some glorious era in a mythic past when older people were honored and suffered little from material deprivation, derision, or debility. In the late twentieth century, the aging society of the United States has many reasons to seek such comforting ideas about the experience of old age in Western history. Growing alarm about the "graying" of an unbalanced federal budget, concern about allocating expensive medical resources, fears of intergenerational conflict, anxiety about prolonged technological dying and medical indigence, all give a strikingly contemporary, secular resonance to the Psalmist's plea: "Do not cast me off in old age, when my strength fails me and my hairs are gray, forsake me not, O God."

Recent historical scholarship (Cole et al.) reveals no grand narrative, and certainly no "golden age," capable of unifying the diverse experiences of aging and old people in the past. Of all previously silenced groups, the elderly— "clothed as they were with official respect and buried, as they often were, in reality"—may prove the greatest challenge to historians (Stearns, p. 2). Despite the difficulty of generalizing about the historical experience of older people, we can follow the evolution of life in Western history. This entry will sketch these themes. It will also highlight research findings about aging and the life course in ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern Western societies and conclude with the problems posed by the end of modernity.

Every society creates symbols, images, and rituals that help people live meaningfully within the limits of human existence. Cultural meanings of aging and old age are linked to these symbolic forms. Western culture has traditionally relied on two archetypal images to represent the wholeness, unity, or meaning of human experience in time: the division of life into ages (or stages), and the metaphor of life as a journey. Classical antiquity first connected the ages of life and the journey of life, weaving them into its beliefs about the nature of human existence and the cosmos to which human life was intimately linked. In the Middle Ages, Christian writers adopted Greco-Roman ideas about the ages of life and conceived the journey of life as a sacred pilgrimage. Between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries, secular, scientific, and individualistic tendencies steadily eroded ancient and medieval understandings that aging was a mysterious part of the eternal order of things. Instead it became an individual experience that was best explained scientifically and divorced from larger communal rituals and cosmic meanings. In the early twenty-first century, we are living through the search for ideals adequate to contemporary culture, in which the recovery of cosmic and collective sources of meaning may stimulate appreciation of the spiritual and moral aspects of aging without devaluing individual development (Cole).

All traditions that preceded the modern, scientific effort to master old age share an appreciation of its mystery and complexity. The resulting tendency to view old age as both a blessing and a curse is therefore prominent in Hebrew, Greco-Roman, and Christian writings, each with its own variation.

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