In today’s industrialised world societies have been socially programmed to accept as reality that being elderly is synonymous with being frail, white haired, disoriented, demented, rigid, sexually inactive, miserable, backward, ignorant, arrogant, in need of assisted living and stupid among other things.
Some people, laden with the fear of becoming old, have gone as far as trying to arrest any aging signs through drastic measures that include plastic surgery.
Goodman (2010), notes that because of the relentless stereotypical notions about aging and concomitant myths, it has become difficult to conceive the image of a wise old person.
The tragedy is that these stereotypes and myths are largely accepted today as a matter of course. However, individuals encounter stereotypes associated with gender and race and are more likely to think critically about them, while accepting age stereotypes without question (Levy et al 2000). Fredvang and Biggs (2012) aptly propound that the concept of aging is a social construct and the construction affects people’s perceptions of elderly adults and their own aging.
How we treat older adults is influenced by social factors including personal assumptions, expectations and fears about growing older (Butler 2008). The social construction of aging is rooted in ageism — the systemic labelling and discrimination against older adults. Butler argues that ageism is like what skin colour is to racism and what sexism is to gender.
Ageism bred other philosophies such as the disengagement perspective whose proponents argue that aging makes people less active and they disengage voluntarily from society (Cumming and Henry 1961). However, the irony behind the disengagement perspective is that it is society, through social norms, that pressures older adults to relinquish their social responsibilities to younger people. This perspective was driven by industrial capitalism where the “old” workers were retired in favour of the younger ones deemed more active and energetic. The social construct of old age was then invented to foster the needs and complexity of modern, capitalist economy.
Before the industrial revolution, retirement as a phase of life did not exist, people worked until they were disabled or too frail or infirm to perform (Palmor 1990). As societies industrialise and modernise, the elderly suffer exclusion (Cowgill and Holmes (1972). In countries such as Zimbabwe, retirement was introduced to serve the interests of white capital; replacing the supposedly old black worker with the younger one because age rendered him “useless”.
Social norms enforce the notion of who is elderly and “useless” in society and prescribe roles for them. Some of these norms and prescriptions are enforced through legislation. For example, there is no clear-cut standard measure of who is old. WHO (2012) suggests that the cut-off point of being considered old should be somewhere between 50-55 years for “semi-peripheral nations” such as those in Africa. In Zimbabwe, 65 years is the cut-off point although the retirement age was moved from 65 years to 60 years.
Language is also used to reinforce stereotypes, myths and negative images about aging and the elderly. In Zimbabwe we have some of the following terms and their implied meanings: mudhara — dirty old man; gogaz — backward old lady; hohonwa — fossil; and musharukwa — old buck, among others.
The media also reinforces negative images towards aging in movies, feature stories, advertisements and news items. For instance in Zimbabwe, the elderly are mostly featured in news items that portray witchcraft, suffering, dependency, backwardness and helplessness.
The concept of aging has become one huge social construct scandal with serious consequences. Age has become the basis for social and economic control with different age groups being allowed varying access to resources. Butler (2008) postulates that ageism results in reduced access to resources for adults and elder abuse.
As a social construct, age is influenced by the ideology of the state’s capital labour relations on aging and the effects of social policy for elderly people (McMullin 2000). Scholars such as Dhemba (2015), note that in Zimbabwe this has resulted in selective social services for the elderly. The government would rather fund programmes targeting the youth than those targeting the elderly for political expediency.
The social construct of aging would have us believe that as soon as a person reaches a certain age they become automatically valueless to society, but in reality there is no drastic disengagement from such people, most remain active with invaluable contributions to society. Palmer (1990), for instance, notes that in aging adults there exists no sudden or general loss of ability at 65. Havinghurst (1961) argues that older adults are happier when they are engaged in daily life and social interactions. They are adaptive, replacing old opportunities to remain active with new ones. Many adults continue working in the same or new capacity even after retirement age (AARP International 2015). Robert Mugabe and Nelson Mandela continued to be globally respected statesmen well after the age of 60 years. Bennet (1994) gives the example of Mary Harper who sailed singlehandedly across the Atlantic at 79-years-old.
The social construct of aging belies the fact that older adults have immense valuable contribution to society. For instance they are valued for heritage, leadership, wisdom etc. They are also the repository of indigenous knowledge systems. The Associated Press (2004) cites the example of people who fled a tsunami in the Indian Ocean after being alerted by an elder who had used indigenous knowledge systems to predict the danger. The older adults also continue to play priceless roles such as grand parenting that comes with multiple roles, which include education, entertainment, surrogate parenting and paying educational costs among others. One of the most underrated roles requiring total engagement that the older adults play is care giving to orphans, the sick and other vulnerable groups in society. Others are still renowned businesspeople and consultants in various fields.
The ageist stereotypes, through general assumptions and generalisations are socially designed to make us believe that older adults are a homogenous group in order to perpetuate the myths and stereotypes about aging, yet this group of older adults is made up of different individuals (male and female) with different life courses. Social norms on the other hand, dictate to these individuals the roles and “appropriate” behaviour and the extent of their engagement with other members of society keeping in mind that they should “act their age”.
- AARP. (2014). “Staying ahead of the curve 2013: The AARP work and career study.” Washington, DC: AARP.
- Alliance for Aging Research. (2003). Ageism: How Healthcare Fails the Elderly. New York, NY: Alliance for Aging Research.
- Associated Press. (2004). “Elders’ knowledge of the oceans spares Thai ‘sea gypsies’ from tsunami disaster.” Retrieved from http://www.freerepublic.com /focus/f-news/1311910/posts Associated Press (January 4, 2022).
- Butler, R. M. (2008). The longevity revolution. New York, NY: Public Affairs.
- Cowgill, D.O. and L.D. Holmes, (eds). (1972). Aging and Modernization. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Cumming, Elaine, and William Earl Henry. (1961). Growing Old. New York: Basic.
- Dhemba, J. (2013). “Social protection for the elderly in Zimbabwe: Issues, challenges and prospects.” African Journal of Social Work, Volume 3 Number (1), 1-22
- Goodman, L. (2010). “Between two worlds: Malidoma Somé on rites of passage.” Sun Magazine, p. 415. Gray Panthers Twin Cities. (2017). Home Page. Retrieved from http://graypantherstwincities.org/ (January 4, 2022).
- Havighurst, R. J. (1961). Successful aging. The Gerontologist, 1, 8–13.
- Levy, B. R., Slade, M. B., Kunkel, S. R., & Kasl, S. V. (2002). “Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 261–270.
- McMullin, J A 2000. Diversity and the state of sociological aging theory. The Gerontologist Vol. 40, No. 5, 517-8
- Palmore, E. B. (1990). Ageism: Negative and positive. New York, NY: Springer. Retrieved from http://assets.pewresearch. org/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/05/16170850 /PI_2017.05.17_(January 3, 2022).
- World Health Organization. 2012. “Definition of an Older or Elderly Person.” Retrieved from http://www.who.int/healthinfo/survey/ageingdefnolder/en/index.html (January 4, 2022).
Source: Kamurai Mudzingwa and Mashura Mudzingwa