Defining and categorizing old age

What exactly is meant by ‘old age’?

Historical and social background

Since the early 1800s, old age in Western culture has been perceived in either a positive or negative light based on a number of factors:  1) “a ‘good’ old age was depicted by good health, virtue, self-reliance and salvation; while 2) a ’bad’ old age reflected sickness, sin, dependence, decay and disease” (Cole, 1992 in McHugh, 2003). Victorian morality also associated ‘bad’ old age with sin, as well as decay and dependence. Additionally, prior to the industrialization of the 1800s-1900s a primarily rural economy relied on experience that came with age, enabling older (and healthy) adults to fall into the ‘good’ old age category that had value within the society (Addison, 2006). This changed however with the increasing industrialization of the early 1900s which relied on strength and speed, qualities found in young workers that would increase productivity and profit. At the same time, the ‘Cult of Youth’ (Addison, 2006) that developed in Hollywood in the 1910s-1920s has now become ingrained in the consciousness of North Americans and much of the Western world, where it reinforces the belief that old age should be avoided regardless of the consequences. Association with older people is discouraged based on the grounds that doing so would “devalue” the younger person in contact with the aging individual (Calasanti, 2007, p. 337).

In addition, the concept of old age has also been influenced by a number of additional factors, including the biomedicalization of aging, which is strongly linked to an ever-expanding anti-aging movement that grew out of Hollywood’s ‘cult of youth’. This view of aging and old age advances a socially constructed Western view of aging as a medical problem or disease which promotes medical practices and supports policies that reflect this perspective (Estes & Binney, 1989).

Categories of older age

Categories of older age have been debated and have evolved over the years. Neugarten (1974) was the first to draw the distinction between the ‘young-old’ and the old-old.’ These categories have since been expanded to include the ‘oldest-old,’ while the division of old age has re-emerged as the third and fourth ages as proposed by Laslett (1996). The categories of old age are not straightforward as the actual defined chronological age varies depending on the study: 1) the Young Old (or third age) – those individuals younger than age 65 or 75 [e.g. 60-69 or 65-74]); 2) Middle-old -70-79 or 75-84; and 3) the Old-Old (or the oldest-old or the fourth age) – those over age 80+ or 85+ [although a very few studies refer to the fourth age as 75+). During the fourth age, research often focuses on physiological changes in vision, hearing and physical function (Baltes & Smith, 2003; Wingfield, Tun & McCoy, 2005; Smith, et al., 2001 in Coleman, et al. 2008); or on cognitive decline; Salthouse, 2009; Aartsen, et al., 2002).

The third age” is a concept popularized by Peter Laslett’s (1989) book, A Fresh Map of Life. Laslett hypothesized that due to a combination of demographic and socioeconomic factors a new and positive stage of life was emerging for older adults after retirement (specifically when the majority of a birth cohort became 70 years of age). Laslett argued that in place of “old age,” the retirement years provided older adults with greater agency, enabling them to make individual choices that would translate into personally fulfilling lives outside the confines of work providing them with a new identity – “a new third age.” Although Laslett built on the model of successful aging, in order to create a concept that provided another positive model of aging it was also embedded in the neoliberal ideology of personal responsibility and choice, which includes the concept of agelessness and anti-aging.

Even though old age, now defined as being the fourth (or final) age, has been shifted to a time closer to death, dominant media takes a contradictory position by either reinforcing the belief that frailty does not need to be part of life, with stories of exceptional physically fit fourth age individuals running marathons in their 90s or by presenting scaremongering newspaper articles and TV programs that suggest that dementia and mental decline are inevitable, reinforcing a model of aging as frailty and decline. Consequently, because old age has become even more defined by physical and mental decline, individuals could be considered ‘old’ at 60 if frailty and dependence were present. But, even living to age 90+ does not prevent the pressure to age “successfully” to cease. There seems to be a growing momentum, reflected in popular culture as well as academia, to banish the notion of frail old age entirely, and replace it with a model of successful aging that suggests anyone can be healthy, active and functionally independent right up until the very moment of death.

As a result, some scholars argue that the influence of the successful aging model in fact supports a perspective that views aging in a negative light, consequently creating even more fear and anxiety around the normal aging process (Kaufman, et al, 2004). Where previously ‘old age’ may have been conceptualized as age 60+ or 65+, the model of successful aging has not eliminated the stigma or negative associations of ‘old age,’ it has merely shifted the definition of “old” to an older age category where frailty resides—the fourth age (Laslett, 1996).