What is ‘old age’?
This section provides photos and reflections by participants on the question: ‘What is old age?’ Their answers reveal that defining old age is not an easy task and varies greatly depending on individual experiences and perceptions. There was no general consensus on an exact definition or assigned chronological age as to what constitutes old age from either age group. Instead, both groups of participants described old age in a number of ways that included old age being: ‘just a number’; a socially constructed and/or meaningless concept; becoming mentally impaired or physically frail; a ‘personal choice’; a problem that can be solved; or ‘a stage in life.’
Reflecting on the question of ‘What is old age?’ the group of 11 older participants and 5 younger participants shared some similar thoughts on aspects of this question, and different perceptions on others. Eight participants in the older age group and all 5 participants in the younger age group believed that their understanding of ‘old age’ had been shaped in varying degrees by their family and personal life experiences, both positively and negatively.
One of the male participants in the younger age group described growing up in a family of women (his mother and aunts) who were obsessed with remaining youthful and made use of numerous anti-aging products and services. Combined with exposure to popular culture and media that reinforced these negative messages of older age, he absorbed (or internalized) these negative experiences as a child and teenager and grew to believe that aging was something to be feared. His internalized feelings about aging echo Margaret Gullette’s (2004) perspective that we are “aged by culture” – shaped by the ideology of aging as decline that is embedded in the attitudes and values of the ageist culture present in our society.
The other male participant (also from the younger age group) was also very much affected through family and personal experiences: 1) he had known a number of people who died at a young age; and 2) he had a young friend and an older family member who had chronic health conditions and/or severe physical limitations. Seeing how they managed their life situations in a positive manner was inspirational for him. The 3 female participants all discussed positive family relationships that provided role models for aging and older age. One of these participants described family relationships with both positive and negative elements. As a child she spent time with a grandmother she enjoyed being with, but due to a family history of chronic health issues and early death driven by poverty, her grandmother died fairly young. On the other hand, these family influences affected her choice of work with homeless and other marginalized people. Another female participant described growing up in a large intergenerational Middle Eastern family that had a focus on interdependence and caring for each other which gave her a very positive outlook on older age. The third female participant also shared a positive opinion on older age, which had been shaped by her relationships with her grandparents, mother and stepfather who remained active and healthy older adults. In addition to family and other personal life experiences, some participants within the younger age group also believe that their perceptions on old age have also been influenced by neoliberal values reinforced through media and popular culture in contemporary society.
Within the older group of participants, 8 out of 11 commented on family influences (5 females, all 3 males). Positive familial influences focused on parents and extended family members who functioned as role models by living active older lives and/or adapting to the changes of older age in positive ways that enabled them to remain vibrant and happy individuals. Close intergenerational family ties were also important influences throughout the lives of many participants, including ties with their grandchildren. However, negative family experiences also contributed to 2 of the participants’ attitudes about old age. For another male participant, seeing his father after he had a stroke in his 50s going from being a strong, physically active man to someone who could do nothing had a profound effect on him. From that point on, his perception of aging came to be associated with uncertainty, frailty and disability, until he retired and had to confront his own aging process. The initial period following retirement reflected the perceptions of aging he had that were based on his father’s stoke, but with time he was able to find a positive way to approach retirement through engagement in a variety of creative pursuits that benefited not only himself but others. And one of the female participants described the negative impact of having her mother die in surgery as a result of over medication that damaged her organs. However, the participant was also motivated by this experience to live a life without pharmaceutical medications and instead developed an alternative lifestyle of healthy food, cycling and cannabis. However, while this participant immigrated to Canada in her 20s, she grew up in the Netherlands where cycling is part of the culture, which also played a strong role in her healthy lifestyle.
Two other important contributing factors to the older group’s perceptions of old age centred around personal life experiences, which included work and retirement. Three of the female participants from the older group of participants worked in health care facilities with frail older adults, with 2 of these participants reporting negative feelings of aging that they associated with their work. One of those participants described having a fear of aging that included a fear of being frail, having dementia, combined with the fear of “the look of older age” (wrinkles, sagging skin, etc.) that she described as coming from a North American focus on youth and image. 1 out of 3 of the male participants also described an internalization of ageist attitudes when he retired at 65, and experienced a loss of identity and feelings of a loss of value to society which took him quite some time to work through. As a result of his recent experiences, he has associated ‘old age’ with retirement.
Thoughts on 'old age'
Although there was no consensus from either age group as to the definition of ‘old age’, there were some common threads. Both groups had a difficult time setting a specific chronological age for ‘old age.’ Within the younger age group of participants, only 3/5 participants (2 female, 1 male) assigned a chronological number to old age: one participant said 80s-90s, while one said, a ‘senior ‘or older, mid 50s+ (retirement age), and the other one said age 60, but even these 3 participants qualified their comments by saying that their opinion on ‘old age’ had changed over time and would most likely continue to do so as they too aged. One of these participants emphasized that her personal experience of old age was positioned within the context of the close intergeneration relationships within her family. The third participant clarified her answer of 60 by saying that this is the number popular culture ascribes to ‘old age.’ In addition to defining old age in a general sense, 2 out of 3 of the participants in their 30s also discussed aging specifically in relation to themselves. The male participant said that he no longer considers himself ‘young’ now that he is almost 35, which is the “cut-off” age for youth. The 32-year-old female participant on the other hand, said that she enjoys being ‘older’ as she receives more respect for the work she does than she did in her 20s. The other 2 out of 5 of the younger participants felt that the concept was quite nebulous and could not be defined by a number or even a definition. The 25-year-old female participant described old age as “a stage in life,” emphasizing too that there are multiple ways of being old. Her male counterpart, age 28, looked at aging from another perspective. He believes that the concept of old age is empty and meaningless because “you are still you from day one, until the day you drop,” while also having a perception that aging and old age are about choice – how you choose to live and die.
There was also reluctance among the older group of participants to provide an exact chronological age. Only 2 out of 11 participants (1 female, 1 male) provided numbers: 80; 65, but even these had caveats: 1) 80 is her “subjective” perspective, as 65+ is considered legal old age, while personal capacity declines in late 70s early 80s; and 2) 65 can be seen as ‘old age’ as it is associated with retirement which could be age 65, or older (or younger). How people view chronological old age shifts and changes as they themselves age. Aging also generates fear in many people in our society – of illness, losing memory and mobility, and death. Consequently, the majority of the older group of participants had a tendency to perceive ‘old age’ as an age older than they were. One female participant separated old age into two categories: ‘younger old age’ – “young seniors in the 60s who are still active and independent”; and ‘older old age’ – a category “not defined by years but by level of independence, and as long as you maintain your independence you do not fall into the ‘older old age’ category.” Her younger old/older old age categories mirror the changes that have taken place over time within the academic community over defining and categorizing old age, as age categories have shifted over time with new categories being added and the actual chronological age changing with each study.
The majority (8 out of 11) of the older group of participants were in agreement that old age could be measured by severe cognitive impairment and/or physical frailty resulting in lack of mobility (even with assisted devices such as walkers), the loss of independence, and the inability to look after yourself. However, 4 participants in the older age group also emphasized that ‘old age’ was not a stereotype. For example, for one participant ‘old age’ can mean many things: “Just older. Retired. Not even that. But still a person, still doing what you’ve always done.”
The positives as well as the negative aspects of aging were also discussed by the older group of participants which included: negative: frailty and decline, loss of independence, losing interest in new ideas; positive: retirement and having more time for partners, family, and friends, and engaging in activities and creative pursuits spent with friends. However, physical and mental frailty are a concern for older people, including the participants in this research. Six out of 11 participants emphasized the importance of optimizing health to minimize the chances of frailty and decline in older age by maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle, combined with cultivating a positive mental attitude throughout life. While leading a healthy lifestyle is a positive course of action, it also contains elements of the discourse around ‘successful aging’ in academia. Some scholars are concerned that successful aging gives the impression that through a careful lifetime regime that encompasses proper diet and exercise, living into the fourth age without serious physical or mental deterioration is an achievable goal in old age, which in general statistics refute (Masoro, 2001; Bowling, 2007; Holstein & Minkler, 2003) (See stereotypical models of old age).
The discussions by ‘Aged by popular culture’ participants reflect the widely debated dialogue within the academic community on the concept of old age and which continue around the question of identifying old age. For example, just as a number of participants in this research project questioned the concept of old age, some scholars argue that even having a category called ‘old age’ is problematic as it generates a situation of ‘otherness’ that ignores the actual continuities of life that take place over time (Bytheway, 2005).
Although it is clear that the meaning of ‘old age’ is dependent on individual perceptions, these interpretations have been shaped by familial, societal, cultural and historical factors. And unfortunately, in contemporary Western society these two simple words have been transformed into a phrase that too often carries strong negative and stigmatized connotations, and in the process has helped to promote ageism – “the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age” (World Health Organization, 2020).
Age is just a number
“I recently watched a clip on young children being asked how they were different and they’d have two kids sitting beside each other… One might be in a wheelchair and one might not be. One might be of a different race and one might not be. And they were asked how are you different? Do you know that the children didn’t notice race [or] disability… [They were] totally accepting of that other person as a person…
“Why draw attention to age?… Age is just a number. Why can’t [the media] report on us the way [they] report on anybody else? … Get to know us… and you will see that age is just a number… Enthusiasm is age…we’re courageous, we’re inspired and we can be outrageous… Show us as such…”
[anonymous, age 68]
“Well to me, I think probably because of my experience with my parents and my grandparents, is that old age is to me just like any other age. I went to Palm Springs with my mum and W. just this past spring break and I went too… And we did a ton of hiking and a lot of the time I can barely keep up to W… And it’s not just about physically fit but they’re very mentally with it, which is to me very normal. I wouldn’t think, oh maybe they can’t do this. I would just be like yeah of course they can do this. Why would they not be able to?”
(K. Meredith, age 31)
Aging and choice
“This [photo] is more of a metaphor for my whole set of pictures, and how I felt that old age was something that could possibly eventually be conquered and that sort of starts with our perception of it in the now…I think [what makes a person old] is personal choice…choosing to live their lives like they’re old and also having horrible things happen that are uncontrollable which makes them unable to continue… There’s a phrase. I don’t entirely agree with it…’You either get busy living or you get busy dying’. That’s the general gist of what I’m getting at.
The game of chess starts off as this null set. It is a multifaceted thing but each individual facet can be understood. Everything always stays the same and then over the course of time, depending on what choices you make and how you choose to face the challenges presented to you, you either are successful or you reset.”
[D. Parker – age 28]
A stage in life
“I don’t have a clear vision for how older age [should be portrayed in media and popular culture]… but I think the overall goal that I would hope for is that it isn’t portrayed as anything really. It’s not a separate… I don’t think that aging needs to necessarily be portrayed as anything in media. I think that it’s just a stage of people’s life and it can come with challenges, but health challenges can come at any time of your life…Obviously there are certain things that may come with aging such as grandchildren or spending time with friends, but spending time with friends is applicable across all age groups. Laughing or being concerned about somebody else, that’s something that happens across all age groups as well… [But] I don’t think that it’s helpful to assign certain stereotypes to age groups because it isn’t even accurate. I mean my stepdad has had more health challenges than my grandparents have and he’s in his 50s… So, I don’t think that the media needs to portray aging at all if that makes sense…
[anonymous, age 25]
The concept of old age
“People tend to treat old age as something that will never happen to them. How many times have you heard, ‘I’ll worry about that when I’m older’? This photo represents the emptiness of the concept of old age by juxtapositioning it with Christmas. You have this expectation built up over the year from your very small child, again in North American culture that at Christmas everything will be happy and all right at Christmas. Then it comes and it’s just another day. I guess I want to say with this photo that no matter how old you get, barring mental failure, you’re still you from day one till the day you drop… I guess I don’t respect the concept of old age…On a personal level I’m a young person [with] the mental mindset that eventually I will be older, more rich, more successful and I will be able to do these things. Or when I get too old I won’t be able to do these things. I feel the truth is there’s only the moment now and when I’m 50 it’ll be oh, now. When I’m 80 it’ll be oh, now…”
[D. Parker – age 28]
A moving line
[Your question ‘what is an old person’] “is a good question, because some people that are 60 are old in their thinking and some people that are 90 are clear and active and very engaging…It’s not really an age-related definition as much as perhaps people’s own perception of their own age and stage of life…
[As for media and popular culture]… it perhaps depends on the age that the interviewer is because, you know, people become seniors at different ages. You become eligible for discounts and special bank accounts when you are 55. You’re eligible for a pension when you are typically 65. And so it’s in a way a moving line…I don’t really have a definition of old age…”
(M. Bocking, age 72)