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Attempts to define elders reveal cultural variations about what it means to be an elder in different societies. In some traditional societies, to be old is to be respected, considered wise, and revered as a teacher of traditions. In postmodern society most definitions of elder have come to be related to chronological age, degrees of disability, accepted roles (especially those considered economically productive), and age discrimination.

There are three significant changes in demographics related to elders. The first is the increase in individual life expectancy. In the United States a child born in 1998 can expect to live about twenty-nine years longer than a child born in 1900 (American Association of Retired Persons 2000). Life expectancy in developing countries is expected to rise from forty-one years in 1950 to seventy years in 2020. Not only are individuals experiencing greater longevity, but societies as a whole are also aging. Worldwide, by 2020 there will be more than a billion people over sixty years of age. More than 700 million of them will live in developing countries (World Health Organization 1998). The proportion of the population aged sixty and over is expected to reach 23 percent in North America, 17 percent in East Asia, 12 percent in Latin America and 10 percent in South Asia (World Health Organization 1998). The percentage of seniors in U.S. society increased from 2 percent in 1790 to 12.7 percent in 1999 (Atchley 2000).

A second important demographic change is that the elderly population (people sixty-five or older) is itself aging. In the United States in 1999, the eighty-five and older group included 4.2 million elders (American Association of Retired Persons 2000). In 2020, the proportion of the population sixty and over who are among the oldest old (eighty and above) will reach over 20 percent in most of Europe and 21 percent in Japan.

A third important change in the population of elders in the United States is the increasing racial-ethnic diversity among this population. Minority populations are expected to represent 25 percent of the elderly population by 2030 (American Association for World Health 1999).

Many facets of U.S. life are affected by these three demographic trends. Most elders are experiencing better health than previous age cohorts (Atchley 2000; Moody 2000) and consequently can look forward to greater activity in later years. Families, as well as older individuals themselves, are challenged by the new phenomenon of twenty to thirty years of life after retirement. This extension of life raises issues about how individuals will use this time in later life and will maintain their quality of life. Care provision for elders who become disabled is an increasing challenge for families around the world (Administration on Aging 2001). The increase in numbers of elders eighty and older has raised concern about the availability of health care and social services, as well as the development of many such services since the 1960s (Morgan and Kunkel 2001).

Most elders continue to perform in roles as they always have while adding new and unexpected roles. As always, they are sexual beings. They continue to participate in hobbies and other activities. They are parents, spouses, and friends, and they maintain most of the patterns and characteristics of earlier times in the life-cycle. In addition, elders can have several careers; take many roles in families and the community; and maintain good health through disease prevention, healthy diet, exercise programs, and improved medical technology. New roles include expanded volunteer activities, nontraditional student roles, caring for grandchildren in parental roles, and pursuing creative, artistic, and athletic interests.

Sometimes, because of life situations, elders change in unexpected ways. They may begin to abuse alcohol to cope with difficulties. Their personality traits may seem to change because of medications or mental or physical changes in their bodies. They may become sad, angry, or depressed because of unexpected losses or changes in their lives. These situational changes are not an inevitable part of the aging process. They can be treated in many of the same ways as they are in younger persons.

What it means to be an elder varies by culture. New roles that many elders take on include volunteering, being a student, caring for grandchildren, and pursuing creative, artistic, and athletic interests. A/P WIDE WORLD PHOTOS

Many political and policy debates have emerged in response to the aging of society. The questions include the chronological age at which an individual should be considered an elder, the appropriateness of current patterns of retirement, the financing of health care, and other resource utilization issues (Moody 2000). In the 1980s and 1990s an intergenerational equity debate emerged that blamed elders for using an excessive amount of limited public resources. Meredith Minkler (2000) and other social policy analysts argue that society needs to look at inequality in distribution of resources among socioeconomic classes rather than focusing on generational inequality.

Robert Butler coined the word ageism in 1968 to describe the process of systematic stereotyping of people because they are old. Ageism is a term that parallels other isms in society, such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism. "Ageism allows [other] generations to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings" (Butler 1975, 12). All people, including adolescents and elders, can be discriminated against based on age. Common myths and stereotypes about elders that form the basis for ageism are often included in cartoons and jokes about senility, frailty, and disabilities. These result in invisibility, disrespect, and avoidance of older persons. The popular media can promote negative attitudes and images of elders based on ageism for young and old alike.

In sum, it is important to note that the context of the aging experience includes socioeconomic class position, amount of social support, gender, ethnicity, health status, and other factors (Dressel, Minkler, and Yen 2000). Younger members of society are socialized to the elder experience by cultures that structure social boundaries between generations, distribute power and resources between genders and ethnic populations over the life-cycle, and perpetuate stories and mythology (Sokolovsky 1993).

Overall, the opportunity to have a longer life with increasingly productive roles is, for the first time, possible. Societies around the world are challenged to change many of the negative attitudes toward the aging process. Jeanette Takamura (2002) notes that "the demographic revolution occurring will not by-pass the developing world" and suggests that "the strongest impetus for refocusing the international policy agenda to give heightened and timely attention to aging as a social and economic issue of significant resonance will continue to come from outside of the U.S. due to the critical demographic impact in such countries as Japan, Germany, France, and other countries that are aging more rapidly than the U.S." However, regardless of the immediacy of the aging population it is critical that all countries focus attention on structural integration of the elderly. This policy agenda must look for better ways to integrate the aging population as a strong and contributory force in future social structures and at the same time find new, compassionate ways to meet the needs of elderly individuals who require care.


Administration on Aging. (2001). Innovative Programs and Activities of National Significance under the National Family Caregiver Support Program. Washington, DC: Author

American Association of Retired Persons. (2000). A Profile of Older Americans: Based on Data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Washington, DC: Author.

American Association for World Health. (1999). Healthy Aging Healthy Living—Start Now! Resource Booklet. Washington, DC: Author.

Atchley, R. C. (2000). Social Forces and Aging, 9th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Butler, R. (1975). Why Survive?: Being Old in America. New York: Harper and Row.

Dressel, P.; Minkler, M.; and Yen, I. (2000). "Gender, Race, Class, and Aging: Advances and Opportunities." In Critical Gerontology: Perspectives from Political and Moral Economy, ed. M. Minkler and C. Estes. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Minkler, M. (2000). "New Challenges for Gerontology." In Intersections in Aging: Readings in Social Gerontology, ed. E. Markson and L. Hollis-Sawyer. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

Moody, H. (2000). Aging Concepts and Controversies, 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Morgan, L., and Kunkel, S. (2001). Aging: The Social Context, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Sokolovsky, J. (1993). "Images of Aging: A Cross-Cultural Perspective." Generations 17:51–54.

Takamura, J. (in press). "Towards a New Era in Aging and Social Work." Journal of Gerontological Social Work.

World Health Organization. (1998). Population Aging— A Public Health Challenge. Geneva, Switzerland: Author.



Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily & Marriage Traditions