Professor Marshall

LESSON 13: Aging and the Elderly

Target Competencies (Outcomes)

Define concepts, terms and theories related to the sociological study of aging

Examine attitudes toward death and dying

Analyze aging risks and rewards

You will demonstrate your competence by:

Completing the learning activities in this Learning Plan

Your performance will be successful when:

You can categorize different senior groups by age

You can describe the "graying of the United States"

You can determine the social aspects of the aging process

You can articulate the historical trends related to elderly populations

You can articulate the current trends related to elderly populations

You can characterize the stages of death and dying

You can identify ageist thinking at the micro and the macro levels

You can compare and contrast current aging theories from a sociological point of view

Learning Activities

1. If you have not yet done so, READ Chapter 13 of your text.

3. COMPLETE the lesson below.

Aging In America

"Not only are there many more aged people than there were, but they no longer spontaneously integrate with the community: society is compelled to decide upon their status, and the decision can only be taken at government level. Old age has become the object of a policy" -

Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of Age, 1972 



There are a many parallels between the social statuses of the old and other marginalized groups in American society—between ageism and racism/sexism and other "isms." Social opportunities for marginalized groups are often granted rather than earned. These groups are stigmatized for unchangeable attributes, perceived as having lesser ability than those in the mainstream. Both have a history of being discriminated against in workplace, where they serve as a balance between the supply and demand for labor. For the elderly, their place in society has been so marginalized that Congress had to pass legislation recognizing their rights: the Older Americans Acts.Other marginalized groups have had to fight for their rights also, as evidenced by the Women's Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the GLBTQ Movement. Often, the elderly, women, and other disenfranchised groups are also viewed as political minorities.


As our country and society become increasingly age-stratified, for research purposes age groups become part of what is referred to as a cohort. Age cohorts, or cohorts separated by distinct eras in time, are often referred to by catch phrases such as "Baby Boomers," "Gen Xers" and "Generation Why." These cohorts are generally tracked through time and researchers use this information to make generalizations about the group.

Changes in the family structure have increased age segregation in our society. Younger generations may not be receiving the direction and advice they need from their elders and stories about family heritage and the wisdom of the old are not being passed on. When forgotten, history repeats itself—often to the detriment of contemporary time.

Why should you be concerned with an aging society?

While getting old might seem like it's a very long way off for you, in your lifetime American society will age dramatically. Aging industrialized societies share two demographic characteristics:

  • First, birth or fertility rates are generally low. What this means is that less young people exist in a society over time. When women choose to have less children this also means there will be less young people in a society to fill needed occupations as old people retire. This is good news for you! This means that when you're ready to secure a job you should have good opportunities to find a job to your liking (of course, were not talking about salary; rather, were only talking about the choices you will have in selecting a job or career to which you are suited).
  • Second, generally speaking we have long life span (or longevity) due to high quality medical technology and access to doctors and other medical specialists who can help us to live longer. Combined with high quality medical care we also, in high income nations, tend to be more able to access high-quality foods as well as to take better care of ourselves ( \although in recent years many high income nations have experienced rates of disease such as diabetes directly related to obesity).

When people live longer and when women have less children, societies will gray. In response to an aging society governments and other structural elements must account for how elders will be taking care of.

Recently, in research on aging, it has become necessary to classify the aged into categories. There was never a need to do this in the past because average mortality ages were relatively low. Now that we have many people who live well into their 90s or into their 100s, we understand that research on the elderly varies quite a bit depending on how old a person is. Therefore, there are now three generally recognized categories of "old" in the research literature:

The Young Old

Between the ages of 65 and 74 is great intensity very active both physically and mentally. Resources to prepare the young old for later life are abundant in our society today. Although most are retired some continue to work for love of their occupation. The young old travel frequently and often outshine members of younger generation due to their high level of physical health and activity. This group tends to be engaged and active in their own communities and they often dislike that they are stereotyped alongside others who are much older with classifications as frail and helpless. This group tends to be politically active in organizations which fight stereotypes related to ageism in society as well as with groups that lobby for laws to outlaw discrimination on the basis of age.

The Middle Old

The middle old are between the ages of 75 and 84. In this age group older people generally begin to define their own selves as old. Most people in the United States today, according to current research, don't view themselves as old until they reach the age of 74. The middle old are sandwiched between a healthy younger old group and the old-old, where realizations of mortality becomes much more concrete. The middle very widely in health outcomes as well as in activity levels. While some in this group will continue to experience good physical and mental ability, others will begin to notice physical and mental impacts of growing old. Mostly retired, this group also experiences higher rates of loneliness and depression as lifestyles may have changed radically for them once they have reached this designation. Up to the age of 80 most elderly people continue to enjoy rich lives; after the age of 80 frailty begins to increase dramatically. In addition our brains begin to lose the functionality past the age of 80. Illness also becomes more prevalent and higher levels of health care are sought by this group.

The Old Old

The old old are aged 85 and older. In this age bracket frailty becomes a prevalent concern. Frailty is often a common precedent for death, and deterioration can be precipitous, both physically and mentally. People in this age group require increased dependency for personal care and emotional problems including depression and anxiety as they experience physical weakness, stress related to getting older, higher level of exhaustion, and increased depression when faced with their own mortality. Well-being along the old old requires continued support from family members as well as levels of social activity which can be adapted to their new self-concept. While many in this age group outlive loved ones and family members is doesn't necessarily reduce the well-being of this age group provided that concepts of self are able to be adjusted and appropriate community supports are available.

Graying societies can also mean opportunity in a different way for younger members of that society: career opportunities.

Not only made their be abundant career opportunities as baby boomers continue to retire, new fields of employment will become necessary as we expand our knowledge of aging. We will need more members of our society to work in fields related to elder care (both physical and emotional care) such as doctors, nurses, social workers, physical activity directors, and so forth. For you, this means that should you want to work with the elderly you will likely have a good opportunity to do so in a career field which may provide not only a lucrative salary but also emotional satisfaction.

Aging and Stratification

Not all elderly people age in the same way as not all elderly people have access to the same social benefits. When research on the elderly is done from a sociological perspective, we find that minorities who are old have not had access to the same social resources as non-minorities in American society over the course of their lifetime – is impacts the age of death as well as illness in old age and adverse way. Minorities tend to have higher rates of chronic disease which impact how long they will live, more so than non-minorities. Sociological research from the conflict perspective asserts that the reason that minorities tend to fare less well than non-minorities in American society are largely due to access to health care over the course of a lifetime. Minorities work in lower paying jobs which either do not provide health care or in which the minority cannot afford to purchase health care due to their low salary. Of course, this should be changing with the introduction of the ACA, which requires all Americans to carry health care insurance.

Another interesting component related to research on aging is that of gender. Men tend to die at younger ages than women and sociological research can point us to some of the reasons why:

  • Women tend to seek advice from health care professionals more than men do. This is indicative of women taking better care of themselves physically and emotionally over time and can lead to differences in mortality rates between men and women.
  • Women tend to be more vocal about their health overall. Women discuss issues related to health with each other and children discuss issues related to health with their mothers more so than their fathers. These open and frank conversations that women have about health and health care may contribute to higher longevity than men have.
  • Women tend to have better support structures in place for aging than do men. Women are more likely to reach out to mental health professionals when they deal with issues related to aging from an emotional standpoint — depression and anxiety that an elder women may be feeling is more likely to be discussed with a healthcare professional then is depression and anxiety that an older man may be feeling.

Divorce may also work in women's favor rather than in men's favor in old age. When couples divorce in old age often women's responsibilities are greatly reduced. Where a woman may have had to take care of the home, cook meals, clean, and care for a male spouse for many years, when elders divorce women have the opportunity to take more care of their own selves and to direct their lives as they see fit without consideration for anybody else. This may increase women's longevity. Conversely, when elders divorce men seem to fare worse – research indicates that elder men are more likely to remarry when compared to elder women. Not only are elder men more likely to remarry, the women that they remarry tend to be much younger than them. From the symbolic interaction perspective, what this tells us is that men likely experience marriage and gender roles much differently (and have better experiences within the marital relationship) than do women.


What should become clear to you as he read the material on aging in American society and age stratification is that our concepts of age and what it means to be old have greatly changed in the last 100 years. In the 17th century, life expectancy was 35. Today in the United States life expectancy is more than double what it was in the 17th century. This has shifted our perception of aging and what it means to be old and further, this is a field of study for sociologists which is bountiful with research opportunities. You are encouraged to consider doing additional research on the subject.