The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2018)

No Country for Old Age

Joseph E. Davis

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 3)

No matter how we mark its beginning, “old age,” as the English sociologist John Vincent has said, “is always the period of life before death.”1 The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called it the “evening of life,” a time when life is beyond its afternoon but not yet at its nightfall.2 Old age is a cultural category, configured by kinship networks, economic systems, and basic value orientations, rather than a stage defined in specific biological terms. The end of old age, however, the last stage, is always that end which we call death. Its meaning is in turn shaped by the ways in which death itself is culturally understood.

In our society, to come directly to my point, old age is understood and framed in ways that lead inevitably to its devaluation. Its status is low and arguably is falling. On its face, such a claim might sound preposterous. Surely, the opposite is true. From the Social Security safety net to the Americans with Disabilities Act, from the positive portrayals of older people in popular media to near-record life expectancy, this is unquestionably the golden age of the golden years, a time of “No Limits. No Labels,” to quote an AARP slogan. The scope of identification with the aged is wide, this time of life is treated with public respect, and extensive supports and accommodations for living well are provided. By what blinkered perspective or romanticization of the past can we fail to see this obvious progress?

There is no question that there have been a great many improvements to the material welfare and health of the aged. But these “new positive images of aging,” that, according to the sociologist Stephen Katz, “depict activity, autonomy, mobility, choice, and well-being in defiance of traditional gloomy stereotypes of decline, decrepitude, and dependency,” create their own expectations and obligations.3 These new images deny the last stage of life its own meaning and character. And without those, old age can have no valued standing.

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Notes

    1. John Vincent, Old Age (London, England: Routledge, 2003), 132.
    2. Søren Kierkegaard, Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 56.
    3. Stephen Katz, “Growing Older without Aging? Positive Aging, Anti-Ageism, and Anti-Aging.” Generations 25 (2001–02): 27.

    Joseph E. Davis is Research Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia and moderator of the Picturing the Human colloquy at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is editor (with Ana Marta González), most recently, of To Fix or to Heal: Patient Care, Public Health, and the Limits of Biomedicine (NYU Press).

    Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.3 (Fall 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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