Rediscovering Elderhood: A Lost Life Stage?

What is elderhood and how is it different from retirement? That is one of the questions explored by gerontologist Jennifer Inker in a recent presentation as part of the Williamsburg Place Lecture Series. Inker is an instructor in the Department of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University where she teaches psychology of aging, aging and human values, senior mentoring, and classes in the Assisted Living Administration track.

“Age is a social construct,” explains Inker. Ageing has largely meant different things to different people in different epochs. Old age used to be for the few. Pre-industrial humans often didn’t make it to elderhood as life expectancy was much lower until the 18th century. Life expectancy was under 25 years in the early Colony of Virginia, and in 17th-century New England, about 40 percent died before reaching adulthood. The combination of high infant mortality and deaths in young adulthood from accidents, epidemics, plagues, wars, and childbirth significantly lowered life expectancy at birth. Life was mostly poor, nasty, brutish, and short—even within society.

If he survived until the age of 21, however, a wealthy Englishman in the 16th century could expect to live into his 60s. If they lived long enough, “people went through three life stages,” says Inker. “These were childhood, adulthood, and elderhood.” In many societies, elders were seen as sources of knowledge and keepers of wisdom. Their experience was valued. In tribal societies they might know where to find food or how to best hunt animals.


Old Age Born in the Industrial Age

The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century brought big changes. “Old age entered the scene,” says Inker. “And we began to see a fourth life stage, with adolescence now preceding adulthood.” In previous ages, children typically entered adulthood without any transitionary period. Benjamin Franklin’s father took him out of school at the age of ten and put him to work at the family business, making soap and candles. At 12, Benjamin became an apprentice to his brother James, who taught him the printing trade. This was by no means unusual at the time.

The Industrial Revolution brought technical innovations at a rapid pace, and older people were no longer regarded as sources of knowledge and wisdom. “They were now seen as incapable of work and, thus, pitiable,” explains Inker. “This period saw the emergence of poor houses.” Meanwhile, younger people needed longer periods of schooling and training to learn the skills required by an industrial economy.

Eventually, social reforms followed the industrialization of the economy. Mechanized production methods made working life less arduous. Better medical care, health insurance, and social security policies made longer life spans possible for everybody.

Retirement Years Not All That Golden

But what to do the additional “unproductive” years? In the 20th century, the concept of retirement emerged. After many years of hard work, you would get to enjoy the final years off during your “golden years.” Unfortunately, retirement in a warm climate is often part of the notion that a person’s productive years are over. In our modern society, aging is associated with sickness, decline, and ultimately death. You get to spend the remaining years with other old people. Or worse. Perhaps no other age group feels the sting of loneliness in our society more keenly than the elderly.

In 2017, former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warned that this "epidemic" is taking a toll on our health: "It turns out that loneliness is associated with a reduction in your lifespan that is as severe as the lifespan you see with smoking 15 cigarettes a day," Murthy told CBS This Morning. "We evolve to be social creatures and thousands of years ago if you were connected to other people you were more likely to have a stable food supply and to be protected from predators. So when you're disconnected, you're in a stress state. When that happens chronically, it can have a profound impact on your health."

Some have suggested this stress state may lead to substance use disorders and  “deaths of despair” when people begin to self-medicate the anxiety and depression resulting from lost connections and a life seemingly without purpose. “Depression is wildly underdiagnosed in older Americans, which is tragic because it is very treatable,” says Inker. “Why is it underdiagnosed? Because there is an expectation for older people to be depressed.”

The Afternoon of Life

Maybe it is time to rediscover elderhood with a purpose. Like other life stages, elderhood should be about “growth and adaptation, maintenance and loss, and not about disease, decline, and death,” says Inker. “While part of the aging process is physical decline, it could also be about giving back and mentoring the young.”

Inker quotes Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung who wrote that the afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning; only its meaning and purpose are different. “What Jung is trying to say is that it is futile to try living the second half of life the same way as the first. According to Jung, the overall goal in life is to become who we are, and to do that we require inner reflection time,” says Inker.

The current approach is to keep older people busy, though, making them feel hurried most of the time. Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam presented his gerotranscendence theory in 1989, suggesting that normal human aging should include a personal evolution from a self dimension toward a social and then a cosmic dimension. It is a journey that takes the individual incrementally beyond their ego to a dimension with greater life satisfaction.

The director of the Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University, Gene Cohen, M.D., believes that the second half of life is the “creative age.” Dr. Cohen’s human potential stages include midlife reevaluation (30–60), liberation (50–70), summing up (70–90) and encore (70–end of life).

Elderhood need not be seen as a weaker, wrinklier version of adulthood, where if you can’t be young, at least try to look and act young. Instead, elderhood should be appreciated as its own developmental stage of personal growth.