Aging is the biological, social, and cultural process of growing older. It is a lifelong process, but the word’s common usage focuses our attention on later life; we are more inclined, for example, to describe childhood and young adulthood as “growing up.” The language and imagery we use to describe aging—from the stair-step images of the Ages of Man to over-the-hill birthday cards—map the life course as a rise and a fall; the progress implied by growing “up” contrasts with the decline narratives we frequently associate with aging (Gullette 2011). Cultural ideas of aging as decline are shaped strongly by the biological process of aging into old age. While individuals have varied experiences of biological aging—invariably shaped by accumulated advantages and disadvantages over the life course—changes in physical functioning are inevitable, and many additionally experience changes in mental capacity. However, our broad associations of old age with physical and mental decline too often dictate the social roles and cultural ascriptions associated with older people. For example, regardless of health or work status, we are likely to perceive any seventy-year-old as a retiree whose contributions to society are limited to volunteering, grandparenting, and consumption—of both commercial goods (a positive) and health-care...

This essay may be found on page 11 of the printed volume.

Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay