When people think of coming of age, a vision of youth transitioning into adulthood comes to mind, but human beings go through several stages of coming of age, and one of the most troubling can be the progression of old age. It’s not to say that growing old is something that should be dreaded. It depends on the person’s attitude as well as society’s view and allowances for the elderly, but there is no doubt that growing old for human beings is an inevitable process that always takes us by surprise.
Every person who doesn’t die young is going to experience old age, so with this commonality it would be in every person’s best interest to ensure a positive and happy existence for fellow senior citizens, but if we look around we’ll see that this is not always the case, and even in developed nations, where standards of living are generally better, the elderly are marginalized and societal provisions are minimal and at the mercy of political whim, examples of this can be seen in politicians turning to Medicaid, pensions and social security for relief from national debt.
Being dependent on government and public support for financial and physical security is a precarious position to be in as a senior citizen, considering that those in power will throw provisions for the elderly out the window at the first sign of economic struggle. Senior citizens are also subject to public opinion that demands the elderly maintain and do not stray from an image defined by society that despite adherence will still exclude seniors from mainstream inclusion. Their place within family also changes from head of household to grandparent, which, no matter how honored, is a secondary position. So it seems, the years of physical decline are accompanied by a loss of identity and a loss of position both public and private. Why do we set ourselves up for such struggle during old age?
Romantic love, jealousy and violent anger are some of the emotions that are looked down upon by society when it comes to unacceptable behaviors of a senior citizen. If we try to envision an elderly person acting out any of these emotions, we can see our societal conditioning will immediately make them seem vulgar. Media is another culprit for enforcing this. Programs and commericials portray a rigid stereotype for seniors, usually as grandparent figures or pharmaceutical users. The problem with this image is: What if society’s image is wrong? Elderly people still have the same emotions as the rest of the population but are denied them. Doesn’t this set the stage for alienation and identity confusion?
According to Simone de Beauvoir in her study of old age, The Coming of Age, young and middle age adults would rather envision death as a future versus growing old. This fear and detachment toward old age sets the stage for social standards, but not only for the elderly subjected to it now, but also for those young and middle age adults in the future, “every single member of the community must know that his future is in question (De Beauvoir p.216).
Like all stages of life, old age has its weaknesses and strengths. There’s is an inevitable decline in physical strength and motor skills, but there is also an increase in knowledge and conscientiousness through life experience. Environment plays an important role in happiness and well being, so as a marginalized citizen barely making ends meet, the elderly are at greater risk of debilitating depression that can quickly morph into brain atrophy and other degenerative brain diseases, but if we look around at seniors who are thriving, they are generally living in better social circumstances and have purpose in life.
An individual’s outlook on life greatly determines how they will live their lives, and this is especially so with senior citizens, two examples are the British satirist Jonathan Swift and the American poet Walt Whitman. Both men were wracked with crippling infirmities during their old age, but Swift’s rage caused him further suffering, extreme depression and no relief while Whitman’s optimism guided him through his health issues to happiness and a satisfying productivity (De Beauvoir p.505).
Society has power over citizens’ environments. Instead of focusing on the decline it makes sense for society as a whole to envision the benefits of seniors strengthening and contributing their strengths to the community. Do we want to continue being a community that only cares about individuals so long as they are profitable? If so we set the stage for our own senior years to be judged by the same standard.
With all of these negative circumstances at work against the coming of old age for citizens and society’s aversion towards change, it might seem that growing old in society is worse than the physical decline of the body during old age, but this isn’t true and the first reason is “knowledge is power.” It’s cliché, but it’s real and the first step toward change. Another hope for a new perspective on aging is the rise of the Baby Boomers. They will represent the largest population of senior citizens in the history of society and with these large numbers of people will come a loud voice for change. Hopefully the younger generations will encourage and support a new perspective on being a senior citizen because after all it’s their future too.