Aged by CultureWritten by Peter Roden, Aging In Place
Aged by Culture
What does it mean to be “aged by culture?” Author and culture critic, Margaret Morganroth Gullette claims that age is a socially constructed concept wrapped in a decline ideology. What she means by that is our society and culture views aging in negative terms–the focus is on delines at the expense of anything remotely positive. And what keeps this cultural-assumption alive in the collective unconscious are images of decline and loss associated with getting older. Our families and members of society embrace ageism unquestionably and perpetuate the negative sterotypes. The result is we have expectations of older adults that match negative perceptions; and so do they…
Every joke poking fun at aging, negative media image, or personal experience of a relative or neighbor, reinforces decline images of elderly. This serves to solidify the cultural trance we can’t seem to shake in our western cult of youth; and eventually we are all aged by culture.
Gullette asserts that what’s needed is a push-back on the “insidious decline ideology,” and the way to do it is by changing our age culture. She would like to see ageism on the cultural level of sexism or racsim, and have all generations behind the effort to end it–by raising awareness of it.
So, aging is more that just a biological phenomenon, it occurs within the context of culture and the mind as well, according the work of Gullette and others:
There’s no way to turn back the clock or to fight the inevitable. We age and the vigor of youth becomes only a memory as we are ravaged by time. Chronic illnesses take their toll, our health and strength diminish accordingly, and the best we can do is graciously accept our fate. Once sickness is upon us, we give our- selves over to modern medicine and hope for the best. We can’t intervene as time marches on. Or can we?
Social Psychologist Ellen Langer has been researching the the concept of mindfulness and its relationship to physical aging for over 30 years. She asks a question similar to Gullette’s: If turning back the clock psychologically could in fact, turn back the clock physiologically too? The answer to her query could have far reaching consequences for how we experience growing older.
To find out, she and her team of researchers conducted an ambitious study in 1979 which became known as the “Counterclockwise” study. The study looked at elderly men who lived for a week immersed in an environment designed to mirror the year 1959; from the records they listened to, to the papers they read, and the conversations they were engaged in–it was for all intent and purposes, the year 1959.
She and her team measured bio-markers like weight, eye sight, hearing, before the week in 1959 immersion and after; the results were a physical difference in the subjects which suggested the biological-clock had been turned back in terms of youthful bio-markers. So, the environment and culture had a measurable impact; they can change physiology. Langer’s take-home message is that we are unaware of the ways we mindlessly react to cultural cues, and this has consequences. Langer’s goal was to send the message that we are potentially not passive Victims, if we are mindful of cultural influences we are at choice in how we respond to getting older. Our beliefs can limit or enhance our experience of aging and the individual has more power over the process than the cultural messaging often dictates.
Researchers like Gullette and Langer are asking a More Beautiful Queston…And we all benefit for it.
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