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Interview: What’s Wrong With Our Current Images of Aging?


dr. stephen katz

Getting older ain’t what it used to be. Unprecedented changes to longevity and patterns of living are transforming the lives of older people.

Sociologist and leading scholar Stephen Katz has tracked these changing patterns over the years. Now, in a collection of imaginative and wide-ranging essays, Cultural Aging: Life Course, Lifestyle, and Senior Worlds (Broadview Press), he challenges readers to take a critical look at our current images of aging.

Dr. Katz is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Trent University. I reached him in Peterborough.

Ruth Dempsey: Today, positive images of aging in the media promote activity, autonomy, and more choice for older adults. You view this is a mixed blessing. Why?

Stephen Katz: One reason is that such images divide older individuals into “successful” and "unsuccessful" aging camps, with the latter being characterized as disabled, dependent, demented or decrepit, as if their problems were by choice and possibly avoidable. There is nothing inherently wrong with positive images of aging and certainly they are preferred to traditional negative stereotypes. However, the "positive" is not necessarily realistic either.

A second reason is that such images limit the possible values of growing older in itself. Hence, memory, wisdom, biography and all the benefits of living in time, rather than against it, become buried in the "now" of constant activity.

RD: Marketers use every trick in the bag today to reach older adults without calling them old. What’s going on here?

SK: Very simply, marketers have discovered that there is a growing, financially secure population of senior consumers, who have either been ignored or mischaracterized as being old fashioned or out of date. However, the association of "old" with this group has proven to be a problem because old doesn’t sell.

Even older people do not like to be associated with older images in media advertising. This also goes to the point that many of our major consumer products, such as electronic goods, cars, vacations and homes, depend for their success on their being new and fashionable – values often linked to our youth-obsessed culture.

RD: Increasingly, lifestyle and government programs emphasize individual responsibility for aging. But self-care mandates can amount to a new form of ageism. Is that right?

SK: This is true. The hallmarks of neo-liberal healthcare are health promotion, self-care, responsible lifestyles, risk-aversive financial planning and health literacy.

The older structures built out of a welfare state concerned with institutional responses to human suffering, have been and will continue to be diminished. Policy initiatives that promise more individual control, lowered taxes, more "choice" of healthcare options, and more support for families and communities sound very appealing, but what do they really mean in terms of the state’s commitment across the life course?

What about those who live in poverty, are alone, abandoned to the margins of expensive urban centres, waiting longer for needed medical procedures while facing greater medical privatization and yet still blamed by an unforgiving younger public for consuming too many social services?

RD: In the book you explore the "busy ethic" and older people’s desire to make personal choices. Can you give me an example?

SK: Post-retirement work is an example. If we look at the messages coming to us from the popular media and governmental literature, we see that the aging heroes are people who somehow continue to be active and occupied after retirement, as if retirement is no longer a rest from a life of hard work, but merely a space of passage to the next adventure.

Yet the choice of that adventure is judged according to its relation to virtuous living. The aging heroes presented to us are not those who continue to fight for their rights in political organizations, for example, or defy the accepted norms of what one is supposed to do when retired. No. The choices have to be related to keeping "busy" within activities, which are assumed to be "good" for older individuals. And for those who refuse to be busy, there are penalties.

RD: On the topic of male sexuality, you write: "The assumption that to remain active is to remain young seems unquestioned." What are the implications here?

SK: In this case, I was referring to the fact that, somehow, health has come to be associated with sexual functionality, although the two are not necessarily related, especially as one ages.

This means that the measurement of sexual function becomes a means by which successful aging is assessed, as if sexual health was a symbol of an active, independent and secure lifestyle. Why sexuality?

So there is a bonding together of several things: health, sexual performance, youthfulness, active lifestyle and successful aging (without growing older). This puts enormous pressure on all men to examine and be concerned with their sexuality throughout their lives.

RD: Your work has taking you to Charlotte County, Florida, where some Canadians snowbirds spend the winter. There is talk the next generation is less interested in this lifestyle. What have you found?

SK: From the people with whom I spoke here and in Florida, there does seem less interest in the snowbird lifestyle amongst the next generation. They find it too inactive a prospect and the communal features of living in retirement parks do not appeal. In a word, the whole thing seems a little boring. They also fear being separated out as "old" from the "young".

RD: Gerontologist Robert Butler suggests those entering middle age today will be a "transformational generation . . . helping to transform old age." Do you agree?

SK: Yes. This transformational generation, which marketers call the boomers, are set to change the institutional and cultural features of every level of society.

We already see the signs of this in urban planning, housing options, financial and insurance products, music and the arts, educational opportunities, grand-parenting roles, even the death-and-dying industry. It’s a wonderful time finally to be breaking down the barriers of ageism.

However, in our enthusiasm we also have to remember that not everybody will get to benefit and that there are class, race and gender inequalities built into the aging process. The structural constraints on our lives must be kept in view as we move forward. So, yes to the consumer society finally taking notice of older individuals and groups, but yes also to the need to be politically engaged in preventing the further erosion of social supports.

african drum

RD: What about you, do you have a favourite image of aging?

SK: Yes, my drum. Of all my aging objects, the one that gets my utmost respect is an African drum, with its skin slowly being worn through years of playing to reveal another skin underneath, a drum-skin, that will wear as well, constantly producing different looks and textures and resounding with the evolving rhythms of aging.