Culture and perceptions of ageing
Our experience of ageing is the result of many different factors, ranging from the micro level to the macro level, from biological to social. Not only do people age at different rates biologically, their environment can also be helpful or damaging to ageing successfully.
Gender, level of education, income, key personality traits and ethnicity have all been shown to shape the experience of ageing among older adults, which can start with something as basic as longevity. For instance, higher-educated adults tend to live significantly longer than people with lower levels of education.
Despite this diversity in experiences and outcomes as people age, we often assume that ageing can be pinned down to a simple description or explanation.
Stereotypes of ageing abound in the media and in everyday discourses, and even in many of the sectors that are designed to serve older adults, such as health care settings. Stereotypical ideas don’t capture the diversity of ageing experiences, and can be damaging if they perpetuate the idea of older adults as helpless and incapable of action.
Culture and society can also influence our thoughts and experiences around ageing:
- In many Western societies, the contemporary notion of ‘ageing well’ presumes independence and active contributions.
- In many other societies, older adults have been encouraged to disengage and to be looked after. This might appear negative at first thought, but it also means that the notion of dependency is seen as more normal, rather than as a source of stigma.
It is important to note that contemporary notions of ‘successful ageing’ have the potential to exclude large segments of the older population: those with few material, health-related and socio-cultural resources and, especially, those who die before they reach ‘old age’.
- Within your culture, what are common perceptions of older people? If you think these perceptions are unhelpful stereotypes, how might these perceptions be changed to more accurately reflect the older population?
- Read the comments from other learners.
- What differences are there between your culture and theirs? Are there any striking similarities?
Virpi Timonen is a Professor in Social Policy and Ageing at Trinity College Dublin.
Some of the words in this step may not be familiar to you. We have outlined those that might be new below.
Longevity: The long duration of an individual life.
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