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The Elderly in Modern Society:
A Cultural Psychological Reading

Alan Pope
Duquesne University



History has demonstrated a dramatic reduction in respect and veneration for the elder members of Western societies. According to both David Hackett Fischer and Donald Cowgill, traditional historical studies locate the source of this decline in industrial and economic factors. I maintain that while these views are correct, they are only partially true. This paper will present a reading of the elderly in modern society in which the cultural changes will be identified as the depth of social, economic, and political shifts. This method of interpretation is indebted to the work of psychiatrist J. H. van den Berg, whose theory of metabletics (meaning, literally, the “theory of changes”) proposes that humanity and reality are inextricably interwoven and that human beings participate in the creation of their mutable realities. Rather than viewing traditional historical forces as giving rise to the current situation of the elderly, we must question what such forces indicate to us about the changing nature of human beings. In so doing, we hope to expose and understand the more fundamental ground from which modern attitudes toward the elderly arise.

I offer the following overview of this paper. In conducting our cultural psychological reading of the elderly in modern society, we shall first address “the Elderly” as a cultural figure and examine its contemporary meanings. We shall then examine two traditional historical explanations which attempt to account for the development of this cultural figure. Finally, we shall propose an alternative and more comprehensive account of this figure through a cultural psychological reading. It should be noted that while supporting evidence for my claims about “modern society” are primarily made with respect to the United States, the results of the analysis are intended to apply to industrial Western society in general.

The Elderly as a Cultural Figure

Elderly people in the United States today are not treated with the respect and reverence to which they were accustomed earlier in history. The gerontologist David Hackett Fischer notes that literature from seventeenth and eighteenth century colonial America stressed deference and respect for the elderly. He maintains that the elderly were held in veneration, a word which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means a “feeling of deep respect and reverence,” and is derived from the Latin root veneror, meaning “to regard with religious awe and reverence.”

The elderly today are hardly regarded with religious awe or reverence. They have become virtual outcasts of society, many living on the fringe, often in retirement communities or in nursing homes. William Withers states that “modern cultures have coped with the death of the aged, minimizing its disruptiveness, by disengaging the elderly from the vital functions of society” (518). In modern society, emphasis and value are placed on youth, with advertising geared toward and glamorizing the young. To the extent that advertising acknowledges the elderly individual at all, it attempts to make him or her appear younger (Atchley). The elderly are victims of mistaken beliefs and irrational attitudes promulgated by society, largely through the various mass media. Atchley defines ageism, or age prejudice, as “a dislike of aging and older people based on the belief that aging makes people unattractive, unintelligent, asexual, unemployable, and senile” (291) and claims that research indicates that most Americans subscribe to at least a mild form of ageism.

One way that people hide from the reality of ageism is to cast as benevolent those very ways in which elderly individuals have been dissociated from society. For example, consider the institutionalization of a retirement age of 65. Although many people consider retirement as something positive to be eagerly anticipated, an etymological reflection on the word "retire" reveals a different ground of meaning. In the American Heritage Dictionary, the first definition for “retire” is “to withdraw as for rest or seclusion.” Notice that seclusion is precisely part of the present dilemma of the modern elderly. Furthermore, we find that the word “retire” comes from the French word, retirer, which breaks down into re-, or “to take back,” and tirer, which means “to draw, draw out, endure.” This latter word, the dictionary speculates, derives from the Old French martir, or martyr. Thus, etymologically, retirement suggests a process to be endured, as by a martyr. Indeed, although most individuals start out looking forward to retirement, according to Riley and Foner, the nearer people are to retirement age, the less likely they are to favor it. The second definition for "retire," incidentally, is “to take out of circulation,” which then implies that those forced or encouraged into retirement are no longer viewed as part of the life blood of society.

The negative image of elderly individuals reflected by ageism has been reified into the cultural figure of “the Elderly.” When elderly people were still treated with respect and reverence, they were referred to as “Elders,” a term which, while connoting respect and reverence, also preserved a sense of regard for specific individuals of comparatively advanced years. However, the modern phrase, “the elderly,” lumps all individuals together under a totalizing label, eliminating individual regard and respect, and invoking a new set of negative preconceptions which promote the idea that the members of this group are inherently ineffectual and undesirable. Gone is the implicit relation to other; it is replaced with a stereotyped, arbitrary classification which elevates those over 65 into an abstraction which neatly eliminates the need to confront aging in terms of concrete individuals. Aging becomes a matter of concern only to “the Elderly,” and not to us.

When elders are replaced with “the Elderly,” the world loses veneration. As will become evident, the economic, technological, and social forces which explain phenomena, such as the increase in the number of nursing homes, actually reflect a basic stance toward the elderly, a way of regarding the aged. The Elderly, as a figure, is a cultural invention and a mutable reality. We witness evidence for this in Erdman Falmore's observation that Japan, whose level of industrialization matches our own, nevertheless maintains a strong tradition of filial piety and successful integration of elderly citizens into community life.

Let us now inquire into how this way of regarding elders in the United States came about. When did elders become “the Elderly,” and how did this transition take place? To address these questions, we must first examine the historical and economical influences affecting this transition before conducting a cultural psychological reading.

Historical Development of the Elderly

There are two major theories in the conventional historical literature to account for the transition of the term "elders" to "the elderly." The modernization theory maintains that the industrial revolution and the resulting conversion to a technological society are responsible for this shift (Cowgill). Most significantly, according to Cowgill, technological innovation led to a demographic transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates, leading, in turn, to a vast increase in the number of older people. The economy had to be revised to accommodate an increased share of the population no longer in the work force. This situation brought about the establishment of social security legislation in the 1930's, which then encouraged even more workers to retire, ultimately decreasing the status of the elderly. Additionally, by the elderly receiving retirement benefits, there was less economic interdependency between family members, and the very structure of the family was altered. The development of mass education also undercut the value of elder family members as transmitters of skills and customs.

Fischer has proposed that the primary influence on the status of older citizens was not industrialization, but, rather, the revolutionary ideologies of libertarianism and egalitarianism. As evidence he cites a historical study of a seventeenth century meetinghouse still standing in Massachusetts. Historians have determined that the best seats in the house, aside from those of the minister's wife and the aged widow of his predecessor, were reserved for the three "elders" of the community-- aged 73, 86, and 92-- even though they were of lesser means. However, in 1737, in another meetinghouse in Northampton, Massachusetts, the criterion of seating people with reverence to age was changed to seating people by economic status.

Such practices indicate that this era marked a change in attitude toward the elders of society. Indeed, Fischer claims that the period from 1770 to 1820 marked a revolution in age relations and what he describes as a "fundamental change in world culture" (37). These shifts in age relation were accompanied by demographic, economic, political, legal, ideological, psychological, ethical, and aesthetic changes.

Among the effects upon the elder citizens during this historical period were changes in dress fashion which favored making people appear younger rather than older. For example, powdered wigs went out of vogue as cosmetic hairpieces made their debut. Furthermore, the destruction of the status of the elders became apparent when the vocabulary admitted pejorative words such as "gaffer," "fogy," "codger," and "old goat." Additionally, the first mandatory retirement laws came into effect between the years 1777 and 1818, leading to further degradation of their status. Fischer maintains that these changes primarily derive from an attitude of egalitarianism fostered by the French and American revolutions. As such, veneration for elders disappeared in the spirit of age equality.

Both the modernization and egalitarian theories indicate that the cultural figure of "the Elderly" began to develop in the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From these perspectives, our attitude toward elderly individuals changed as a result of causal influences of an economic and /or political nature. However, in adopting a perspective within a causal frame work, each of these theories is limited by its particular stance with respect to the observed phenomenon. Each theory, as such, submits a correct, but only relatively true, viewpoint. If we subscribe to the view that the nature of the human being is mutable, and this mutability is made manifest in the cultural developments presented to us by history, then we may seek a more comprehensive understanding of the transition from "elders" to "the Elderly" by exploring the changes in human existence which underlie it

A Cultural Psychological Reading of the Elderly

In conducting our cultural psychological reading of the figure of the Elderly, we shall borrow extensively from Robert Romanyshyn's metabletic treatment of technology in Technology as Symptom and Dream. Romanyshyn's analysis of technology traces the earlier roots of scientific and artistic innovation and thinking in European history, demonstrating how such innovation accompanied a new way of being human, a way which brought into predominant focus a technological way of seeing and relating to the world. For our purposes, we adopt Romanyshyn's analysis to consider how this technological viewpoint favors not only the events leading up to the industrial revolution and the age of egalitarianism, but also the very way in which we see and regard aging members of society today. In this analysis we come to see that it is this change in fundamental outlook, this change in relation to the world and to others, which is the ground for the emergence of the cultural figure of "the Elderly."

Romanyshyn's premise is that technology is a cultural dream of reincarnation. The body is a central issue to technology, primarily in its limitations. Consequently, "the telos of technology's dream to refashion the body is toward abandonment of the body, toward disincarnation" (Romanyshyn, 20). This dream is realized by replacing flesh with function, by replacing the ritual body of archaic man with the technical body of the space man (The body of woman being altogether left in the shadow). The ultimate goal becomes to leave earth, and, in this departure, to escape the death which otherwise surely waits to claim us. For earth always claims its own, but the technical body denies its mortality and attempts to defy death. "To defeat death we would have to rid ourselves of the scourge of aging and its signs of decay" (Romanyshyn, 29). In other words, to defeat death and realize the dream of technology, we would have to eliminate the elder persons of society. As a start we might affix a label to them ("the Elderly") and pretend they do not exist, they are not among us, or they are fundamentally different from us.

In tracing how the cultural dream of reincarnation developed, Romanyshyn cites the development of the imaginal eye of the artist about five hundred years ago. The eye became the central and predominate organ of sensation, penetrating beyond the realm of imagination and resulting in linear perspective vision, an artistic technique which, "in becoming a cultural habit of mind, [transformed] the landscape of the world, the geography of the soul" (Romanyshyn, 31). The self became a spectator to the world, and the resulting sense of distance fueled a dream of mastery.

The developments of the hegemony of the eye and linear perspective vision suggest a significant impact on the attitude toward aging members of society. Romanyshyn cites evidence that prior to this time artists portrayed the body as a "pantomimic body," a body which is inseparable from its emotional situation. When the human body was viewed as a pantomimic body, there was space for the veneration of elders, for their features could be viewed as beautiful, in accordance with the reverence and respect that was felt toward them. However, when the eye becomes magistrate of what reveals itself, the perspective of beauty in age is threatened by the specter of decay, of impermanence, of transition unto death. Such a sight is no longer treated with religious awe and reverence, but, rather, with fear and horror.

In adopting a linear perspective vision of the world, we become spectators, which, Romanyshyn argues, leads to leaving our bodies behind, for the spectator has no need of a body. Thus, we try to eliminate the distracting senses and feel of the body, and become purely mind. Mind is safe, for it displays no demonstrable signs of wear or aging. With it, and with linear perspective vision, we can increase the distance between ourselves and what we see. With this increase in distance comes a greater sense of objectification. Thus, we come to see, not the concrete elder in his or her embodied form, a form to which we can relate our own lived bodily experience and which we can embrace with compassion, but, rather, the figure of "the Elderly," a completely impersonal object, a thing whose lack of subjectivity offers no threat to our own sense of immortality.

Just as linear perspective vision leads to a convergence in visual focus, so, too, does it promote thought processes which become more focused, linear, rational, reductive. Such a mind becomes fixated on calculation and loses an openness and receptivity to the truths of the world as they might otherwise reveal themselves. Yet it is this other style of thinking, this more holistic and intuitive mode, which develops to a greater extent as people age. In a technologically dominated world, the cleverness of linear, rational thinking-- the domain primarily of the energetic and focused young-- becomes the prize to be cherished, and the intuition and wisdom honed over a lifetime of experience loses its value. The image of the wise sage or grandmother becomes obsolete. A change to linear thinking changes the regard for elders, who can no longer compete in a world whose institutions develop under the aegis of cleverness.

Another aspect of linear perspective vision revealed by Romanyshyn is that it offers, with its concept of a vanishing point, a horizon of infinity. By making our vision equal to infinity, he argues, we endow ourselves with status as infinite beings. Yet the body represents an impediment to infinite vision, and this impediment is particularly evident in the bodies of elders. In former times, elders were intimately connected to the earth, and, as such, were governed by the cyclic patterns of nature. Theirs was the body of ritual, and their decay and passage toward death marked a return to the earth, an abiding with the natural rhythms of human existence. Such a living, ritualistic body was intrinsically endowed with the possibility of death. But with the advent of linear perspective vision, growing old became a technical function, not a natural one. With time being infinite, people simply grow old and "pass away." There are no cycles which would threaten our sense of permanence and invulnerability to transition. Instead, there is only the straight ahead, the infinite beyond to which we aspire by leaving our bodies behind.

Romanyshyn argues that the human body is a mutable reality which we create to suit the needs of our times. As a pantomimic body, the human body is inseparable from the emotional situation in which it is embedded. However, the advent of linear perspective vision and rationalistic thinking leads to an "anatomical gaze" which sees the human body in a reductionalistic way and rips it out of its living context and situation. The body is fragmented and placed into a geometric grid. When Vesalius dissected a dead body in 1543, the dead body became the corpse, a visible image of the abandoned body.

The dead body keeps alive traditions and values. When an elder dies, he or she is remembered through rites of burial. With the invention of the corpse, the traditions lose their meanings, and the dead body, as a corpse, loses its individuality. This new conception of the human body, separated from immediate, carnal experience and emotion, lying instead generically on the examining table, heralds in the new age of egalitarianism which, as we have seen, has been implicated in the loss of veneration of the elderly. However, in this analysis we see both phenomena-- the loss of individual recognition of elders and the movement toward egalitarianism-- as deriving from a common source. This common source is a new way of relating to the human body, a new way of inhabiting the world, a new way of being human.

Romanyshyn asks "Does the invention of the corpse reveal and conceal a wish to forget death?" (125). He answers himself by concluding: "In offering us an image of life as mechanism, as technical function, the corpse hides death and conceals the living body as an e-motional involvement with the world" (132). When we perform a burial rite, we are not burying a corpse, we are burying a dead body and the memories of the living body. Yet, to effectively escape death, we must not allow ourselves to be constantly reminded of it. Thus, Romanyshyn cites Phillip Aries' observation of the relocation of the cemetery. In Europe, near the end of the sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cemeteries were moved to the outside of town, conveniently removing them and what they represent from view.

The attempt to escape the reminders of death does not, however, end at pushing the cemeteries out of town. The fear of death is so great that we do not even wait for death to occur. Those who are dying are moved to hospitals or nursing homes, whereas it used to be common for elders to die at home surrounded by loved ones. Those who are not yet dying, but are beyond their "productive years" and no longer supporting a vision toward the infinite, are often sent to retirement communities. A burden on their families, elderly individuals have become outcasts. They cannot be a part of our community; they must be banished to one of their own. This neatly separates them from us and protects us from the stench of death. Just as we have come, through linear perspective vision, to view the body as a distant and objective corpse, so, too, we have physically distanced ourselves from "the Elderly."

Yet, even putting elderly individuals out to pasture is not sufficient. We also must pull them out of the work force at the arbitrary age of 65. Such forced and arbitrary retirement is simpler than considering individuals on a case-by-case basis, and ensures that we do not have to rub shoulders with those in a state of decay. We promote the image of the elderly as ineffectual and incompetent, as unable to contribute to the work force of society. People become "human resources" to be used and exploited in accordance with technological demand. In such a vision, elderly individuals cease to exist in any meaningful way at all. In their capacity as "standing reserve," they are unable to "stand on their own" and, thus, can no longer contribute to a world of linear vision directed to the infinite beyond, a world devoid of generational rhythms and traditions.


In conclusion, the historical trends which account for the dramatic reduction in respect and veneration for elderly individuals in Western societies provide a causal perspective which is correct but only partially true. This paper has shown an alternative explanation which remains consistent with these other theories, yet seeks a more fundamental understanding through consideration of cultural psychological factors. These factors indicate ways in which the human being has changed in its fundamental relatedness to the world. They underlie not only our present day attitudes toward elderly individuals, but the economic and political forces used to explain them, as well. In exploring these changes in humanity, we have found that the rise and influence of linear perspective vision has induced a denial of embodiment and death, a strategy requiring the cultural invention of the figure of "the Elderly" so that we may avoid encountering those who threaten to remind us of our carnal mortality.


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