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Aging and the Elderly

From a sociological perspective age and aging is socially constructed.  The meaning of age, the expectations of the aging population, and the treatment of the elderly is due to how the particular society views aging and the elderly.

The Tiwi and the Abkhasians

In 1928 anthropologist Charles Hart was completing fieldwork with the Tiwi clan (island off the coast of Australia).  During his research a group of the men decided that it was time to get rid of one of the older women in the clan (viewed as a “decrepit old woman”).  Per their custom a hole was dug in the ground and the woman was placed in the hole and covered with dirt with only her head showing.  After a couple of days the people returned to find her dead – and since no one has “killed” the woman her death was considered natural.

The Abkhasians who live in the mountainous region of Georgia (a republic of the former Soviet Union) respect their elderly and look to them for guidance, they would never consider “getting rid” of an elderly person.  They also eat very healthy, participate in a lot of physical activity, and have a strong sense of community.  The older individuals begin to slow down around age 80, but still continue to be active at 100 years old.  The elderly contribute to the welfare of the community and play a vital role on a daily basis and are not considered a burden.  (Benet 1971; Robins, 2006)

We can see that there are vast differences in the perception of the elderly and the treatment of the elderly.

The Graying of America

Life expectancy has increased since 1900 and continues to increase.  The “graying of America” refers to the increase in percentage of older individuals in the United States.  In 1900 only 4% of the population was 65 years old or older; today approximately 13-15% of the population is 65 years or older and it is expected that by 2050 they will be 22% of the population. 

Elder Abuse

Elder abuse is the abuse of adults over the age of 60.  Abuse happens in the older person’s home, assisted living facility, another family member’s home, or a nursing home.  The abuser can be a family member, stranger, health care provider, caregiver, or friend.  There are various types of elder abuse such as physical abuse (causing bodily harm), emotional abuse (psychological abuse), neglect (needs not being met; physical, emotional, or social needs; access to healthcare),  abandonment, sexual abuse, or financial abuse.  Those who are dependent on others and are frail are more likely to be victimized.  About 1 in every 10 elder experiences abuse.  Up to 5 million elderly experience elder abuse in the United States each year.  The National Institute of Aging (Links to an external site.) provides important information on elder abuse and signs of elder abuse to look for. 

Careers in Gerontology

Today we see that occupations working with the elderly are increasing dramatically as this is one of the fastest growing fields.  The Sociology Department at Saddleback College recently developed a Gerontology Program which educates individuals to prepare them for jobs working in fields devoted to the elderly due to the increase in job opportunities and the specific job opportunities in our surrounding area.

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