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The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America.

The United States is so much less baffling to its enemies than it is to its friends. In the recent reversal of fortunes of American elderly people, a Marxist might see foreshadowed the fatal imbalance of demand and supply in capitalist society.

The privileged status won for the elderly in the heyday of the Grey Panthers is under assault by the shocktroops of Americans for Generational Equity. Special Services Squadrons of ethicists devise reasons why Medicare should provide old people with cheap deaths rather than expensive lives. For the cynic this is the inevitable fate of an aging population that sold its votes to politicians want to avoid the payback. But where is the idealism and sense of community that were at the heart of the American settlement? How could the creation of what is in essence a caste system be part of the Great American Dream?

Thomas Cole's rich and rewarding book, The Journey of Life, offers a historical explanation for the otherwise inexplicable, and Cole has done the United States and its friends a service in presenting so fascinating and readable a story. We learn of an unstable alternation between contrasting views of old age in a succession of traditions that expressed the adolescence of a nation. In medieval Christian thought, old age was seen as a stage in life as legitimate and valuable as any other. A fourteenth-century image represents old age as one of ten stages on the periphery of a wheel of life, all stages being equidistant from Christ at the hub. Within two hundred years, the march of humanism had transmuted the wheel of life into a rising and falling staircase, and this image carried to America, was to persist overtly in art into the nineteenth century and covertly into modern thinking. In both medieval and Renaissance thought, however, the different stages of life were defined in functional terms. Even when Shakespeare penned the famous speech by Jacques on the stages of life, one was not called a dotard until one actually doted. Later, the ages of man were to be delineated by dates on birth certificates rather than on functional capacity, and ageism became inevitable with the invention of the old age pension in nineteenth-century Prussia. A retirement age was fixed to balance the consumption of funds by the retired with an acceptable level of contributions from those still working. The retirement that began as a privilege but became a right later degenerated into an obligation and a classic double bind. Old people are social parasites because they do not work; but if they insist on working they are taking the bread out of younger workers' mouths.

Many other threads are woven into the tangle of the American attitude to aging. From medieval antecedents, Cole traces the succession of old-style Calvinism, antebellum revivalism, the civilized morality of high Victorianism and on to the scientific era. Old age was once a valid and for some a necessary part of the journey to heaven. Later it was seen as the reward of a virtuous existence. Others saw the disabilities associated with old age as the working out in palpable form of Adam's curse or the punishment for individual sin. In presentations of this last view, for example by Henry Ward Beecher or Philips Brooks, we can discern the pervasive hidden metaphor of syphilis.

Cole notes that since 1930 American culture has responded to the anxieties of growing old with a "psychologically primitive strategy" of dichotomous images of a "good" and a "bad" old age. The same obsession with dichotomous thinking is perpetuated in the epistemologically flawed and heuristically unhelpful distinction drawn by some modern geriatricians between "normal aging" and "disease." One wonders if it is part of Americans' faith in their ability to do anything that makes them feel somehow personally responsible for the aging of society and personally responsible for Doing Something About It. In other countries aging is viewed as a destiny that must be adapted to, not an affliction to be resisted.

Missing from many of the later literary sources is a sense of the individual significance of aging in the working out of a person's destiny. The meaning of a person's old age need not be apparent to the world; it may lie in the justification of the past or in amendment of the present. It was, perhaps, the planting in America of the Puritan rather than the Arminian ideas of early seventeenth-century England that resulted in the subordination of the individual to the social perspective on the meaning of life. In a community of saints the individual has only to conform to achieve salvation. In an Arminian world the interaction of human free will and divine grace creates many different paths to heaven. Social justification lies at the root it seems of much of the angst in American aging. Cole quotes the tragedy of G. Stanley Hall, psychologically devastated by retirement because he could only value himself for what he did, not for what he was. The American paradox is to glory in individualism but to value the individual chiefly for what he or she achieves in society. The ruthless American millionaire gives his wealth to endow a university, a library, or a charitable foundation. In Europe the millionaire feels obliged to be more apologetic about his wealth but leaves it to his children.

History can be misleading if it is not traced backward as well as forward. Cole follows one of the streams of modern America from its source in the seventeenth-century Protestant migrations through the New England and WASP ascendancies to the science of the present day. But this is only one stream; what has been the contribution of the southern European, Jewish, and Hispanic traditions to the American confluence? What of black America? Perhaps the reliance on written sources explicitly concerned with aging has left out some important elements in modern culture. Trash novels, journalism, and, more recently, television have been sending messages that have not always found their way into the gerontological literature. The dominant older woman, to the European eye a characteristic member of American society, did not figure in the writings of Lydia Child but was the progenitor, not the product, of modern feminism. She is perhaps something America has inherited from its Jewish matriarchs.

The last section of Cole's book is an epilogue that looks "beyond dualism and control." He rightly points out that those who advocate ageism and those who oppose it are both in the same cultural trap. He hints that the solution for society as for the individual might be to forge a collective cultural image of aging perhaps analogous to the pilgrimage of Bunyan's Christian toward a self-chosen goal. There will have to be some societal common ground marked out first, and this must surely lie in more rigorous thought about the rights and duties of a citizenship that transcends distinctions of class, race, and age. It is in equity between citizens not between generations that the old and the young will find places they can call their own.
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Author:Evans, J. Grimley
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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