Chapter 13. Aging and the Elderly

Chapter 13 Resources and Activites

Key Terms

activity theory: A theory which suggests that for individuals to enjoy old age and feel satisfied, they must maintain activities and find a replacement for the statuses and associated roles they have left behind as they aged.

age stratification theory: A theory which states that members of society are stratified by age, just as they are stratified by race, class, and gender.

ageism: Discrimination based on age.

baby boomers: Individuals born between approximately 1946 and 1964.

centenarians: People 100 years old or older.

cohort: A group of people who share a statistical or demographic trait.

continuity theory: A theory which states that the elderly make specific choices to maintain consistency in internal (personality structure, beliefs) and external structures (relationships), remaining active and involved throughout their elder years.

dependency ratio: The number of productive working citizens to non-productive (young, disabled, or elderly).

disengagement theory: A theory which suggests that withdrawing from society and social relationships is a natural part of growing old.

elder abuse: When a caretaker intentionally deprives an older person of care or harms the person in their charge.

exchange theory: A sociological paradigm that models human interaction based on calculated social exchanges of resources governed by a norm of reciprocity.

filial piety: Deference and respect to one’s parents and ancestors in all things.

geriatrics: A medical specialty focusing on the elderly.

gerontocracy: A type of social structure wherein the power is held by a society’s oldest members.

gerontology: A field of science that seeks to understand the process of aging and the challenges encountered as seniors grow older.

gerotranscendence: The idea that as people age, they transcend limited views of life they held in earlier times.

grief: A psychological, emotional, and social response to the feelings of loss that accompanies death or a similar event.

hospice: Health care that treats terminally ill people by providing comfort during the dying process.

life course: The period from birth to death, including a sequence of predictable life events.

life expectancy: The number of years a person is expected to live.

modernization theory: A theory which suggests that societies pass through a linear series of social transformations as they transform from traditional to industrial based forms of social organization.

physician-assisted suicide: The voluntary use of lethal medication provided by a medical doctor to end an individual’s life.

primary aging: Biological factors such as molecular and cellular changes.

secondary aging: Aging that occurs due to controllable factors like exercise and diet.

selective optimization with compensation theory: The idea that successful personal development throughout the life course and subsequent mastery of the challenges associated with everyday life are based on the components of selection, optimization, and compensation.

senescence: The aging process, including biological, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual changes.

social gerontology: A specialized field of gerontology that examines the social aspects of aging.

subculture of aging theory: A theory that focuses on the shared community created by the elderly when they are excluded, voluntarily or involuntarily, from participating in other groups due to age.

thanatology: The systematic study of death and dying.

Section Summary

13.1 Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society
The social study of aging uses population data and cohorts to predict social concerns related to aging populations. In Canada, the population is increasingly older (called “the greying of Canada”), especially due to the baby boomer segment. Global studies on aging reveal a difference in life expectancy between core and peripheral nations as well as a discrepancy in nations’ preparedness for the challenges of increasing elderly populations.

13.2 The Process of Aging
Old age affects every aspect of human life: biological, social, and psychological. Although medical technology has lengthened life expectancy, it cannot eradicate aging and death. Cultural attitudes shape the way a society views old age and dying, but these attitudes shift and evolve over time.

13.3 Challenges Facing the Elderly
As people enter old age, they face challenges. Ageism, which involves stereotyping and discrimination against the elderly, leads to misconceptions about their abilities. Some elderly people grow physically frail and, therefore, dependent on caregivers, which increases their risk of elder abuse.

13.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Aging
The three major sociological perspectives inform the theories of aging. Theories in the functionalist perspective focus on the role of elders in terms of adapting to the aging process. Theories in the critical perspective concentrate on how elders, as a group, are affected by power relationships in society. Theories in the symbolic interactionist perspective focus on how elders’ identities are created through their interactions.


Quiz: Ageing and the Elderly

13.1 Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society

  1. In most countries, elderly women                               than elderly men.
    1. Are mistreated less
    2. Live a few years longer
    3. Suffer fewer health problems
    4. Deal with issues of aging better
  2. Canada’s baby boomer generation has contributed to all of the following except                              .
    1. The financial vulnerability of the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans.
    2. Improved medical technology.
    3. The health care system being in danger of going bankrupt.
    4. Rising health care budgets.
  3. The measure that compares the number of men to women in a population is                              .
    1. Cohort
    2. Sex ratio
    3. Baby boomer
    4. Disengagement
  4. The “greying of Canada” refers to                              .
    1. The increasing percentage of the population over 65
    2. Faster aging due to stress
    3. Dissatisfaction with retirement plans
    4. Trends in domestic and institutional paint
  5. What is the approximate median age of Canada?
    1. 85
    2. 65
    3. 40
    4. 25

13.2 The Process of Aging

  1. Thanatology is the study of                              .
    1. Life expectancy
    2. Biological aging
    3. Death and dying
    4. Comic book super villains
  2. In Erik Erikson’s developmental stages of life, with which challenge must older people struggle?
    1. Overcoming despair to achieve integrity
    2. Overcoming role confusion to achieve identity
    3. Overcoming isolation to achieve intimacy
    4. Overcoming limited views to achieve gerotranscendence
  3. Who wrote the book On Death and Dying, outlining the five stages of grief?
    1. Ignatz Nascher
    2. Erik Erikson
    3. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
    4. Thich Nhat Hanh
  4. For individuals in society, the life course is                              .
    1. The average age they will die.
    2. The life lessons they must learn through socialization.
    3. The length of a typical bereavement period.
    4. The typical sequence of events in their lives.
  5. In Canada, life expectancy rates in recent decades have                              .
    1. Continued to gradually rise.
    2. Gone up and down due to global issues such as military conflicts.
    3. Remained positive at all ages.
    4. Stayed the same since the mid-1960s.

13.3 Challenges Facing the Elderly

  1. Today in Canada the poverty rate of the elderly is                              .
    1. Increasing
    2. Lower than at any point in history
    3. Decreasing
    4. The same as that of the general population
  2. Which action reflects ageism?
    1. Celebrating youth
    2. Speaking slowly and loudly when talking to someone over age 65
    3. Believing that older people drive too slowly
    4. Engaging in presentation rituals to show elders respect
  3. Which factor most increases the risk of an elderly person suffering mistreatment?
    1. Social disorganization of neighbourhoods
    2. Having been abusive as a younger adult
    3. Being frail to the point of dependency on care
    4. The ability to bestow a large inheritance on survivors
  4. If elderly people suffer abuse, it is most often perpetrated by                              .
    1. Spouses
    2. Caregivers
    3. Other elderly people
    4. Strangers

13.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Aging

  1. Which assertion about the aging role in men would be made by a sociologist following the functionalist perspective?
    1. Men view balding as representative of a loss of strength.
    2. Men tend to have better retirement plans than women.
    3. Men have life expectancies three to five years shorter than women.
    4. Men who remain active after retirement play supportive community roles.
  2. An older woman retires and completely changes her life. She is no longer raising children or working. However, she joins the YWCA to swim every day. She serves on the Friends of the Library board. She is part of a neighbourhood group that plays Bunco on Saturday nights. Her situation most closely illustrates the                               theory.
    1. Activity
    2. Continuity
    3. Disengagement
    4. Gerotranscendence
  3. An older man retires from his job, stops golfing, and cancels his newspaper subscription. After his wife dies, he lives alone, loses touch with his children, and stops seeing old friends. His situation most closely illustrates the                               theory.
    1. Activity
    2. Continuity
    3. Disengagement
    4. Gerotranscendence
  4. Modernization theory suggests                              .
    1. The elderly lose power and influence in society.
    2. Life will be radically extended by molecular biotechnologies creating a new gerontocracy.
    3. Elderly people stay healthier and more active if they keep up with modern trends.
    4. Fewer elderly people are religious today.
  5. Exchange theory suggests                              .
    1. People pass through stages of life by exchanging old roles for new roles
    2. Age cohorts struggle over control of limited resources.
    3. Nonmaterial assets such as love and friendship govern social interactions
    4. Older people are more isolated because they have less resources to trade.

[Quiz answers at end of chapter]

Short Answer

13.1 Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society

  1. Baby boomers have been a dominant force in North American culture since the 1960s. Do you know any baby boomers? In what way do they exemplify their generation? What is the significance of the boomers entering retirement?
  2. What social issues involve age disaggregation (breakdowns into groups) of a population? What kind of sociological studies would consider age an important factor?
  3. Conduct a mini-census by counting the members of your extended family, emphasizing age. Try to include three or four generations, if possible. Create a table and include total population plus percentages of each generation. Next, begin to analyze age patterns in your family. What issues are important and specific to each group? What trends can you predict about your own family over the next ten years based on this census? For example, how will family members’ needs and interests and relationships change the family dynamic?

13.2 The Process of Aging

  1. Test Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Think of someone or something you have lost. You might consider the loss of a relationship, possession, or aspect of your self-identity. For example, perhaps you dissolved a childhood friendship, sold your car, or got a bad haircut. For even a small loss, did you experience all five stages of grief? If so, how did the expression of each stage manifest? Did the process happen slowly or rapidly? Did the stages occur out of order? Did you reach acceptance? Try to recall the experience and analyze your own response to loss. Does your experience facilitate your empathizing with the elderly?
  2. What do you think it will be like to be 10, 20, and 50 years older than you are now? What facts are your assumptions based on? Are any of your assumptions about getting older false? What kind of sociological study could you establish to test your assumptions?
  3. What is your relationship to aging and to time? Look back on your own life. How much and in what ways did you change in 10 years and in 20 years? Does a decade seem like a long time or a short time in a life span? Now apply some of your ideas to the idea of aging. Do you think older people share similar experiences as they age?

13.3 Challenges Facing the Elderly

  1. Make a list of all the biases, generalizations, and stereotypes about elderly people that you have seen or heard. Include everything, no matter how small or seemingly trivial. Try to rate the items on your list. Which statements can be considered myths? Which frequently turn into discrimination?
  2. Have you known any person who experienced prejudice or discrimination based on age? Think of someone who has been denied an experience or opportunity simply for being too old. Write the story as a case study.
  3. Think of an older person you know well, perhaps a grandparent, other relative, or neighbour. How does this person defy certain stereotypes of aging? How do they exemplify certain stereotypes of aging?
  4. Older people suffer discrimination, and often, so do teenagers. Compare the discrimination of the elderly to that of teenagers. What do the groups share in common and how are they different?

13.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Aging

  1. Remember Bridget Fisher, the 62-year-old woman from the introduction? Consider her life experiences from all three sociological points of view. Analyze her situation as if you were a functionalist, a symbolic interactionist, and a critical sociologist.
  2. Which lifestyle do you think is healthiest for aging people — activity, continuity, or disengagement? What are the pros and cons of the activity, continuity, and disengagement theories? Find examples of real people who illustrate the theories, either from your own experience or your friends’ relationships with older people. Do your examples show positive or negative aspects of the theory they illustrate?

Further Research

13.1 Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society
Gregory Bator founded the television show Graceful Aging and then developed a website offering short video clips from the show. The purpose of Graceful Aging is to both inform and entertain, with clips on topics such as sleep, driving, health, safety, and legal issues. Bator, a lawyer, works on counseling seniors about their legal needs. Log on to Graceful Aging for a visual understanding of aging.

13.2 The Process of Aging
Read the article “A Study of Sexuality and Health among Older Adults in the United States”, by (Tessler Lindau, Schumm, & Laumann, 2007), found online at the New England Journal of Medicine. How does it elaborate on themes discussed in the chapter?

The Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health is an interdisciplinary research institute based at the University of Victoria. Review their Research and Resources page to see examples of contemporary social research into aging in Canada.

13.3 Challenges Facing the Elderly
Elderly Canadians share certain aspects of life in common. To find information on public issues that elderly Canadians are engaged in visit the CARP website or look at a copy of Zoomer magazine.

Learn more about the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, the organization supporting African grandmothers who are caring for AIDs-orphaned grandchildren.

13.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Aging
New Dynamics of Aging is a website produced by an interdisciplinary team at the University of Sheffield. It is supposedly the largest research program on aging in the United Kingdom to date. In studying the experiences of aging and factors that shape aging, including behaviours, biology, health, culture, history, economics, and technology, researchers are promoting healthy aging and helping dispel stereotypes. Learn more by logging onto its website.


13.1 Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society
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13.2 The Process of Aging

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13.3 Challenges Facing the Elderly

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13.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Aging

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Solutions to Section Quiz

1 B, | 2 C, | 3 B, | 4 A, | 5 C, | 6 C, | 7 A | 8 C, | 9 D, | 10 A, | 11 B, | 12 B, | 13 C, | 14 B, | 15 D, | 16 A, | 17 C, | 18 A, | 19 D,| [Return to Quiz]


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