Introduction to Contemporary Issues about Aging and Death
One of the most important social benefits of modern society is the dramatic increase in life expectancy over the last century, particularly in the developed nations. At the turn of the 20th century, life expectancy was barely 60 years or age; less than a century before that, it was approximately 50 years of age (Henslin, 2005; Macionis, 2006). Today, people routinely live into their late 80 or 90s. This change is also associated with various related issues that rarely came up in prior eras of human history. Whereas individuals typically retired in their 50s a century ago (if they could afford to at all, that is), today it is not uncommon at all to continue working well into advanced age or even to begin second or third careers during what used to be considered "retirement age" (Henslin, 2005; Macionis, 2006).
However, this change in society has also contributed to the development of new social issues and concerns that are attributable to perceptions and expectations about age, such as ageism and prejudice against the elderly. Other important issues raised by the increasing life expectancy in society include affordable medical care and the maintenance of social connections and support networks to assist the aging members of the population remain physically healthy and socially connected to others, especially as they lose members of their peer group to old age and death. In that respect, cultural values play a significant role in shaping the way that the rest of society regards the elderly (Schaefer, 2006).
Ageism in Contemporary Society
Age discrimination takes many forms from mere patronizing by the young to serious discrimination in the workplace, which is largely a function of expectations that older individuals are less capable of performing satisfactorily in the vocational environment (Schaefer, 2006). That problem inspired various forms of formal government legislation to prevent workplace discrimination by virtue of age. More generally, ageism refers to the set of expectations associated with advanced chronological age in many respects and it can seriously harm the welfare of elderly individuals by excluding them from many of the opportunities and rights to which they are equally entitled (Schaefer, 2006).
Promoting Quality of Life and Mitigating Negative Consequences of Aging
Unfortunately, the consequences of longer life spans can include a dramatic reduction in the quality of life aged individuals, especially in their last decades of life. That is primarily because the factors that are responsible for longer life spans do not necessarily guarantee continued health and vibrancy in old age. However, volumes of empirical research data suggest that with proper nutrition, medical care, and lifestyle changes consistent with long-term health, advancing age need not necessarily be associated with long-term disability, discomfort, or dependence on other or on society, in many cases (Yates, Djousse, Kurth, et al., 2008).
While there may not yet be any reliable treatment for some of the more serious medical threats to the long-term quality of life in old age (such as Alzheimer's and other forms of age-related dementia and cognitive decline), there is substantial evidence that seeking appropriate medical care for other chronic ailments and physical disabilities associated with old age can substantially preserve the maximum possible quality of life even into the ninth and tenth decade of human life (Henslin, 2005; Macionis, 2006).
The Importance of Social Connections and Interpersonal Support Networks
There is also substantial evidence suggesting that two of the most important aspects of maintaining the quality of life in old age are functions of maintaining meaningful social connections to society and the continuing availability of interpersonal relationships and support networks (Yates, Djousse, Kurth, et al., 2008). Anecdotal evidence has long established the rapid decline in quality of life and even physical health in aging individuals associated with their loss of meaning in their lives, particularly in connection with their retirement when they have no other means of maintaining their productivity in society. Typically, individuals who may have worked at the same job for decades deteriorate quickly beginning shortly after their retirement and die within only a few years (Yates, Djousse, Kurth, et al., 2008).
The same observation applies to the loss of long-term companions and there is equally good anecdotal as well as empirical evidence in the relevant literature linking the loss of long-term companions to death shortly afterwards (Yates, Djousse, Kurth, et al., 2008). On the other hand, when aging individuals find new professional or other meaningful interests that inspire them after their retirement from the fulltime workforce, they can dramatically increase their ability to remain psychologically content and fulfilled by those connections to society (Henslin, 2005; Macionis, 2006).
In terms of interpersonal social connections and support networks, the elderly typically become more dependent on others in advanced age as a very natural function of the age-related decline in various physical and cognitive abilities associated with advanced age (Yates, Djousse, Kurth, et al., 2008). On one hand, this is inevitable and expected; on the other hand, it is also equally important for members of the social support network to avoid taking over more elements of the life of elderly individuals than necessary for their health and safety. In general, the more self-reliant and responsible the individual remains in old age the less likely he or she is to decline in health and psychological outlook any more than is unavoidable by virtue of declining abilities (Yates, Djousse, Kurth, et al., 2008).
By far, the most important service that support networks can provide for the elderly is to provide meaningful interpersonal connections after the loss of loved ones and peers. In addition to the health toll of the emotional trauma associated with the loss of loved ones and peers, the elderly are particularly vulnerable to long-term depression from social isolation and loneliness attributable to the declining numbers of their peers (Schaefer, 2006). In that respect, extended families can provide tremendously beneficial support by maintaining (or increasing) their involvement in the lives of loved ones advancing in age, especially after the loss of their companions and members of their peer group. Even when all other factors and independent variables are fully accounted for, elderly individuals who have the full support of a social network of family and friends survive longer and have much lower incidences of serious disease and symptoms of existing ailments than their counterparts who are not fortunate enough to have the same types of social support and interpersonal connections in their advancing years (Schaefer, 2006).
Cultural and Personal Attitudes about Aging and Death
To a great degree, the welfare of the elderly depends directly on the manner in which beliefs, attitudes, and expectations about aging are reflected in society. In principle, in societies where old age is regarded as the end of the useful portion of life and where the elderly are treated as burdens on society, aging individuals will suffer the consequences of social alienation and lack of self-esteem that corresponds to those social attitudes, beliefs, and expectations (Schaefer, 2006). Conversely, in societies where the elderly are fully supported by social programs and where the beliefs, attitudes, and expectations in the community promote acceptance of old age as an inevitable phase of life where more support may be required but where continued meaningfulness in life is possible, aging individuals typically live longer and experience greater satisfaction and fewer age-related aspects of decline (Schaefer, 2006).
Naturally, cultural beliefs, attitudes, and values in relation to human death also contribute profoundly to the manner in which realization about the impending end of life affect aging populations (Henslin, 2005; Macionis, 2006). In communities and cultures where death is feared rather than understood, it is natural to expect that those approaching the end of their lives will be troubled emotionally by their fears and expectations…