Are the Elderly Strange Adults? Social Psychology’s Contribution to the Study of Ageing

1. Introduction

There are two strands of thought on the elderly: on the one hand the specificity of the phenomena accompanying ageing is denied, thus freezing development in a perpetuating of young adulthood; on the other hand the old person is treated as a completely ‘other’ being, almost as if born old, spontaneously and threateningly risen from nothing. In that they originate in the defense of the Ego or in cognitive strategies, these attitudes, in various ways, have kept even science far from a genuine understanding of the ageing processes. Perhaps things are changing, and what psychology has so far taught us about the manner of perceiving and processing the stimuli which arise from social reality partly contributes to the change.

2. The Great Empty Category

It is trite but doubtless correct to state that for psychology, as for other sciences, the interest in the basic themes of ageing has among its main causes the rise in the average age and improved social, economic and health conditions of western populations. These are the factors which have brought the social group of the elderly into the limelight, a group become too large to continue to pass unnoticed by scholars, politicians, or the man in the street.
At the same time a curious phenomenon has been observed: the category of the elderly has grown larger, yet paradoxically it is an empty category. No one enters it spontaneously, no one spontaneously defines him or herself as old (Bultena and Powers, 1979). Following the terror management theory hypothesis (Greenberg, Schiemel and Martens, 2002), this denial could derive from the attempt to defend oneself from the thought of the end of life that accompanies old age. The ‘primordial terror’ associated with death is met by denying one’s own old age and distancing the elderly from themselves, either physically through various segregation paths, or mentally through ageism, the prejudice linked to age.
The terror management theory does not only postulate individual reactions to the threat induced by the thought of mortality, but above all visions of the world, collective cultural structures with the purpose of limiting the impact of this threat on ‘normal’ functioning of society. There is, therefore, a ‘culture’ factor that strongly influences the life experience that accompanies ageing, yet at the same time it is possible that through this very culture there could be decisive actions to reduce ageism and to develop a healthier ageing. This is also the position of Baltes (1977), who speaks about the necessity of increasing culture in the third age, for two kinds of reasons. On the one hand culture, as accumulated knowledge, has allowed life expectancy to increase significantly, and it can now contribute to the development of the quality of life. On the other hand, culture as the possibility of broadening the mind, of accessing knowledge, and making thought more flexible, helps one to age better, makes it possible to prolong one’s efficiency through a good level of functioning, and the growth in possible responses and solutions to the problems.

3. The Elderly: One, None, One Hundred Thousand?

We have said that demographic analyses indicate that the social group of the elderly has become significantly larger in industrialised society, and it is destined to grow further.
However, due to social characteristics and needs, the elderly as a category have many differences, and to talk generically of the ‘elderly’ is misleading and limiting. Most recent research confirms the necessity of separating the third and fourth ages (Baltes and Smith, 2003), ‘young’ and ‘old’ old, since if it is true that the passage from adulthood to old age is not so much a question of age as it is of events, it is still true that in itself the passing of the years makes some experiences more likely than others, it causes some needs to emerge rather than others. Just to give some examples, the so called ‘young old’ have to face adapting to retirement from work and changes in the family nucleus; the old-old person is faced with the evolutionary task of existential balance, to use Erikson’s terms (1959), with resources which begin to be limited as much from the cognitive point of view as from the point of view of social support, the ‘very old’ must deal with significant losses at the cognitive, physical and social functioning level. But even within each of these sub-categories we can identify numerous styles of adapting and compensation. Because of this we cannot talk of ‘elderly-type’ but of ‘types of elderly’, as much as there are people who age.
In 1970 Thomae (reported in Cesa and Bianchi, 2001) already reminds us of the importance of observing the interaction between the different systems that operate in the human being who ages. The three postulates of his cognitive theory state that:
1. the ‘lived’ change is more important than the ‘objective’ change for the purposes of behavioural variation,
2. ageing is influenced as much by the expectations of the individual as by those of the group and of society,
3. the adapting of the individual to the process of ageing is a function of the existing balance between the cognitive and motivational systems which operate within him.
Once again, old age is the result of the action of many factors of varying nature, which make ageing distinctly individual. To study and respond appropriately to the challenges posed by the ageing of society means therefore a complex perspective, a working towards an integration of the various psychology specialisations and towards a dialogue between psychology and the other disciplines. A deeper knowledge of the mental functioning of the old person is fundamental but so too is a deeper knowledge of what can influence it.
Till now in fact, ignoring the multiplicity of factors influencing ageing has led to mistakes and delays both in research and in clinical practice: we are thinking of the a-critical application of the transversal method in early studies on cognitive ability in advanced age. In that case, inappropriate comparisons between cognitive performances of old and young adults led to pessimistic conclusions concerning the cognitive abilities of the elderly, concealing a substantial equilibrium between young and old behind cohort factors (e.g. a greater level of schooling in the young group) (Amoretti and Ratti, 2000). The healthy old person in fact keeps long term ability and manner of functioning wholly comparable to those of a younger adult. It is interesting to note that the cognitive performances of the old person can be altered by factors other than simply the deterioration of the brain: Levy (1966) has underlined for example the role of stereotypes, observing that the elderly in whom a negative stereotype of old age had been activated showed systematically lower results in memory tasks than those elderly in whom such stereotypes had not been activated, or where they were of a positive type.
From an only apparently opposite point of view psychosocial models of dementia, underlining the influence of relational factors on the development of the dementing process in advanced age, and widening the purely medical perspective of the models which till now have concerned senile dementia (Morton 1999), establish that for both the healthy old person and the old person affected by dementia there exists only a partial correlation between the biological state and the functional state. Between the two there are many factors that drive ageing and makes it a unique experience whether positive or negative, for each person. Even if senile dementia cannot be explained completely in terms of cerebral deterioration only, so much less can it be stated that the presumed cerebral changes which occur with the passage of time and which for years have been considered to be biological signs of old age, are decisive. In some cases they are not even present, and if they are, they have a limited impact at the functional level of individuals thanks to cerebral plasticity (Cesa and Bianchi, 2001).
In all the cases examined so far cultural rather than biological factors explain the various phenomena associated with ageing. At the top of the list of these factors stands the idea which the old person himself and others develop of old age. Curiously, till now the structure of the ideas concerning old people has been studied more than the content, continuing to take for granted that negative stereotypes of a certain kind, linked to weakness, passivity, depression still exist. It is important instead to carry out observations on the content of age-related stereotypes alongside the investigations on the structure, since the very definition of ‘elderly’ changes with the rapid changing of socio-economic and cultural conditions. Some preliminary data would appear to indicate a survival of primitive negative characteristics in the portrayal of the elderly; two important elements are emerging: multidimensionality and ambivalence. We no longer have ‘the stereotype’ (assuming that there has been only one: we can already take at least two from history, the wise and powerful old man on one hand and the decrepit old man on the other) but ‘the stereotypes’. Around the 1980s for example, Schmidt and Boland (1986) observe that various stereotypes were created depending on the social role held by the elderly person, thus they identify the ‘old age citizen’, the ‘grandfather’, the ‘elder statesman’, each with its own characteristics.
Initially the discovery of many different images of the elderly was greeted as the overcoming of old prejudices and an increase in the value of the elderly within society, but on a slightly more attentive observation it became clear that — for the elderly as for other social members subject to prejudice — the multiplication of categories is not matched by a more flexible and positive approach. It simply makes intellectual segregation more possible; it is a more subtle weapon of ‘constricting definition’.
If we consider the robust action of the ego-protective mechanisms against the threat induced by old age, about which we have spoken above, the battle against ageism appears as a thorny question of social and cultural change.

Antonella Deponte, Trieste University, E-mail:

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