The study of aging has not fully developed as a discipline. It borrows heavily from other traditional disciplines such as psychology, education, biology among others. This suggests that there are as many approaches to aging as the disciplines from which gerontology benefits from. Studies in aging are necessitated by the latest discoveries that people discriminate against the elderly. While such discrimination is usually unconscious, it has major implications on the quality of ones life. Additionally, rising population of the elderly means that societies have to change how they perceive aging. Biologists explain that aging is cosmetic since it only affects the biological components of a human being.
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As such, other non-biological abilities such cognition remains stable and are not affected by age. Like biologists, psychologists lend to this debate and argue that despite there being strong evidence on diminished psychological functions, this has no significant effects on an individuals psychological abilities. Likewise, sociologists assert that despite the negative attitude towards aging, attainment of old age does not mean diminished social significance. On the contrary, the elderly still play significant social roles. These findings confirm that despite the strongly held beliefs that aging results to diminished social worth, the elderly have multiple skills which make them useful members of the society. Such skills can only be reinforced through training and education (Cunha and Heckman 2007). Studies in aging thus seem relevant since societies gain deeper insights into aging as well as emphasize on the need for life long education.
Gerontology is a relatively new discipline, and as such, is interdisciplinary. This implies that gerontology spans the borders of traditional disciplines among them biology, psychology and sociology (Peace et al. 2007). As a result numerous approaches on aging emerge from such interdependency. These approaches shape how people perceive aging. To understand the concept of aging, it is imperative to dispel some of the underlying misconceptions. According to Harwood (2008) aging is the “passage of time for an individual”. Harwood’s (2008) definition implies that aging is not the decline in motor abilities. Neither is it change of social roles and family roles that an individual plays, or progression towards retirement. Even though some of these issues are associated with aging, merely referring to them as aging is inappropriate. Thus, according to Harwood (2008), aging is the unavoidable “chronological change, from year to year, in a person age”.
Such misconceptions bear heavily on how people approach aging. As such, debate is rife on whether it is important to study aging as a discipline. As a result, numerous researches have been conducted, based on among other perspectives demographic, biological, sociological and psychological. In countries such as the United States of America, socio-demographic phenomena such as the baby boomers shape current thinking in Gerontological studies. Economists, healthcare experts among other professionals voice their concerns on the increasing number of the elderly. What is most appalling is that this concerns fuel negative perceptions about the elderly.
Bowling (2007) asserts that such negative perception leads to stereotyping and discrimination against the aging population. Bowling’s (2007) assertions have led to various studies on ageism being conducted. Perdue and Gurtman (1990) argues for the automaticity of ageism and conclude that discriminating people based on age is unconscious and occurs due to strongly held misconceptions about age and how it bears on individual’s identity formation. As such, people have a biases and prejudices against the aged (Palmore 2009). Such prejudices and biases are prevalent in econoncentric societies (Gutman and Spencer 2010). Since the aged are perceives as economic liabilities rather than assets, they are treated with disdain, are less respected, and are perceived as lesser members of the society.
Despite the fact that ageism is not merited, it is seems to influence various approaches to aging. Biologists refer to aging as the biological changes that occur to an individual. Aging is perceived as the biological symptoms evident as a person’s passes from one stage of life to another. Chronic illness, reduced motor abilities, flaccidity of the skin as well as reduced activity are some of the biological symptoms associated with aging, and which result to perceived diminished productivity.
Such notions seem to be informed by able-bodyism, a concept in which an individual’s worth is perceived relative to physical ability. As such, this approach fuels the social stereotype and discrimination against the aged. However, such view seem to overlook the fact that such symptoms of old age can be reversed through proper dieting, exercise and healthy living habits. This implies that aging is cosmetic and thus does not affect much of an individual’s non-biological activities. This perspective tends to be confirmed by studies which reveal that biological aging has limited effects on an individual’s cognitive ability (Craik, and Salthouse 2008). As evidenced by Harwood (2008) an individual can continue with education past the age of 75. As such the ability to learn does not diminish with age.
Much of the psychological theories on aging follow a similar approach to biologists’. Most psychologists have been able to demonstrate that an individual’s psychological ability diminishes with age. There exists strong evidence that memory and the ability to recall are significantly affected by age (Waddell 2002). While these findings have an element of truth, they are nevertheless one sided. Continuity theory overlooks these diminished abilities by overemphasizing the psychological abilities not affected by age. As such, an individual’s personal tastes, interest, hobbies and preferences remain stables through out a person’s life. Psychosocial Activity theory lends more support to this notion and asserts that active individuals are much more likely to remain active even in old age. Therefore, the Psychosocial Activity theory tends to confirm Harwood’s (2008) assertions that one’s ability is not significantly diminished with age.
According to Roberts, Robins, Caspi and Trzesniewski (2003), an individuals identity is socially constructed. This view lends itself to social constructionism, and argues that individuals’ personality is shaped by the society within which they live in. Sociologists also portend that social structures are formed based on race, age and gender. From this assumption, the elderly are lumped into one social group. This group is perceived to have diminished social worth.
As such, to prepare for old age, societies prepare economic structures, such as pension and proper health services, to avoid old age dependency. This implies that aging is a social construct. Sociologists who follow the Political economy perspective oppose this view and insist on the need to encourage integrated living: allowing the old and the young to live together with mutual dependency (Estes 2001).This view is based on the findings that the aged are significant care givers within many societies (Hawkes, 2006).
Biologists, psychologists as well as sociologists adopt different and almost conflicting approaches to aging. These contribute to understanding the purpose of the later life. From this approaches it is evident that an individual’s ability is not significantly altered as a result of aging. Biologists portend that, despite the decline in physical abilities, other abilities such as cognition remains stable. This indicates that there is need for compulsory education for the aged.
Questions abound on what type of education that should be provided for the aged. According to psychologists, a person’s preferences are not affected by old age. Since the cognitive ability of aging individuals is not affected by age, this indicates that the elderly can be training on areas which address their preferences, interests and hobbies. Additionally, compulsory education for the elderly is a way of keeping them actively engaged in the later stages of life. Contrary to popular belief that the social significance diminishes with age, sociologists confirm that retirement does not indicate the end of one’s social significance. Within many societies, the aged still play crucial roles, most common being care givers. These findings indicate that the elderly possesses multiple skills. As Pfeiffer and Reub (2007) affirm, skills cumulated during ones lifetime remains intact and can be used to acquire other skills. The higher the level of accumulated skills, the higher the outcomes achieved by reinvesting in those skills (Cunha, Heckman, Lochner and Masterov 2006).
Since education is the most appropriate method of reinvesting in cumulative skills, this emphasizes the need for compulsory education for the aged. The need for life long compulsory education is further intensified by the aging of the baby boomers. More baby boomers are aging, driving the aging population even higher (Ala-Mutka et al. 2008). Compulsory life long education not only prepares the baby boomers to live a comfortable mature adult life but also to avoid dependency in old age.
The need to understand the purpose of later life has led to the rise of gerontology as a discipline. Even though not fully developed, other traditional discipline lends support to it. As a result, many perspectives on aging have emerged. For instance, biologists equate aging to diminished biological function. This implies that non biological abilities are not affected by age. Similarly, psychologists and sociologists affirm that aging does not diminish person abilities. Psychologist asserts that a person’s preferences, interest and hobbies are not altered by old age (Harwood 2008). This view tends to confirm Pfeiffer and Reub’s s (2007) findings that skills grow stronger as a person with age. As such, the elderly possesses valuable skills which can be enhanced through education. Such skills include the ability to give care to other members of the society such as the grandchildren. These findings also suggest the possibility of the elderly being multi skilled: intact cognitive abilities, socially activity and still possession of valuables lifelong accumulated skills (Cunha, Heckman, Lochner and Masterov 2006).
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Additionally, the increase in the population of the again adds to its significant. These demographics present new realities and further emphasize the need to evaluate the underlying perceptions on aging and how such demographic bears on them. These varied of perspectives on aging add on the continuing debate on the need to understand aging and the consequent implications. As a result of the continued research new evidence is emerging to lend support on the need for compulsory life long education.
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