When it comes to old age, illness, and death, little remains to us of common meaning or shared social rituals.
No matter how we mark its beginning, “old age,” as the English sociologist John Vincent has said, “is always the period of life before death.”11xJohn Vincent, Old Age (London, England: Routledge, 2003), 132. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called it the “evening of life,” a time when life is beyond its afternoon but not yet at its nightfall.22xSøren Kierkegaard, Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 56. Old age is a cultural category, configured by kinship networks, economic systems, and basic value orientations, rather than a stage defined in specific biological terms. The end of old age, however, the last stage, is always that end which we call death. Its meaning is in turn shaped by the ways in which death itself is culturally understood.
In our society, to come directly to my point, old age is understood and framed in ways that lead inevitably to its devaluation. Its status is low and arguably is falling. On its face, such a claim might sound preposterous. Surely, the opposite is true. From the Social Security safety net to the Americans with Disabilities Act, from the positive portrayals of older people in popular media to near-record life expectancy, this is unquestionably the golden age of the golden years, a time of “No Limits. No Labels,” to quote an AARP slogan. The scope of identification with the aged is wide, this time of life is treated with public respect, and extensive supports and accommodations for living well are provided. By what blinkered perspective or romanticization of the past can we fail to see this obvious progress?