Have We Changed? Comparing Ancient and Modern Views of Aging

Have society’s views towards aging changed since Antiquity? Three months ago, I would have thought modern society’s views towards aging would be entirely different when compared to that of society over two thousand years ago. A seminar I am currently taking at McMaster University titled The History & Culture of Aging by Dr. Sarah Clancy led me to recognize many similarities.

In Ancient Rome, retiring from public life was difficult for the older population. There was no specific retirement age; however, there was a general consensus that after the age of 60, men could honorably retire from public life and live a life of leisure (Harlow & Lawrence, 2003). Ancient Roman society saw this withdrawal from public life as both positive and negative. The positive outlook embraced the individual’s productive and self-gratifying lifestyle, whereas the negative outlook saw retirement as a means of socially marginalizing the individual (Harlow & Lawrence, 2003). Does this sound familiar? To this day, many people find it difficult to give up their job, possibly out of the same fears ancient Romans had – fear of social marginalization. This could be why countless people continue to work after their 65th birthday. In addition, modern society continues to have mixed views towards the retirement of older adults – some viewing it positively, and some regarding these individuals as not contributing to society.

Cato, a political leader in ancient Rome also discussed views towards aging that society continues to have today. He wrote that the “weakness of old age” should be resisted by a routine of “frugal eating, moderate exercise and intellectual pursuit” (Harlow & Lawrence, p. 24). This statement could be considered a form of “anti-aging” that we still see our society partake in today. Our society continues to be filled with pessimistic views towards aging, over-emphasizing on the negative side of growing old – as if it is something one should strive to resist.

Or rather, is Cato’s view not so much an ageist remark, but a kindhearted strategy to help the older population manage with the physical or mental changes that are associated with aging? Maybe Cato is merely suggesting strategies for older people to live the best way possible for the period of life they are in. Modern society regularly encourages strategies to help deal with certain aspects of the aging process just as Cato did – such as exercise classes targeted to older adults or the promotion of mental stimulation for older adults. I at first thought that these views that have continued from Antiquity into modern times are ageist and yet another way that society is resisting aging. However, Graham Knight reminded me that every age group has a different way of dealing with certain aspects of the life stage they are in. For instance, children are encouraged by society to eat healthy breakfasts to help with their attention span and teenagers are encouraged not to smoke to prevent various diseases. This is no different than older adults being encouraged to eat healthily, exercise and participate in mental stimulation to decrease risks of mental or physical impairments that are often associated with aging.

It’s interesting to see that views regarding aging formed over two thousand years ago persist to this day. These understandings of aging from Antiquity can teach us that we can still improve as a community to make Hamilton and the country more age-friendly. Both modern and ancient society seem to objectify older people as victims, and at the same time encourage meaningful strategies to age in the best way possible. Instead of emphasizing on the negative aspects of aging, we as a society need to focus on the positive aspects. What we need to resist is not aging, but the one-sided view of aging as nothing but problematic and negative. In resisting this negative perspective of aging, more and more of society will see it as the wonderful, multi-faceted natural part of life that it is. It is as Plato from ancient Greece said, “He who is of calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden” (Arnhoff, 1955).

 

Megan Acton is completing her Honours B.A. in the Department of Health, Aging & Society at McMaster University

 

References

 

Arnhoff, F. N. (1955). Research problems in gerontology. Journal of gerontology, 10(4),   452-456.

Harlow, M., &. Laurence, R. (2003). Old age in ancient Rome. History Today, 53(4), 22- 27.

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