Sociology of Aging: An Analysis on Ageism in Society

Sociology indeed is a dicipline with diverse branches in the world. It deals with every aspect of human social life and societal progression. Sociology of Aging, a branch of sociology, is encompassing and adopts strategies from a multiplicity of professionals ranging from psychology to medicine, pharmacy, nursing, economics, social welfare and anthropology to study aging people and groups in society. Sociology of Aging therefore discusses ‘Gerontology’ and ‘Geriatrics.’ Gerontology is the scientific study of sociological and psychological aspects of aging, including peculiar problems encountered by older adults. Geriatrics, on the other hand, is a special field of medicine concerned with the treatment, diagnoses, evaluation and acknowledgement of diseases peculiar to older adults.

The Sociology of Aging and Ageism

Nevertheless, in all cultures and societies in the world—including Nigeria—some form of stratification based on age are found, and it’s a common experience for people not to be assigned to certain tasks, roles, or position simple because of their age. In African societies such as Nigeria for instance, children cannot be given position of authority or office of responsibility for they are believed to be too young to handle such position of authority.

The young in various cultures and societies are considered immature in body and reasoning to handle certain duties. In the context of demystifying aging and ageism, it’s pertinent to note that in all human societies older adults are not assigned physically demanding jobs and old age is not regarded in the same way in all societies. Some societies respect and idealize old age with reverence while some don’t at all. For instance in Tibet, old age is idealized in the same manner that the elderly are regarded with reverence, while in some African societies the elderly also have been perceived as unproductive, difficult, witches, wizards and some kind of unnecessary burden upon the society. This dualistic perceptions of old age is found in different parts of Nigeria.

The Dualistic Perceptions of Old Age

The dualistic perceptions of old age and segregation sparked a study by Derrick Stenning and Cynthia Bea in 1958. The study makes observations in an Asian Society in a paper titled “Modernization and Ageing in Third and Fourth World Wars.” Similar ideas are also reflected in Stenning’s 1958 work titled “Household Viability Among the Pastoral Fulani” which states that “the old within the fulani community are driven to the family homestead nearer to the burial-ground, practically implying the awaiting of their eventual death.”

In the process of understanding the reasons for segregation of older adults in society it’s paramount to understand what ageism means and its forms. The term “ageism” in the sociology of aging was coined by Robert Butler in 1990 to describe the “prejudice and discrimination against a group on the basis of their age.” However, both the young and the old suffer from ageism, but it’s more devastating for older adults. Despite the negative effect of ageism, it appears to have become an accepted part of life in most societies in the world as even the aged people themselves appeared to accept those prejudices and discriminations as normal.

Benevolent and Malevolent Aging

Ageism could be benevolent or malevolent in forms. Benevolent or benign ageism is a form of ageism where the agist perceive the old as being in need of physical, emotional and material support and feels a moral obligation to help and generally treat the old with kindness, Malevolent or malignant ageism is the opposite of the benevolent, which perceives the old as worthless and an unnecessary burden upon society, sometimes leading cruelty, physical abused, or even homicide of older adults. These are the two forms of ageism you can find in Nigerian society today.

Theories on the Sociology of Aging

The sociological question here would be, why people are agists in the same manner that we talk about racists and sexists? This question can only be answered through the use of sociological theories of such as: terror management theory, structural functional theories/disengagement theory and social conflict/inequality theory of aging.

The Terror Management Theory of Aging

The terror management theory of aging is more focused on ‘fear’ and argues that in our earlier stages of childhood we’re rewarded for our good conducts and also enjoy the emotional, physical and material protection offered by our parents as well as other older adults. At this stage, we tend to have good feelings of ourselves as well as a high ‘self-esteem.’ The fear of our eventual death is simply not there in childhood, but with the passage of time and attainment of maturity, the consciousness of our inevitable mortality begins to take hold. The phobia of death tends to become a constant reminder to the young, and it brings them discomfort, They tend to want to distance themselves from the fate of the old, and they perpetually become aggressive and cruel to old people.

Structural Functionalist Theory and Disengagement theory of Aging

The structural functionalist theory/disengagement theory of aging emphasizes interrelatedness of different social institutions, harmony, stability, decorum, equilibrium and progress of society. However, under the inspiration of contemporary functionalist theorists in particular Talcott Parsons, Eliane Cumming and William Henry in 1961 laid the foundation for the disengagement theory of aging. Cumming and Henry explained that “aging threatens to disrupt normal functions of society as physical decline and death takes their tolls, the society responds by disengaging statuses and roles from the old to the young so that tasks can be performed with minimal disruption.”

The theory believes in disengaging older adults from productive roles because it believes doing so provided an added advantage in bringing about stability, decorum, equilibrium and societal progress. The young people are believed to bring about current skills and training to work. Older adults are disengaged because of physical decline, health issues, lack of enjoyment and many more issues associated with older age.

Sociology Conflict Theory of Aging and Inequality

The social conflict theory of aging and inequality is based on the idea that “different age categories, different opportunities and different access with social resources…create a system of stratification based on age.”

The theory believes that middle-age people in all societies enjoy the greatest power and most opportunities and privileges while elderly and children have fewer powers, opportunities and privileges, while at the same time having a higher risk of poverty. Employers also replace most senior workers with younger workers as a way of keeping down wages or cutting down costs and, as a result, older people become second class citizens in the society.

Social conflict theorists believe that an age-based hierarchy is inherent in industrial capitalist societies and inline with Marxist thoughts, Steven Spentzer in 1980 pointed out that “a profit oriented society devalues categories of people that are economically unproductive or less productive.” The theory draws attention to social diversity in the elderly population, including differences in class, race, ethnicity and sex as dividing the elderly in the society.

Final Thoughts on Ageism and the Sociology of Aging

Nevertheless, ageism manifests in health facilities as Doctors tend to imagine elderly patients as rigid, senile, difficult and even futile to manage or treat. When already Doctors and other personnel in the health facilities have well entrenched negative stereo-types about older patients in need of medical attention, these stereotypes are exceptionally unpleasant and even tend to aggravate negative situations for older patients.

In the village also, there are common tales that frequently depict the old people as witches, wizards, difficulty and grumpy. It’s in the interest of all aged categories that these negative portrayers of the old be discouraged as been old does not necessarily turn someone into some kind of dreadful evil. The government should be deliberately protective of the elderly through policy, initiatives that enhances the physical, material and emotional welfare of the older segments of the population foundling or affectionately refered to as the ’senior citizens’. This will bring about the dignity of the elderly until their eventual final passage(death).