Reflections on Age & Identity

My father turns 85 this month and when I ask how he is, the invariable response is “old.” This gives me pause. “How,” I ask, “does it feel to be old these days?” He laughs and changes the subject.

Bernice Neugarten called age “an empty variable” (1977, p. 633) suggesting, along with Paul Baltes and others (1977) that chronological age has little explanatory or predictive value apart from the biological, psychological and social events that go with it. Culture seems to trump, defining the combination of markers that lead us to accept the “old” appellation (see Kaufman, 1981). Of course, G. H. Mead would remind us that individuals are not passive recipients of cultural dictums (see Johanki, Jylha, & Hervonen, 2000). Rather, we actively construct our identities, interpreting norms and events according to our inclinations, habits, and proclivities.

I wonder why, after 85 years, my father has finally embraced this “old” identity? It seems inconsistent with the way he has lived. When there was pain, he “walked it out.” He was not a complainer, and not much of a talker. He made it through retirement, cancer, loss of loved ones, and even his early 1980s as a poster child for Dylan Thomas. In his own way he did “rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Some say continuity is key to successful adaptation in late life (Neugarten,1968; Maddox, 1968; Atchley, 1989). Hold onto it while you can, despite life’s buffeting changes, and you will enjoy that sense of completeness to which so many aspire. Read more . . .

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