Unit 2: Ageing in Context

Ageing is not simply a set of physical changes which occur at the level of the body. Ageing should also be understood at the level of the social and psychological. As we age the role we play in families, the economy and within social networks changes. The way society views us also changes. This unit will consider the social construction of the ageing process and raise questions for the impact this may have on the sexuality of older people.

  Introduction

Ageing is not simply a set of physical changes which occur at the level of the body. Ageing should also be understood at the level of the social and psychological. As we age the role we play in families, the economy and within social networks changes. The way society views us also changes. This unit will consider the social construction of the ageing process and raise questions for the impact this may have on the sexuality of older people.

One of the most important ideas to emerge from our understanding of the ageing process from a societal perspective has centred on the economic role of older people. Retirement brings with it many advantages in terms of increased leisure time and a relinquishment of the burdens of a working life. An alternative perspective on retirement suggests that this has contributed to the ways in which older people are ascribed social status. Many argue that retirement marks older people out as a different social group, importantly because they are no longer economically active, resulting in  them being viewed as a burden on the working population. This, it is argued, lies at the very root of ageism and ageist practices affecting the way older people are regarded. Principally, this separation as a social group means that ageing is characterised by dysfunction; decay; decline and worthlessness.

This perspective on ageing has implications for the ways in which the ageing body is regarded by society. It is argued that power, attractiveness and beauty are confined only to the young and the images we see in our media conspire to reproduce this belief on a daily basis. Youth is often represented positively by vitality and desirability whilst on the other hand the ageing body is presented via deterioration and illness. This has implications for the ways in which older people might subsequently view their own body and consequently their own sexual role. It also has implications for the ways in which the sexuality of older people is viewed by others, including health care professionals.

  Key messages 

  • Ageing should be viewed in the context of a broad set of social and psychological changes
  • Changes in the relational and productive aspects of life can have an impact upon the ways in which society views older people
  • The ways in which the ageing body is represented often has negative implications for the ways in which older people’s sexuality is defined.

  Learning Outcomes 

  1. Raise awareness of the social and psychological aspects of ageing;
  2. Consider the relationship between the social status of older people and the ways in which the ageing body is understood;
  3. Become critically aware of the ways in which the ageing body is represented and the implications this might have for the ways in which the sexuality of older people is defined.

  Content

 
Reflective Activity 1

Consider your own community and reflect upon the changes that have been experienced by the older people within it. Spend some time identifying these changes and begin to characterise them as: physical, social and psychological. Make a list of the changes and identify how these might relate to one-another.

Reflective Activity 2

Choose a magazine or a newspaper from home. Take a look at the images and identify any featuring older people. How are older people characterised?

Reflective Activity 3

Take a look at the birthday cards below (Figure 1). Whilst they may be amusing there is a more serious side. What do they say about older people and the ageing body? What do they say about the sexuality of older men and women? How are the images constructed to portray decline, worthlessness and asexuality?

  

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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein