IN 2008, TWO U. S. CITIZENS MADE HISTORY BECAUSE OF THEIR AGE
AT THE OLYMPIC GAMES IN Beijing, swimmer Dara Torres, at age 41, the oldest woman ever
to compete in that sport at this level, redefined people’s beliefs about world-class athletes and mothers (her daughter was aged two at the time). She won three silver medals, missing a gold by.01 second. Competing in her fifth Olympic Games, Torres clearly demonstrated that a combination of great genes and a highly rigorous training regimen enabled her to compete in a sport in which most world-class women swimmers’ careers are over by the time they are in their mid-twenties.
At the same time, Senator John McCain became, at age 72, the oldest person to be nominated for a first term as president by a major political party. Senator McCain had a long, distinguished career as an officer in the U. S. Navy, was a prisoner of war for 5 years during the Vietnam conflict, and went on to be elected to Congress from Arizona. By his own admission, McCain was in better health than many other people of his age at the time of his campaign. When questioned about his age, he pointed out his 96-year-old mother, who accompanied him on many of his campaign trips. His (and his mother’s) energy and stamina demonstrated that chronological age alone is a very poor index of people’s capabilities.
Dara Torres and John McCain are great examples of how middle-aged and older adults are being looked at differently today. They showed that adults are capable of doing things thought unimaginable or inappropriate just a few years ago. They also illustrate how the normal changes people experience as they age vary across individuals and why we need to rethink common stereotypes about age.
In this chapter, we examine a seemingly simple question: Who are older people? We will see that the answer is more complicated than you might think. We also consider the ways in which gerontologists study adults and how adults develop.
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