LEARNING OBJECTIVES

• What is gerontology? How does ageism relate to stereotypes of aging?

• What is the life-span perspective?

• What are the characteristics of the older adult population?

• How are they likely to change?

R

oberto’s great-grandmother Maria is 89 years old.

Maria tells Roberto that when she was a young girl in El Paso, there were very few older women in either her family or the neighborhood. Roberto knows there are many older people, mostly women, in his own neighborhood, and wonders when and why this changed over her lifetime.

Before you read any more, take a minute and think about your own grandparents or great – grandparents. How would you and other people describe them? Do you want to be like them when you are their age?

We are all headed toward old age. How do you want to be thought of and treated when you get there? Do you look forward to becoming old, or are you afraid about what may lie ahead? Most of us want to enjoy a long life like Maria’s but don’t think much about growing old in our daily lives.

Reading this book will give you the basic facts about growing older. You will learn how to orga­nize these facts by putting them into two contexts, the biopsychosocial framework and the life-span approach). By the time you are finished, you should have a new, different way of thinking about aging.

You already enjoy a major advantage compared with Maria. She and other people her age did not have the opportunity as young students to learn much about what is typical and what is not typical about aging. Until the last few decades, very little information was available about old age, which people generally thought to be characterized only by decline. Over the past 50 years, though, the sci­ence of gerontology, which is the study of aging from maturity through old age, has flourished. As you can imagine from reading the vignette about Dara Torres and John McCain, and as you will see
throughout this book, aging reflects the individual differences you have come to expect across people as they change over time. Still, many myths about old people persist. These myths of aging lead to nega­tive stereotypes of older people, which may result in ageism, a form of discrimination against older adults based on their age. Ageism has its foundations in myths and beliefs people take for granted (Terry, 2008). It may be as blatant as believing that all old people are senile and are incapable of making deci­sions about their lives. It may occur when people are impatient with older adults in a grocery store checkout line. Or it may be as subtle as dismiss­ing an older person’s physical complaints with the question “What do you expect for someone your age?” As you will learn by doing the activities in the Discovering Development feature, such stereotypes surround us.

This book rebuts these erroneous ideas, but it does not replace them with idealized views of adult­hood and old age. Rather, it paints an accurate pic­ture of what it means to grow old today, recognizing that development across adulthood brings growth and opportunities as well as loss and decline. To begin, we consider the life-span perspective, which helps place adult development and aging into the context of the whole human experience. Afterward, we consider the fundamental developmental forces, controversies, and models that form the founda­tion for studying adult development and aging. In particular, we examine the biological, psychological, sociocultural, and life-cycle forces, and the nature – nurture and continuity-discontinuity controversies. We consider some basic definitions of age, and you will see that it can be viewed in many different ways. Finally, by examining various research methods we show how the information presented in this book was obtained.

The Life-Span Perspective

Imagine trying to understand, without knowing anything about his or her life, what your best friend is like. We cannot understand adults’ experiences without appreciating what came before in child­hood and adolescence. Placing adulthood in this broader context is what the life-span perspective is

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