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Chapter 9 Aging and the Elderly

Social Issues in the News

“Wisdom of the Elders,” the headline said. The story was about older Americans who have used insights gained from their many years of experience to accomplish great things. John Ammon, 66, founded and runs an after-school tutoring and mentoring center for Native American children in San Jose, California. “We don’t twist their arms,” he says. “The kids know we want them to do well.” Natalie Casey, 82, is a nurse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who is very patient-oriented. “I found out that if I took a genuine interest in my patients, it took their minds off what they were in the hospital for,” she told a reporter. “Nursing isn’t just delivering medicine and changing bandages. If you listen to somebody, it’s surprising how much their outlook can change.”

John Freutel, 56, assistant fire chief in Minneapolis, Minnesota, helped coordinate rescue operations when a busy bridge collapsed over the Mississippi River in August 2007. He almost certainly saved several lives. “There isn’t a manual on how to deal with a bridge collapse,” Freutel recalled. “I was juggling 10 million things, but 30 years of experience helped me stay calm. When you’re in command, I’ve learned, the most important lesson is: take a deep breath.”

And in an interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, 58, remembered the day, January 15, 2009, when he saved more than 150 lives by piloting a US Air jet safely on emergency landing into the Hudson River. “One way of looking at this might be that, for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training,” he said. “And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” (Newcott, 2009)Newcott, B. (2009, May and June). Wisdom of the elders. AARP The Magazine. Retrieved from

As this news story makes so clear, older individuals have much to contribute to our society in many ways. Yet our society does not value them nearly as much as some other societies value their elders. At the same time, as these societies have changed, so have their views of their older members changed to some degree.

Consider the San (also known as the !Kung Bushmen, now considered a derogatory term), a hunting and gathering tribe in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. Although their land has been taken from them and most now are forced to live on farms and ranches, they struggle to maintain their traditional values even as they must abandon their hunting and gathering ways.

One of these values is respect for people in their old age. Old here is a relative term, as most San die before they reach 60. Although the San live a healthy lifestyle, they lack modern medicine and fall prey to various diseases that industrial nations have largely conquered. Only about 20% of the San live past 60, and those who do are revered because of the wisdom they have acquired over the years: they know the history of the San, they know various San quite well, and they know how and where to find food regardless of the weather (Schneider & Silverman, 2010; Thomas, 2006).Schneider, L., & Silverman, A. (2010). Global sociology: Introducing five contemporary societies (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill; Thomas, E. M. (2006). The old way: A story of the first people (rev. ed.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

As the San have been forced to change from hunting and gathering to farming and herding, many aspects of their culture and social structure have changed as well (Yellen, 1990).Yellen, J. E. (1990, April). The transformation of the Kalahari !Kung. Scientific American, 96–105. Inequality has increased, and selfishness has slowly replaced their emphasis on sharing. Elderly San have lost status and respect, perhaps because the knowledge they possess of the old ways is no longer needed as these ways fade away.

The San society is very different from the United States and other industrial societies, yet their society has much to tell us about the social process of aging and about the cultural and structural forces affecting older people. When the San were still hunters and gatherers, their elderly were respected and enjoyed living with their relatives. At the same time, some became a burden on their kin, and especially on people with whom they had to live if their own children had already died. After the San were forced to relocate, changes that affected their culture and social structure began affecting their elderly as well. If knowing about a society’s culture and structure helps us to understand its elderly, it is also true that knowing about a society’s elderly helps us understand the society itself, as this chapter will illustrate.