Gerontology is defined as the study of aging, focusing on the physical, social, and psychological aspects of older adulthood. In the most general sense, gerontology draws from diverse disciplines covering all aspects of the aging process in people and animals.
Gerontology is made up of professionals from areas such as nursing, nutrition, psychology, medicine, pharmacology, sociology, and other social-service related fields focusing on the aging experience. Whether they are focused on research or applied science, gerontologists have a mutual interest in the increased understanding of aging and aging mechanisms and an overarching goal of the promotion of successful aging.
In a youth oriented society, aging may carry a negative connotation. Ageism, prejudice or discrimination based on an individual’s age, is manifested in negative views of aging held by the general public. One such stereotype is that all older adults are the same, with increasing homogeneity occurring simultaneously with aging. Myths of the aging experience include erroneous beliefs that older adults are rigid, sickly and frail, cognitively impaired, and dependent on others. However, existing literature clearly refutes these stereotypes of an aging population, and the field of gerontology continues to combat ageist misperceptions.
Physical Aspects of Aging
Much attention has been given to the specific biological processes that occur during aging. Although to date there is not consensus in regard to the causes of aging, there is general agreement that the physical signs of aging result from the body’s natural changes in tissues. In older adults, stroma (connective tissue) increases, while parenchyma (functional tissue) decreases. This process occurs throughout all organs of the body and likely works in conjunction with hormonal changes, resulting in a general aging pattern experienced by most healthy older adults. Physical changes are a normal product of aging and generally occur in the skin, hair, body build, mobility, cardiovascular, respiratory, excretory, digestive, reproduction, nervous, and immune systems. Sensory organs are affected as well, leading to changes in vision, hearing, balance, taste, and smell.
Although the disease process is not automatically indicated with aging, chronic degenerative diseases may assert themselves in older individuals, including diabetes, arthritis, arteriosclerosis, osteoporosis, gout, and anemia. Symptoms such as inflammation, pain, cough, and rigidity may result from injuries incurred over a life span.
Although physical changes occur in the sexual response cycle, sexuality remains an important part of life for older adults, and sexual intercourse can be a satisfying experience. Research gives no indication of increased health risks involved with having sex as an older adult. In fact, one study showed that those who continued to have sex frequently after the age of 60 had a more active sexual response cycle, had increased hormone flow, reported higher levels of happiness, and indicated living exciting lives.
Social Aspects of Aging
Retirement is the decision-making process and behavioral transition spanning work and leisure activities that many encounter later in life. Planned retirement is a relatively new phenomenon, as prior to the early 1960s, retirement was often a consequence of falling ill or being laid off from a job. As Social Security benefits and earnings increased, retirement became increasingly viewed as favorable and a right earned for a lifetime of hard work.
Transition into retirement is less clear-cut than it once was, when it was a complete withdrawal from the workforce and from work-related activities. With the current economy, some older adults find that they do not have the option to retire, but instead must continue working in order to survive financially. In contrast, those with a higher socioeconomic status may strategize to create a unique transition into retirement. Rather than completely withdrawing from the workforce, these older adults re-enter the work force for social or cognitive benefits, utilizing this period of their life as a time to pursue goals or interests other than their original employment.
Social Security, or benefits provided to elderly persons through social programs, was first established in 1935 by the New Deal’s Social Security Act. Although the development of social security policy provided much needed relief to older adults living in poverty, it also created a societal notion that older persons were a homogenous group of aid-deserving individuals. Social Security has come under increased scrutiny as the baby boomer population rapidly approaches retirement. Eligibility for Social Security benefits currently begins at age 65, and there are no economic eligibility requirements. It is estimated that the percentage of the gross domestic product spent on Social Security will increase by one third over the next 20 years, and that this growth will cause Social Security needs to exceed payroll tax receipts by the year 2012. Policy reform is needed to avoid any potential shortcomings facing the Social Security system over the next decade.
Options for Living Arrangements
Whether it is in age-restricted retirement communities or long-term care, elders, their caregivers, and adult children have more choices than ever before in housing options for this phase of life. The desire to remain independent has brought about an increase in active adult and independent living communities, spurring community-based care services designed to help older adults remain in the community through social support programs, adult day care, home-based care, and other care services. Should more care be required, options range from assisted living—where older adults often have private units similar to apartments and receive nursing, meal, and cleaning services to assist in maintaining a degree of independent living—to long-term care units that offer a place of residence to older adults who can no longer perform activities of daily living and who do not have at-home caregivers to assist them. Secured units help residents with decreased functioning due to dementia live meaningful lives without endangering themselves. In addition, hospice care, an approach to providing comfort and care at life’s end rather than heroic lifesaving measures, has become increasingly available via in-home services, specialized units, and hospitals.
Psychological Aspects of Aging
Several developmental theories have been formed to explain the journey from birth to death. Erikson’s psychosocial model of development contains stages, each with its own conflict, through which he postulated all individuals progress. His stage for older adults entails the conflict of ego integrity versus despair, where older adults face the task of engaging in life review and gaining peace with past successes and failures, thereby achieving ego integrity. To obtain ego integrity, older adults must accept normal changes in their physical, social, and psychological roles as well as navigate the ageist system in our culture.
The burgeoning field of geropsychology focuses on the mental health of older adults. Unique aspects of psychosocial challenges for older adults—transitions, grief and loss, increased dependency—are increasingly prevalent. A review of the current literature estimates that mental health disorders among the elderly range from 18% to 28%; estimates are even higher if older adults are institutionalized. The elderly have the highest suicide rate of any group in the United States. However, research indicates that clinical interventions are successful in combating mental disorders such as depression and anxiety in older adults, leading to a clearer understanding that old age does not have to be synonymous with mental disorders or inability to benefit from treatment.
Cognitive changes occur with normal aging, but the majority of older adults are able to preserve their cognitive abilities into later life. In general, thought processes slow, and the incidence of certain types of memory errors increases. Although working memory tends to decline with age, in some cases older adults appear more adept at utilizing both hemispheres of the brain during memory tasks and are able to more successfully regulate emotion for increased memory ability.
For some older adults, cognitive decline surpasses that which is normally expected as individuals age. Dementia, a disease process characterized by several cognitive impairments including problems with memory, is thought to increase with age. This is especially true for dementia of the Alzheimer’s type; prevalence rates are as high as 1.6% for individuals ages 65 to 69, and this figure rises to 25% for individuals over 85 years of age.
Gerontology continues to be a burgeoning field with opportunities in a multitude of professions. Two of the most recognized professional organizations include the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) and Association for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE). These organizations bring together professionals from a variety of disciplines to discuss the most pressing needs of the aged and our changing society.
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