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2 - From Ageless Self to Selfless Age: Toward a Theoretical Turn in Gerontological Understanding

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2012

Haim Hazan
Tel Aviv University
Leonard W. Poon
University of Georgia
Jiska Cohen-Mansfield
Tel-Aviv University
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This chapter argues that the conceptual language employed to analyze the self and its well-being in later life reflects issues and concerns pertinent to styles and anxieties relevant to midlife, such as continuity, success, and meaning, rather than the underpinnings of the end of existence. Although most populations defined as elderly are amenable to being understood in terms of cumulative attainments and corresponding aspirations, the category of the very old, otherwise known as the fourth age, occupies a distinct human territory, displaying properties of time and space quite different from those marking other phases of the life course. Any attempt at comprehending the experience of the oldest old should take into account the plausibility of a reshaped identity abandoning no-longer-relevant regulative principles of subjectivity, such as emotional and cognitive lifelong constructions.


The quest to understand well-being as a gerontological aspiration can be viewed as a form of resistance to the cultural imagery of old age as formulated, for example, by the founding father of gerontology, the Nobel laureate Elie Metchnikoff, in 1905 as “an infectious, chronic disease which is manifested by a degeneration or an enfeebling of the noble elements” (p. 48). Even as a metaphoric figure of speech, such phrasing, counteracting the ethos of the modern quest for the normal and the nonpathological (Foucault, 2003), would not withstand the scrutiny of current political correctness.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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