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This chapter introduces some general concepts of ageing. First, it presents different views of what ‘ageing’ is and when ‘old age’ begins. Second, it examines changes in life expectancy and the proportion of the population that is old. Third, it considers attitudes to ageing. The final section outlines the structure of the rest of the book and its rationale.
Different views of later life
Gerontology is the study of old age and ageing. Although everyone has an intuitive sense of what ‘old age’ and ‘ageing’ are, providing a watertight objective definition is surprisingly difficult. Ageing could be said simply to be the process of growing older. However, pedantically speaking, we are all ageing from the moment of conception: do we really wish to say that children are ‘ageing’? Hence, ageing is more sensibly described as change within old age or change that affects older people. It can thus include processes that started in earlier life but only manifest themselves in old age (e.g. a cardiovascular problem that appears in a person's sixties resulting from a poor lifestyle choice in that person's twenties). However, this begs the question of how to define ‘old age’. At first the issue seems a simple one. Putting the niceties of political correctness to one side for a moment, it is intuitively obvious that most people in their seventies and teens look radically different and this is reflected in measures of fitness and health.
This chapter first notes that changes in individuals might vary from those of groups. It then addresses how changes in one area of gerontology can have a significant effect on others, leading to a need constantly to maintain a broad knowledge of the subject.
The purpose of a concluding chapter in an edited volume is typically to draw together the themes raised and create a grand overview, preferably one filled with sage wisdom. I have no pretentions of being able to do such a thing, not least because trying to find a unifying theme, beyond a bland platitude, such as ‘more must be done’, in a subject as diverse as gerontology would be a fool's errand. In support of this I cite the words of the historian H.A.L. Fisher, who wrote the following, largely as a riposte to the then-fashionable view of history as an inevitable process towards a particular ideological system of government:
Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalizations, only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen.
With the world's population getting increasingly older, there has never been a more pressing need for the study of old age and ageing. An Introduction to Gerontology provides a wide-ranging introduction to this important topic. By assuming no prior expert knowledge and avoiding jargon, this book will guide students through all the main subjects in gerontology, covering both traditional areas, such as biological and social ageing, and more contemporary areas, such as technology, the arts and sexuality. An Introduction to Gerontology is written by a team of international authors with multidisciplinary backgrounds who draw evidence from a variety of different perspectives and traditions.