Below, we present the dominant cultural models — shared assumptions and patterns of thinking — that guide and shape the American public’s view of adult aging and older Americans. These models represent the conceptual constructs that are most powerful in orienting and organizing public thinking around this issue.
We represent these patterns in public thinking using the heuristic of a “swamp” of cultural models.
1. The Ideal vs. Real Cultural Model
One of the most powerful shared understandings that emerged from our interviews was the underlying distinction that informants drew between the ideal of aging and the reality of this subject. Informants were able to talk quite positively about aging and older Americans, displaying shared understandings of successful aging as being about the maintenance of self-sufficiency and activeness. However, this idealized way of thinking about aging and older Americans was always tempered by the ever-present recognition that, in reality, aging is a deterministic process of deterioration and isolation. In short, our research shows that while Americans have, and are able to hold, an idealized picture of aging in their minds, this bubble is constantly and predictably perforated by what people see as a much more negative and inevitable process of deterioration.
While all informants oscillated between these “ideal” and “real” modes of thinking at points in their interviews, analysis showed clearly that it was the “real” aspect of this model that was more dominant in shaping people’s thinking about aging, and all informants came to settle into negative and fatalistic views about the subject of aging. This deep way of modeling aging issues — as a positive ideal that is always thwarted by the reality of the issue — is of vital importance to those communicating about aging and older Americans. We discuss the implications of this model below, but first present a more detailed picture of the way in which the Ideal vs. Real cultural model works to structure people’s thinking about aging and older Americans:
A. The Aging Ideal
This idealized part of the Ideal vs. Real cultural model was comprised of the following three shared understandings:
1. Staying Active and Maintaining Self-Sufficiency: The picture of successful aging (and well-being more generally) that dominates people’s thinking is that of activity and, more importantly, self-sufficiency. When in the ideal mode of thinking, informants talked at length about aging as a process that should be characterized by building, sustaining and maintaining one’s capacity for activity and ability to care for oneself, manage one’s own affairs, and move with autonomy through the world. This represents a basic American understanding that well-being entails the ability to manage one’s needs and functions without assistance from others.4 This aspect of the Ideal image of aging can be seen in the following excerpts from informant discussions:
Researcher: When you think about that picture of wellness, what do you see?
Informant: That they’re physically in good shape. They can still get around by themselves. They still have a good part of their independence left. They’re able to just get up, enjoy life, go to their knitting club or the gym or things that really make them happy. I see a lot of grandchildren visits and different book clubs and stuff that you weren’t able to make time for while you were raising kids and were paying everything off. You just get to wake up and say “You know, today I’m going to spend all day at the beach,” or “Today, I’m going to spend all day hanging out with my cats.” That’s my picture of a good retirement and getting older — just being able to enjoy life and still having the mental and physical capacity to actually go out and do it.
Informant: I know three seniors — couples that are at my church — they still have their own home. They still own their own home. They still drive their own cars. One couple — I know for a fact that their daughter pays for them to have a maid. So, she comes in and she takes care of their home, but they still live there. They’re taking care of themselves. They’re in the “Happy Seniors” club at our church, and they’re doing positive things. They walk every week around the lake. They are very active.
Informant: It’s [aging] about keeping yourself socially active, as well. Fundraising, maybe, or recreational sports — things that keep your mind and your body healthy, so that when you do become 80 or 70, you’re still feeling good, still have energy.
2. Earning Leisure: Another part of the Ideal image of aging was the understanding that informants shared about life’s older years representing a time of freedom and relaxation after individuals have realized their primary responsibilities and labors in employment, raising children, paying mortgages, and the like. The older years were understood as the time in life when individuals should be free to travel, enjoy grandchildren and relationships, and engage in pursuits not afforded during middle age years.
Informant: So, you’re [someone who is aging] transitioning to, “I just want to kick it with my spouse, and do a little bit of traveling,” and you guys are starting to maybe wind down and retire from work.
Informant: Hopefully you’re married to the love of your life … you have good communication with your family. And you’re able to do what you want at your own leisure. If I wanted to travel but couldn’t because of work — well, now I’m able to … If I try to go and see the kids during the week, and they’re 400 miles away, now I can because I don’t have the responsibilities of work anymore. I put my time in and now I can just relax, and hopefully do whatever makes me happy for the rest of my life. And I guess, that’s the goal, that’s hopefully what’s at the other end of the time.
Informant: I think the picture of older and doing well is that you’re still active. You’re still able to be out doing things, taking vacations, going and seeing the world. That’s kind of what I feel like you’ve earned if you make it to retirement. I think that you kind of earned it — you worked really hard your whole life, and you’ve earned the privilege of being able to kind of do some of the world traveling.
3. Accumulating Wisdom: Among the most frequently expressed part of the Ideal concept of the aging process was the association between age and wisdom. According to this part of the Ideal model, practical knowledge and wisdom accumulate through life experiences. At one point or another in all of the interviews, informants explained that, through experiences and mistakes, older people gain a wiser perspective on life and how the world works — wisdom that ideally can be shared with others.
Informant: It’s [the process of getting older] just imparting their wisdom onto us. I think that’s really important, because they have made more mistakes. When older people give me advice, it feels like they really are giving me advice because they care about me, and they want me, as a younger person, to not make the same mistakes that they did, and from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. If you want to keep going on, you want the younger generation to be smarter and better. And I think people write that off and don’t listen to older people enough.
Informant: I think that you have a lot more capacity to say, “This happened, but it’s not the end of the world. I’ll get through it,” versus when you were younger, you would have thought, “Oh, my life is over. This is horrible.” So, I think you get a lot more wisdom for dealing with life in general and maybe tragedies that might come along. By the time you get older, you’re saying “Oh, I’ve been through this five times — this tragedy, that terrorism attack,” and you have some kind of frame of reference that you don’t have when you’re younger.
Informant: The old adage is “Learn from your elders.” So, these people have already been through all this crap, already know ways around it, already know how to finagle stuff, and to get to the next point and that’s beneficial for everybody. I think everything comes full circle. We’re going through stuff now that 40 or 50 years ago our elders went through. It’s not exactly the same, but similar scenarios and it’s always a vicious cycle. So, as long as there are elders to sit there and be like, “Oh, this is what happened. This is what we did …”
B. Modeling the Reality of Aging
The rosy ideals that informants had about what aging should look like were juxtaposed with a consistent sense that the reality of this process and stage in life is typically very different from the ideal. In the end, despite having the ability to think positively about aging, informant talk suggested a more fatalistic understanding that, for most people, the ideal remains lofty and out of reach. We refer to these understandings as the “real” model of aging not to suggest that they reflect factually correct or objective views, but because they capture informants’ perceived realities.
1. Deterioration and Loss of Control: By far the most dominant part of people’s thinking about the reality of aging was the association between aging and decline and deterioration. A large percentage of informants’ discussion focused, in various ways, on the idea that as a person enters his or her older years, the attributes and capacities of the body and mind fade away. This idea was often associated with a strong sense of inevitability — that the deterioration of these functions is an inherent feature of the aging process. The language of “loss,” “slowing down” and “breaking down” dominated informants’ talk about aging.
Informant: You can try to slow it [aging] down with medicine. You can try to slow it down with surgeries, but inevitably, you’re going to age, and the saying is, “You are dying since the day you are born.” It’s true. You’re born, and then every day, you’re closer to dying.
Researcher: What are some other things that happen as we age?
Informant: Your physical attributes — you lose those. You lose your mental attributes as you get older. If you work out, you stay in shape, you eat healthy, you still have those to a certain point, but you’re still going to lose them at some point, same with your mental attributes. That happens from anywhere between being able to walk, to being able to see, hear. As your age gets up there on this planet, you lose those attributes. You might not lose them all, but you lose certain aspects of them. You lose a percentage of them. Again, mentally and physically — mentally remembering things, being able to speak properly, being able to comprehend properly. As we say, that’s just getting old.
Informant: Our bodies are breaking down, and they’re not as physically strong as they once were. From a biological standpoint, it seems as though our bodies are in their prime between 16 and — I don’t know — 45 years old. And anywhere outside of that, your body is deteriorating.
Informant: You’re on the downhill slope. That’s just the fact of life. You can only do so much.
In light of this dominant focus on decline and deterioration, there was also a strong emphasis on the increased need for health care that accompanies the aging process and on the difficulties of meeting healthcare needs.
Researcher: What do you think are the biggest challenges to growing older in this country?
Informant: I would say it’s probably health care. I feel like they have a lot of hurdles they have to jump through. You get older, and things just start breaking down. You really need health care to be there for you.
Informant: That’s another big factor about the elderly — getting the meds that they need, because as you age, your body changes, depending on if you have taken care of yourself or if you get gangrene in your leg from not taking care of yourself. There’re all these different issues that people have that have different needs. I think accessibility to medication is huge for the elderly.
2. A Reversal of Dependency: The challenge faced by children as their parents lose their independence was prominent in many people’s thinking. It was recognized as a major challenge — and often a source of substantial stress — for many adult children who confront either caring for their older parents themselves or figuring out how to pay for that care.
Informant: She [an older acquaintance] was thinking about selling her cars. Her kids were like, “No, Mom, don’t sell the cars! We’ll just …” — but just the fact that she now is moving in with her daughter, you know, goes back to what I said in the beginning. Some seniors end up living with their kids, you know. A lot of it was because — it was the health. Her husband’s health declined. She couldn’t afford to keep up the house and travel back and forth. So, if she sells the house, now that she’s sold the house, now she’s homeless, and now she’s living with her daughter. So, the stressor was the health. Then, everything else came down after that.
Informant: It seems like, from what I see, that money is just, like a detour, at times, for some people, where you’re doing well one day, and then you may have a big hiccup. The next thing you know, your health is declining because you’re worried about this. So now, you’re having a stroke, or maybe you got heart disease. Then that takes a toll, and then you’re losing more. Now, maybe you’re — at this point, you’ve lost your job, your house, and now you’re home with your kids.
This reversal of dependency raises complicated, and often anxious, questions of responsibility for people. Most believe that children have a responsibility to ensure that their parents have basic care and comfort during their older years, and there is a recognition that often, at the end of the day, family members may be the only ones who will step up to provide necessary care. Yet, at the same time, people are uncomfortable asserting that children are obligated to provide full care, if necessary. Cognitively, the ideal of caring for older parents becomes counterpoised to a model of independence and freedom for adult children to live their own lives, resulting in a tangible sense of ambivalence for many.
Informant: I know this: As families, we would do whatever — if our elders came to a circumstance where the housing — if my parents needed to come live with me, I’d have no problem with that. I don’t think anybody in America would have — I mean, if they have the means to do it, they wouldn’t have a problem. That goes back to assisted living and nursing homes. That’s a monetary issue also, whether it’s through health insurance or a specific type of insurance, the family has the ability to do it. That’s an option, which that’s why I say the perception’s there that we take care of our elder, to an extent. I guess I have to say “to an extent,” but I don’t really think that that’s … I don’t think it’s that … it’s an issue.
Informant: Some families see older people, as long as they’re healthy and they can take care of themselves, their house, and everything; “Oh that’s great. Welcome to my family.” But as soon as they need your help, this is maybe too scary or easier for them just to stay in a nursing home or, you know, assisted living.
3. The Die Is Cast: In addition to the focus on deterioration and loss of control, determinism was another strong component of people’s Real model of aging. When engaged in thinking about the realities of aging, informants frequently characterized the aging process as one in which identity, knowledge, skills, success and other aspects of life become increasingly “fixed”: Doors of opportunity that were once open are now closed, and one’s capacity to change courses in life is reduced, if not completely eliminated.
Informant: When you hit 60s, your life’s not over, but whether or not you’re successful or not has already been established. I don’t see too many 60-year-olds that can go out and start making a name for themselves if they haven’t already. Your 60s is when you can have pets, like a dog or a cat, and be home, and your life’s established, and you are what you’re going to be.
Informant: At this [older] age, you can’t do whatever you want. There are limitations to what you can do. If you’re not good at math, you’re never going to be.
Informant: I feel like your mind’s open for growth, but then once you get to adulthood, and you have your own children, I feel like then the growth is not as aggressive as it was prior.
Researcher: So, like, your brain’s open for growth, and then, at some point, it starts to —?
Informant: Kind of just stagnate. It just goes stagnant … and then, you are who you are. It grows, grows, grows, then you get to where — and I think it probably happens in your 30s and 40s, where you’re kind of — that is probably who you’re going to be, you know?
4. Digital Incompetency: Again and again, interviewees described how older Americans struggle to keep up to date with rapid changes in digital technology, and how this affects their employment prospects, family life, and ability to access resources and services. This preoccupation is consistent with earlier FrameWorks research on demographic change in the United States.5 People believe that older Americans generally lack fundamental competencies in using and deploying digital technologies, which contributes to a sense of older Americans as living outside of the main currents of contemporary society (see more below on this).
Informant: We’re becoming more technological as a nation. But if we have older people that may not be so savvy with it, there might be some implications there. They can’t participate in society and in certain activities because they’re not familiar with technology.
Informant: It’s also probably why a lot of people are retiring earlier — because they can’t keep up with technology. Not just computers or scanners, or projectors, or having a web conference at my work, and having a little trouble with that. We can pick it up really quick because we’re used to it. They’re forced out because they can’t keep up with us younger folks [CHUCKLE] and our technology.
- This model has been documented in other FrameWorks cultural models research. For example, see Baran, M., Lindland, E., Kendall-Taylor, N., & Kohut, M. (2013). “Handed to them on a plate”: Mapping the gaps between expert and public understandings of human services. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.
- For further examples of how the American public models a generational “digital divide,” see FrameWorks’ research on demographic change.