Thursday, April 12, 2012

What Traits Make a Person an Older Adult?

Photo by Raphael Ullmann
Does autumn start on September 1st or on the equinox, which is September 21st? Or does autumn start when the leaves begin falling off the trees?   

The answer isn't clear cut.   

Just as vague is the answer to this question: At what age is someone considered an older adult? The most common answer is 65 plus, but that oversimplifies things.  

Just as there are many ways to identify the start of a season, there are several ways to identify the start of the life stage "
older adult." 

Jill Quadagno, in her textbook
Aging and the Life Course: An Introduction to Gerontology, suggests the following categories: Chronological Age, Social Roles and Age, Functional Age, and Subjective Age.

Like the changing of the seasons, most people enter the category "older adult" by degrees, accruing more and more category markers until there is little room for argument about their life stage. But for a period of time, many people 65 plus can still manage to hold on to many qualities of late middle age.  

Also, recognize that there is great diversity among those who hold the label "older adult," probably greater diversity than any other group of people from the other life stages.   

Ask yourself these questions: How old are you?  What social roles and responsibilities to you hold?  What are your physical abilities?  And how do you perceive yourself? How do others perceive you?  

Chronological Age.  This seems the most objective measure, but even gerontologists employ different age brackets when studying older adults.  The most employed chronological marker for “older adult” is 65 plus. Sometimes, however, scholars put people in research groups at age 50.  I saw some research on older workers this year that reached down as low as 44.  

The longevity of today’s older adults has made it necessary to divide older adults into multiple groups: 65 to 74 (young olds), 75 to 84 (middle olds), and 85 plus (old olds).  Given the ever-increasing life span, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this top group divided at some point in the near future into 85-94 and then 95+. 

Some research places people in decades—particularly for octogenerians up.  Here is a list of decade names for those 50 plus: quinguagenarian, sexagenarian, septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians, centenarians, and supercentenarians.

Social Roles and Age.  Some social roles that mark a person as an older adult include the following: becoming an empty nester, downsizing into a smaller home, becoming a grandparent, collecting Social Security, enrolling in Medicare, being eligible for a senior discount, drawing a pension, and retiring from full-time employment.  

Adopting just one of these social roles might not be enough to push the person into being considered by self and by others as an older adult.  But not always.  More often people are move more solidly into the category “older adult” when they accrue more and more of these markers.

Functional Age. Physical appearance and physical function can mark a person as an older adult.  Again, the more traits a person possesses, the more solidly they move into the category of older adult. These traits include the following: gray hair, wrinkles, hearing loss, vision impairment, tooth loss, cognitive slowing, slowing gait, swallowing difficulties, incontinence, and certain age-related chronic diseases such as arthritis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, COPD, and heart disease.  

Other age-related diseases include Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and even many types of cancer.  For women, being post-menopausal is a marker. Mobility problems might be start for a variety of reasons; whatever the cause, they often mark a person as moving more squarely into the category "older adult."

f you need help with several ADLs and IADLs, then you have more traits of functional aging.  These problems can happen slowly over time or happen as a result of age-related catastrophic health problems such as a stroke, heart attack, or a fall.  Sometimes people employ these terms--well adult, slightly impaired adult, or frail adult--to describe the loss of function expressed by degrees. 

Functional age correlates with chronological age to a degree, but older adults as a group show incredible diversity. For example, you could gather a randomized group of one hundred people who are 70 years old, and among that group, you will find some who use wheelchairs and some who can run two miles; some who have been retired for a decade and some who work full time; some who are on five medications and some who are on no medications.  

Subjective Age and Relative Age.  Age is also dependent on context and perception.  If someone is a professional athlete or dancer, they may be considered old at a very young age.  Your social context may label you as young or old. 

For example, I was worked for years in a college environment, and when I approached my late 40s, I was considered old by the incoming students. I then started volunteering at a multi-level care center right before I turned 50.  The octogenarian plus residents would laugh at me when I called myself “old.”  I have seen people in their 60s gearing up to start a new career and others the same age trying to hurry themselves into a stage of retirement and leisure.   

While physical signs of aging cannot be completely wished away, the adage, “You are as you feel” seems to have some merit.  People can create identities that compose and project identities for their ethnicity, their vocation, their gender, their community of faith, and their aesthetic style (granola, glamour, punk, etc.). Similarly, people create a sense of age by how they dress, talk, act, what goods they consume, what recreational activities and hobbies they pursue, and the people with whom they associate.  

I attend a yoga class at the YMCA that is populated with a range of adults but with a majority of people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. They talk about waterskiing, hiking, and competing in triathalons. The teacher himself is a young boomer and a lifelong athlete. He plays a mix of rock songs during class. He and his mature students attend concerts for current musicians, they wear stylish exercise clothing, and they go out dancing.  

They are a very young-minded group of people.   The probably have some physical limitations, but they de-emphasize these issues and manage them “behind the scenes.”  Instead of talking about their aches and pains, they choose to focus their language, dress, and behavior that performs a persona of vitality. 

So do you think that aging is a matter of image construction? Or are their objective markers of aging that people can use to place people into the category “older adult”?  Did this post mention the markers you perceive, or are their others that were neglected. Please add your insights in the comment area.


  1. i'm asian and we believe real live begin at 40s,
    me myself not really care about age, what i think the most important is keep health and always active.

    1. That's a good outlook on life, Obat. All my best to you.