Aging from a Historical Perspective

People have gotten old since the beginning of time. Why is it such a struggle? Why is the 80 to 100 year old group so resistant to help? Why do adult children feel so frustrated when dealing with their aging parents? History sheds a light on these perplexing issues.


To better understand why we are, where we are, let’s look at the years from l900 to 1950.Our country was predominately rural or small town in character and size. Homes were for the most part, large, housing three, sometimes four generations. There were clear role models on how to be old.


When a woman attained a certain age, she was no longer the lady of the house. That was the role of her daughter or daughter in law. Her job was to care for the grandchildren and handle the less strenuous duties of the household such as cooking, dusting and taking the cloths off the cloths line. (The job of washing, wringing and hanging cloths on the line had passed to the younger and physically stronger lady of the house).


Grandpa role was equally clear. He had been in the fields or the family store for years, now it was his son’s turn. He created the woodcraft and metal crafts which where vital to the community. He handcrafted cradles, rocking chairs, tables and hinges for the kitchen cabinets. Nearly every one of those pieces is work of art in today’s market. The expectations for grandma and grandpa were clear. They had an important role to play in the family, which had been modeled for them by their grandparents. They knew how to be old.


What about the adult children? They didn’t have to worry about mom and dad; there was nothing to worry about. Mom and dad would stay within the family unit until they died and were moved to the family burial plot. There were undoubtedly generational struggles, but not over the same issues we have today.


The dreaded “old folks home” was for old people without family to care for them, or for the parents of adult children who preferred the distain of the community to the responsibility of caring for their parents. It is important to remember this belief when we look at the resistance to the current elderly population to the idea of any kind of home.”






Five forces came together between l900 and l950.

*The Industrial Revolution and the invention of the automobile

*World War One and the development of aviation

*The Great Depression

*Medical advances that began to wipe out common the diseases that had been fatal.

*World War Two


By l938 the great depression had broken the back of the farmers and merchants. People were moving away from the family to find work, or they were moving in with family to seek refuge and security. In rural areas sometimes all the siblings moved back home managing to sustain the family farm.


In the l940’s women left the kitchen and went to work to support the war effort. Rosie the Riveter was the precursor of the women’s movement in the l960’s.


In the mid 1940’s, the veterans of World War 2 came home and had to find affordable housing. This began the housing boom of small single-family homes. Many of us remember those developments that seemed to spring up overnight.


The term “nuclear family” was invented in the mid 40’s to describe mom, dad and the 2.1 children who stood alone as a unit, often disconnected from their extended family. Extended family is another addition to our descriptive vocabulary that comes from this social change.


There wasn’t room in the new family model for grandma and grandpa just when the medical advances were preventing what had been considered “natural causes” of death.

The actuarial tables required frequent and significant revisions.


Everything was drastically and irrevocably changed during those 50 years. Change was happening in an exponential pattern. Today, here we are in our Mars landing, Internet connected world and our parents remember squabbling over who got to light the taillight on the first family car!! Things have moved too fast for the older generation. For most, their coping skills are stretched as far as they are capable of going.


Today’s elderly have been caught in the cruel transition between WW2 and today. They deeply believed in the paradigm that the family takes care of family. The women of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” tried to make the old paradigm work. They went back to the kitchen after the war. They took care of their parents; their in-laws, their children and their husbands even though didn’t have a big three-generation home as a base from which to operate. They got in their cars and ran in ten different directions taking care of everything and everyone. Most of them did it without complaint. They played out the only role models they knew. Now it is their turn to be cared for and their family tells them they should move into a retirement community or assisted living unit. No matter how beautiful they are, all these ladies and gentlemen have the deep belief that they are being put in “THE HOME”.   If mom comes to live with the adult children, she feels guilty because she is “in the way” of her children’s busy life. If the children don’t bring mom to live with them, they feel guilty because it took so much urging to get her to agree to move into that lovely senior community where she is not adjusting very well. It is a lose/lose tangle of guilt.


It is no easier for the elderly men. Today’s elderly men, unless they were self-employed, were pushed out of their working life at age 65. They believed the myth that Social Security would be the answer to their financial needs, as the result of that belief, their investments are not enough to cover the actual costs of living a long life. We see these valiant men today holding minimum wage jobs at McDonalds, Radio Shack, Wal Mart. and until very recently, restricted by what they could earn by the same Social Security system that could not cover their cost of living to begin with!!


The role models of the past no longer fit a 21st century society and we have struggled unsuccessfully to develop new ones. The baby boomers will re-invent aging just as they have re-invented everything since the day they were born. But that doesn’t help today’s elderly who feel disappointed and depressed because they didn’t get to play out the roles they had witnessed for generations. Family taking care of family still can work in cases where the relationships have been well maintained and healthy boundaries are in place. But for most elderly, they will remain in their homes until they are no longer safe; then move into “the home” resenting everything about it regardless of how lovely it may be.


When you tour a beautiful retirement community for your parents and begin counting the years until you can move in; realize that you are trying to show your parents an idea they will never completely accept, but in that process you are convincing yourself that aging in community may be very nice!


We are at a time in the history when it is vital that a new way of aging be conceived and on the way to implementation before the oldest baby boomers hit their 75th birthday. Through sheer numbers baby boomers have driven our economy and social structure since they day they entered the world. We must plan now for the infrastructures of the new way to be old. We can safely leave the details to the baby boomers. They will tweak things to their own liking anyway.



This article is written by Suzanne Roberts, author of The Handbook for Children of Aging Parents

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