A Social Justice and Faith Webzine


by Gerry McCarthy

Aging is a serious issue. But it’s rarely given the attention it deserves. That’s surprising too. Especially when you realize the first baby boomers have reached their mid 50s.

     The study of aging (known as gerontology) is fascinating to behold. It intersects with numerous academic disciplines, including: sociology, psychology, history, linguistics, consumer sciences, and medicine. But sadly, two of the largest universities in Canada (the University of Toronto and York University) don’t even have a graduate program in gerontology.

     Several weeks ago, I came across some interesting comments from Stephen Katz about aging. An associate professor of sociology at Trent University in Peterborough (Ontario), Katz teaches a half-course in aging. He says the embrace of a "vigorous" freedom-55 concept means we’re living longer and worrying earlier. As result, he explains, there are more mid-life crises and anxieties.

     I recently contacted Katz to ask him about this social phenomenon. At one time, he says, people accepted the decline model. Wrinkles, thinning hair, less sexual potency and muscle tone were considered part of life and nature. "What’s changed now is that consumer culture has created a very confused sense around ageism," he argues. "On the one hand, it’s told us that we don’t have to accept the decline model anymore. We can live or buy our way out of it."

     Specifically, Katz is talking about the growing anti-aging industry. Among other things, we now have HRT hormone replacement therapies, hair replacements, viagra, and anti-wrinkling drugs. But a problem exists. "In order for marketing to really work it also has to produce the crisis," Katz says. "It has to offer solutions to the crisis. It has to make us anxious about losing hair, or the fact that balding is a health problem –which it isn’t. Menopause is not a health problem. In other words, nature’s natural effect on human development -emotionally and physically-are not necessarily crises. But they’re created as crisis in a marketing society that offers solutions to them."

     Take human sexuality. Katz says if it wasn’t assumed to be part of the decline model, people could talk about the need for sexual intimacy, in later life, through other means. "But if you have viagra, you don’t have to talk about any of that," he explains. "Whatever emotional or life ways that have something to do with sexual maturity are now quite irrelevant."

     Katz says the appeal of anti-aging products is linked to numerous societal forces. They include: the cult of age and beauty, the idea that timelessness is possible, and finally to consumer values of greed and gratification. "When you apply all those values to the life course they bang into reality that’s based on time, longevity, and slow development," he says.

     Interestingly, Katz notes that: "Hollywood figures are our new heroes. Anyone who can resist aging is a hero. Not the person who has character leadership and wisdom. But the person who has lifestyle and personality."

     But there is good news. Katz says political, spiritual, and intellectual movements are resisting this anti-aging industry. Although he admits a spirituality of aging is "largely ignored" by Western culture.

     It’s a source of bewilderment to me that Christian spirituality is oddly disengaged from issues around aging today. That’s especially true of the mid-life crisis. Although the reasons for this are unclear, the need is present. As Katz says, "The mid-life crisis may not be real, but it’s experienced as real."

     How we view aging is tied to what we value. Some questions may be unsettling, but can’t be ignored. For example: As we age do we become "Florida-ized," or accept our roles as mentors? Do we worry endlessly about wrinkles and loss of muscle tone or age gracefully? Is retirement a dreaded development, or a chance to work on larger projects for the public good? Are we deepening our understanding of sexual intimacy or obsessing about viagra?

     I have a feeling more people want to see aging differently these days. With more reflection, perhaps the mid-life crisis will no longer unleash anxiety attacks, feelings of unfulfilled promise, or mind-numbing dread. Instead, it could be an opportunity to draw closer to a loving God.

Gerry McCarthy is Editor of The Social Edge

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