Old age is perplexing to imagine in part because the definition of it is notoriously unstable.
The researchers also found ‘a sizable gap between the expectations that young and middle-aged adults have about old age and the actual experiences reported by older Americans themselves’.
Young and middle-aged adults anticipate the ‘negative benchmarks’ associated with aging (such as memory loss – illness – or an end to sexual activity) at much higher levels than the old report experiencing them.
However the elderly also report experiencing fewer of the benefits that younger adults expect old age to bring (such as more time for travel – hobbies or volunteer work).
These perceptual gaps between generations are large and persistent. Simone de Beauvoir in her exhaustive study ‘The Coming of Age’ (published in 1970 when she was sixty-two) wrote ‘Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien – a foreign species’.
The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff who made the documentary film ‘In Her Time’ about a community of elderly Californians when she was in her forties – believed that ‘we are dehumanized and impoverished without our old people, for only by contact with them can we come to know ourselves’.
Even more confusingly – we don’t experience old age identically.