It is customary these days to denounce our society for its unconscionable neglect of the elderly, while we look back romantically to some indeterminate past when the elderly were respected and well cared for. Contrary to this popular view, old people historically have enjoyed neither respect nor security. As Simone de Beauvoir so effectively demonstrates in The Coming of Age (New York: Putnam, 1972), the elderly have been almost universally ill‐treated by societies throughout the world. Even the Hebrew patriarchs admonished their children to remember them as they grew older: “Cast me not off in time of old age; when my strength fails, forsake me not” (Psalms 71:1). Primitive agrarian cultures, whose very existence depended upon the knowledge gleaned from experience, valued their elders, but even they were often moved by the harsh conditions of subsistence living to eliminate by ritual killing those who were no longer productive members of society. There was a softening of societal attitudes toward the elderly during the period of nineteenth century industrial capitalism, which again valued experience and entrepreneurial skills. Modern technocratic society, however, discredits the idea that knowledge accumulates with age and prefers to think that it grows out‐of‐date. “The vast majority of mankind,” writes de Beauvoir, “look upon the coming of old age with sorrow and rebellion. It fills them with more aversion than death itself.” That the United States in the twentieth century is not alone in its poor treatment of the aged does not excuse or explain this neglect. Rather, the pervasiveness of prejudice against the old makes it even more imperative that we now develop programs to end age discrimination and its vicious effects.
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