Humans are the primate species with not only the longest life span (120 years) but also the greatest proportion of those years spent in social and biological maturity. The evolutionary legacy of aging also includes a powerful biological dimension of programmed senescence. Despite this, cross-cultural psychiatrist David Gutmann suggests elders exist not because of our species’ technical ability to keep the weak alive; instead, we attained our humanity through the very existence of elders and the significance of their postparental roles.
The simplest way of conceptualizing elders and elderhood is as the age cohort relatively older than yourself or the generation with more years than anyone else in the community. Cultural construction of this older-adult category typically combines the path of biological maturity, the developmental kinship and family cycle, and broader notions of social generation. Elderhood more often than not focuses on the latter two factors, although for women, menopause can function as an important status-turning point, signaling eligibility for elder status. However, as Rasmussen notes for the Tuareg, the ending of reproductive capacity complexly impacts the unfolding of female person-hood through realignment of kin hierarchies and other social strata affecting both males and females.
In essence, cultures are more apt to see elderhood as a marker of a social rather than a biological or time-based maturity. This is clear when we see persons, especially males, enter the beginning ranks of elder in their late 20s and early 30s among Africa’s age set societies as well as in Australian Aboriginal tribes. From another perspective, an abundance of years without the culturally prescribed markers may allow individuals never to be socially considered an elder. For example, in Peterson’s study of African American working-class women in Seattle, she found that female elders were designated by the word “wise,” a term given to women who have not only borne children, but have raised kids who, in turn, have their own offspring. In this community, the label “wise” could be attained while a woman was in her late 30s. However, females who might be in their eighth decade of life but had not accomplished the required social tasks of maturity would be considered in the same generation as teenagers.
Age along with gender and kin relations stand as the three universal bedrocks of how all human societies construct a framework of social order and biocultural succession. Passage of human populations through the life span is translated into notions of social time, created by transit through successive age-based statuses marking the cultural mapping of the life cycle. Linguistic variants of child, adult, and elder become social boundaries in virtually all societies, marked by such things as variations in dress, comportment, modes of speech, and deferential gestures. Sometimes, actual physical boundaries can be involved, such as in the traditional Irish peasant pattern of moving elders into the sacred west room of the house, where younger kin could not enter without permission. An even more dramatic and negative case is that of the Fulani, West African pastoralists. Here, after a couple’s last child has wed, the elders are regarded as socially dead. They live as dependents of their oldest son, moving separately to different outer edges of his house compound, symbolically residing over their future grave sites.
The societal definition of elder status is often differentiated from “oldness” or the cultural constructions of old age. The latter terms are more keyed to biological maturity of an individual in combination with some social aspect of one’s relative position in society. In an indigenous, Nahuatl-speaking Mexican peasant community, Sokolovsky found that elderhood was attained by having shouldered important community rituals and becoming a grandparent, or culkn. To be considered old, or culi, required at least several grandchildren plus signs of physically slowing down, such as using a cane to walk around. A more debilitated stage of oldness, where one seldom ventures far from the home, is called Yotla Moac, literally “all used up.”
One of the earliest efforts to mine anthropological data on the contribution of elders to their societies came from Leo Simmons’s classic work, The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society (1945). He showed the wide variety of ways elderly function in society, including knowledge bearing; child care; economic support; and ritual, judicial, and political decision making. Numerous ethnographies have validated how a combination of deep knowledge held in older adults’ heads and their nurturing actions toward younger generations sustains human societies. Among the Akan of Ghana, there is no adjective that exists to describe a human as old, but those who have grandchildren and are older adults are referred to by the verb nyin, to grow. Such individuals who acquire wisdom based on experience and use this for the benefit of others receive the honorific of payin, or honorable, composed, and wise. As van der Geest relates in a 2004 journal article, an Akan saying is that a “payin has elbow so that ‘when you are in the chief’s palace and you are saying something which you should not say, a payin will . . . touch you with his elbow to stop you from saying that which might lead you into trouble.’ The proverb means if the payin has nothing at all, he has wisdom, he can give advice to people.”
Globally, elderhood is less celebrated in ritual than the beginning phases of social maturity, adolescence, and adulthood. Yet in some societies, age is a predominant means of ordering social life, such as in Africa’s age set societies, where passing into elderhood and even exiting active elderhood are marked by powerful rituals. Here, persons progress through the life cycle collectively and form tightly bound groups, performing specific tasks. Societies where age groupings play such a powerful role in ordering social life have been found in Africa, among certain Native American groups, Australian Aborigines, and Papua New Guinea, but their global occurrence is relatively rare. The most elaborated forms of such cultural systems are found among East African nomadic herders, such as the Samburu of Kenya or the Tiriki.
Age set organizations for women in non-Western societies are reported much less frequently than for males. Well-documented examples include the Afikpo, Ebrie, and Mbato peoples of West Africa. It is likely, as Thomas suggests, that the paucity of age sets for females is related to the difficulty of male ethnographers learning about a realm of culture purposely kept secret from men.
- Aguilar, M. (Ed.). (1998). The politics of age and gerontocracy in Africa: Ethnographies of the past and memories of the present. Lawrenceville, NJ: Africa World Press.
- Albert, S., & Cattell, M. (1994). Old Age in global perspective. New York: G. K. Hall.
- Ikels, C., & Beall, C. (2000). Age, aging and anthropology, In R. Binstock & L. George (Eds.), The handbook of aging and the social sciences (5th ed., pp. 125-139) San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Sokolovsky, J. (Ed.). (1997). The cultural context of aging (2nd ed.). New York: Bergin & Garvey.
- Van Der Geest, S. (2004).”They don’t come to listen”: The experience of loneliness among older people in Kwahu, Ghana. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 19, 77-96.