The Treatment of the Aged


by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Dear Dr. Adler,

The problem of the aged citizens of our society is of urgent concern. It has been commented on by social workers, political leaders, and other interested persons. Did societies in the past have this problem? What was the position of the aged in former times? Do the great writers of the past have anything illuminating to offer us on this vital matter?

F. W. B.

Dear F.W.B.,

The attitude toward the elderly has varied in different times and cultures. In general, the aged have been held in great respect and even veneration in primitive and ancient societies. Old age was regarded as the time of wisdom and spiritual power. Rule by the elders in both the political and the religious community was a common practice.

The present problem of what to do about our senior citizens is unique. It arises from the technological and social changes of the past hundred years. Man’s life span has been lengthened, but his services to the economy have been rendered unnecessary in the extra years he has gained. The aged have become supernumeraries in our society. We have substituted gerontology (the study of the aged and their problems) for gerontocracy (rule by the aged).

The writers of the past have no advice to offer us on our special problem, for they never faced it, not even as a possibility. Montaigne, in the sixteenth century, notes that most men do not live beyond forty. The aged, as a numerous class, were no problem.

However, we do find passages from the ancient poets which resemble our own sense of the plight of the aged. In one of Sophocles’ plays, the chorus of elders calls old age dispraised, infirm, unsociable, unfriended. Another chorus, in a play by Aristophanes, laments: We who have lost our music, feeble nothings, dull, forlorn.

Jonathan Swift, in Gullivers Travels, also paints a grim picture of old age. On the mythical island of Luggnagg, a few people in each generation live on to an everlasting old age. In addition to being opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, incapable of friendship and dead to all natural affection, they can remember only what they learned in their earlier years, and even that incorrectly. At the age of eighty, they are held legally dead, given a small pension, and regarded as incapable of employment or business transactions.

Some philosophers of antiquity, such as Plato and Cicero, take a brighter view of old age. They see it as the period when intellectual activity and wisdom are at the highest and replace the waning physical powers and enjoyments. They also regard old age as the time when practical judgment is at it’s best and men are most qualified to direct public affairs. The study of philosophy, according to Plato, should not begin until after fifty.

Montaigne, on the other hand, maintains that we are fully formed by the time we are twenty, do our best work before we are thirty, and decay thereafter in everything, including our mind. He is skeptical of the traditional view that we increase in understanding and wisdom as we get older, and believes, rather, that we get duller. He proposes, however, various psychological stratagems for overcoming the stupefaction of old age, and holds out the hope that our sensual tastes and appreciation can be developed as we grow older.

Many writers insist that the lapses in memory, acuteness, and interest which are supposed to afflict the aged can be avoided or overcome. Samuel Johnson contends vehemently that the loss of mental acuteness is the result of weak will and laziness, not of old age.

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