Rise of the Oldest Old
Keywords:aging; social role valorization
This article identifies the dearth of research into the personal lives of the oldest old, the fastest growing age group in the United States. It calls for a better understanding of this unprecedented population change in order to equip aging individuals and society for the approaching population bubble. Social attitudes and the pervasive presence of disability in old age suggests parallels with Wolfensberger’s Social Role Valorization schema (2000). The research raises new questions about old concepts such as the disengagement theory and offers alternative ways to understand the oldest old. Finally, it offers a compelling framework within which to focus future research.
We know little about the personal experiences of people who outlive the expected limits of human survival–otherwise known as the oldest old (Borglin, Edberg and Halberg, 2005; Sarvimaki and Stenbock Holt, 2000). The group is largely invisible in our society, according to John Leland, the journalist who wrote a quintessential series of articles in the New York Times on the group (Leland, 2019).
This article examines America’s oldest old, those aged 85 and above, using a literature review and personal reflections from a prominent 92 year old, who was the first Commissioner of Aging in the State of Pennsylvania, former Editor in Chief of the Gerontologist, a public interest law attorney, a researcher, and an author. His reflections embody both the perspective of a professional and the experiences of a subject. His opinions generally support current literature, though in some instances he challenges prevailing thought or proposes new lines of research.
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