Aging and Identity
One of my elderly neighbors, who I will call John, has a degenerative neurological disorder. It has dramatically affected his speech and his ability to walk. His wife confided in me that he really doesn’t like to see people who knew him “before”—and as residents in their home for 45 years, that means many people in our community haven’t been able to see much of John.
Not only has John been struggling with the effects of this disease, but he has been struggling with his sense of self. It is clear from his wife’s observations that he does not want his current condition to change the way people think of him. John’s wife regularly recounts that he was an avid hiker and loved to ride his bike and go camping before this illness, helping to shape others’ perceptions of John. This, unfortunately, has contributed to his sense of isolation.
As George Herbert Mead teaches us, the way we view our identity and ourselves is rooted in the social context. This means that our sense of self is something we negotiate with how we think others perceive us. It doesn’t mean we simply adopt the sense of identity that others may project onto us. Instead, we might take these perceptions into account, even if that means constructing an identity in opposition to how we think others might see us.
Coming to see one’s self as older is a process, sometimes made clear via social interactions. As I wrote about ten years ago (where does the time go?) how we define “old” is relative, as for college students “old” might be 25, while in some workplaces (like universities) someone 45 might be considered “young.” Social media memes about now-defunct technology like rotary phones, record players, pagers, and the like help similar-aged people commiserate with changes in technology and social norms.
I observed this in myself as I began to need to wear reading glasses. I never wore glasses before, and this shift was a big deal to me. I was certain that everyone would notice when I began wearing glasses; some people obviously did, but my guess is that most people either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Because wearing glasses is something that is normal for adults of all ages, the challenge was more personal than social.
But for others, aging can create bigger identity challenges. A family member recently fell and hit his head, and we took him to the emergency room despite his protestations that he was fine. He continues to see himself as a hearty, healthy, active person despite some serious health issues that have recently emerged.
One the one hand, seeing one’s self as healthy and strong is great—a positive and an optimistic outlook is supposed to be good for one’s health. But sometimes it might enable that person to forgo medical treatment, as we witnessed once at the hospital, when he attempted to decline nearly all tests and procedures that the ER doctor recommended. He is known for not being “med compliant” (I suspect it is in his electronic medical records) and stopping medications because he feels fine and doesn’t think he needs them any more. This has created some serious health complications.
Age-related illness that changes previously held physical abilities also changes social roles. For someone used to reaching items on high shelves or lifting heavy objects, for instance, they might lose that role of helper—or get hurt trying to continue to fulfill that social role. This can be particularly difficult for some men, who might have a hard time asking for help with things that they once helped others with.
Aging has more than just physical effects; it obviously has social effects. I have observed that while accompanying elderly relatives, others often speak to me and ignore the elderly person, especially if they are using a wheelchair. Aging also has an impact on how we see ourselves that might impact our physical health.
How else do you think aging impacts identity? What should health care providers know about the importance of the construction of the self to better address the needs of an aging population?