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How old is old?

changing conceptions of old age

Christine Overall

pp. 13-30

This chapter attempts to demonstrate how complex the concept of oldness is, exploring not only changing conceptions of old age but also whether conceptions of old age should change. It is arguable that the concept of "old" needs revision, both because of recent empirical advances in human longevity and for normative reasons, having to do with justice and well-being. Although to be old is not necessarily to be feeble and debilitated, many of the social and medical problems associated with oldness are affected by social perspectives on aging and the socio-economic deprivation and oppression they produce. Thus, oldness is not merely a function of subjective perception, nor is it unanchored in material realities. One strong motivation for the question, "How old is old?", is a concern about the onset of age-related infirmities, the shrinking of one's future, and the closeness of death. However, oldness can also be defined in terms of a life stage, for example, as the stage at which an individual has lived long enough to have had a complete and full life. The normative question concerns when it is appropriate or justified to regard someone as old. Given the current stigma attached to oldness in Western culture, it might seem that we ought not to call people "old". However, liberation from stigma is not won by denying or obscuring the reality of aging, and refusing to call anyone "old" may itself be a concession to ageist stereotypes. Instead of distancing themselves from old age, people may do better to welcome it.

Publication details

DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-39356-2_2

Full citation:

Overall, C. (2016)., How old is old?: changing conceptions of old age, in G. Scarre (ed.), The Palgrave handbook of the philosophy of aging, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 13-30.

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