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Sarah Lamb “Permanent Personhood or Meaningful Decline?”

Lamb, Sarah 2014. Permanent Personhood or Meaningful Decline? Toward a Critical Anthropology of Successful Aging. Journal of Aging Studies 29: 41-52.

Talk of readiness for death and acceptance of decline, in fact, seems to be expected cultural discourse among older Indians, and highlights a widely held Hindu view of the transience of the human condition—the temporariness of any individual’s stay within any one human body amidst the natural cycle of births and deaths of worldly existence or samsara. (42)

It is perhaps partly because the successful aging discourse of “healthy”aging originated to a degree out of biomedicine—a field particularly prone to be viewed as culture free—that scholars and the public alike often seem not to sufficiently recognize culture and ideology in their successful aging models. (42)

No one uniform definition of successful aging emerges from this discourse, which spans thousands of articles, books, policy documents and websites; yet several common cultural themes underlying the varying definitions stand out, including: an emphasis on individual agency and control (you can be the crafter of your own successful aging); the value of independence and the importance of avoiding dependence; the value of activity and productivity; and a vision of not aging at all, while pursuing the goals of agelessness and what could be termed a permanent personhood. (44)

Aging was previously imagined in North America as largely a natural and deleterious process beyond the control of the individual, but the successful aging project turns that assumption on its head: The declines commonly associated with aging are not inevitable; you as an individual can fashion your own successful aging. (44)

A final theme tying together much of the successful aging discourse may be termed “permanent personhood”—a vision of the ideal person as not really aging at all in late life, but rather maintaining the self of one’s earlier years, while avoiding or denying processes of decline, mortality and human transience (cf.,Kaufman, 1985; McHugh, 2000). (45)

Aging is potentially very costly—personally, socially and nationally—but the successful aging project exhorts persons to take control of their own aging by maintaining themselves as healthy, productive, active and independent individuals. Such a vision rests on a distinctive cultural model of personhood, featuring individual agency, independence, productivity, and self-maintenance, and might be viewed as a contemporary North American cultural and biopolitical project. (46)

I have also been struck by how—in keeping with prevailing US mores, perhaps—the majority of those in my research study have not brought up death and dying unless I raise the topic myself (though some do bring up mortality, as I get to below). If I do raise the topic, it is often quickly dismissed, as in one man’s response:“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it”or another’s “No, I don’t think about it”—or answered only in terms of the practical details of having one’s wills and trusts in order. Dale Abbey replied, when I asked if she thought about death and dying at all,“I joke, if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I’ve had a good full life. But I don’t waste my time worrying about it. It’s better to livenow. It’s better to do it while you can, because you never know. I’m making the most of it.” I mentioned to 85-year-old Edna Feldman,“I know that aging has all its aches and pains, butI’dstill love to make it to eighty-five and—”Edna interrupted,“Yes! I am really wanting to remain on this earth a while longer! I am trying my best!” (47)

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