Forever Young: The Social Transformation of Aging in America Since 1900
Fallon, Cara Kiernan
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CitationFallon, Cara Kiernan. 2018. Forever Young: The Social Transformation of Aging in America Since 1900. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractBetween 1900 and 2000, life expectancy in the United States increased by three decades—from 47 to 77—a greater increase in one century than in the entire previous history of humankind. With it, the population over sixty-five increased from four to twelve percent of the United States population, and those over eighty-five became the fastest-growing demographic group. While growing old has become increasingly common, the processes of aging have not become welcomed or accepted. Instead, millions of adults undergo surgical procedures to reduce or reverse the physical signs of aging, while others embark on intensive anti-aging regimens at ever-younger ages. Still others, often increasingly elderly, resist using canes, walkers, and other devices associated with being “old,” viewing them as symbols of decline. While the desire to be healthy in old age is not new, the pressures and avenues for combatting physical and cognitive decline have made the experience of aging a deeply feared, even distressing, often expensive and time-consuming aspect of twenty-first century life.
This dissertation examines the paradox in which Americans are aging into ever-later years amidst new cultural ideals of remaining healthy and youthful forever. Through a series of four case studies based on mobility, safety, appearance, and cognition, this dissertation analyzes the ways many conditions once considered common, even inevitable, in old age became targets of medical intervention and consumer desire, preoccupying the young and emerging as new fault lines for the old, and orienting both around their prevention. It analyzes the interconnected relationships of medicine, public health, and the commercial marketplace, considering the material gains as well as oppressive new standards that emerged as remaining healthy—even young—forever was held out as a new ideal, and regarded as potentially achievable by a large portion of the American middle class.
Combining close reading of physicians’ papers, advice literature, and consumer company archives with an analysis of technologies of daily living—the material world of the elderly—this dissertation provides insight into the changing values and emergence of powerful moral norms for women’s and men’s interventions on their aging bodies and the gendered implications of infirmity in old age. More than a story of cultural antipathy for aging and impossible standards, this research illuminates the ways women’s and men’s responses to their aging bodies were part of the multifaceted and evolving relationships between medicine and consumer culture, science and stigma, health and disease.
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