- The Shady Side of Fifty: Age and Old Age in Late Victorian Canada and the United States
Employing the tools of discourse analysis and gender and quantitative history, Lisa Dillon sheds much light on the lives of men and women who reached old age in late Victorian North America. Her main sources are the censuses of 1870/71 and 1900/01 for Canada and the United States. Dillon is the first person to attempt a large-scale comparative analysis using the Public Use Samples that now exist for these censuses and, as she notes, harmonizing the data was 'a hell of a job.' In this pioneering effort, Dillon teases out the rich diversity of the lives of the [End Page 577] aged and traces changes in their lives over the late nineteenth century. She sets the stage by commenting on how attitudes to the aged conditioned the nature of census questions and the responses given to those questions. She concludes that the United States collected richer age-based data than did Canada, primarily because of their interest in analyzing the social and economic effects of increased immigration. In Canada such immigration did not occur until the early twentieth century, and as a result Canadian authorities focused on more personal issues such as marital status, health, and causes of death. Neither country, she notes, spent any time trying to understand the familial context of the lives of the aged, a primary focus of Dillon's book.
One challenge in using the data was the tendency of respondents to round off their ages in multiples of five. Dillon discovers that this tendency increased in both countries as men and women approached the age of sixty and suggests that many individuals for psychological and practical economic reasons - keeping a job - claimed they were younger than they actually were. She also discovered that people who were in the old age categories often inflated their ages in order to, at times, go on lecture tours and make money as historical curiosities or perhaps as experts on how to live a long life. In 1871 Canadian census authorities actually engaged in an intensive analysis of the ages of those close to 100 in order to expose fraudulent claims!
Via a close reconstruction of familial position, Dillon is able to comment on agency and dependency in the lives of the aged. Only a brief summary of her comprehensive analysis is possible here. Perhaps most importantly, she points to a trend for women in both countries in the late nineteenth century to live apart from other family members, a trend she claims presaged 'more significant shifts toward non-family living arrangements during the twentieth century.' Throughout the analysis Dillon remains attentive to cross-border differences and is therefore able to underline context for change very effectively. Thus she can conclude that Canadian women tended more than their American counterparts to live in positions of household dependence because of the relative agrarian nature of the Canadian economy. In the United States more women lived in urban areas and as a result more were able to take advantage of wage-earning opportunities. For men, Dillon establishes several stages in old age, perhaps most notably how in both countries the work-participation rates of men fell sharply only after age seventy and how, in Canada, the tendency of men to live with dependent children also declined dramatically after age seventy. Nor does she ignore the existence of grandparents. Here the most important finding is that the presence of a grandparent had little effect on the chances of a child going to school but did have a positive effect on the chances of a widowed mother entering the labour force. [End Page 578]
On balance, Dillon provides a richly detailed reconstruction of the lives of the aged in North America during a period of differential change in both countries. Her attention to comparative contexts and the gendered and racial positions of the elderly throughout various stages of old age...