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Reviewed by:
  • A History of Old Age
  • W. Andrew Achenbaum
A History of Old Age. Edited by Pat Thane ( Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005; London: Thames and Hudson, 2005. 320 pp. $49.95).

"Sumptuous" is the first word to describe A History of Old Age. Exquisite reproductions depict elders in fine art and popular culture—masterpieces, portraitures, sketches, stained glass, folk art, sculpture, cartoons, lithographs, pottery, movies and television clips. For this most comprehensive compilation of age-old, old-age art to date, readers must thank Pat Thane, one of Britain's most prolific and respected social (welfare) historians. (She edited with Paul Johnson Old Age from Antiquity to Post-Modernity [1998].) To this visual feast Thane solicited felicitous and judicious commentaries by seven experts on the history of old age in western culture since the Classical era. Through graphics and words A History of Old Age traces the variegated continuities, change, and universalities of old age, while acknowledging distinctive features in each era.

"Throughout history real life was as richly diverse in old age as in literature and the visual arts. Over time, this diversity has increased, especially over the past century, as it has become normal to grow old," argues the editor in her Introduction, anticipating themes embellished in the chapters that follow. "Many more people live, and are fit, to later ages and they pursue a greater variety of lifestyles. The story of old age is a much more hopeful one than, all too often, we were led to believe" (p. 28).

Contributors to A History of Old Age incorporate familiar texts and fresh material (novels and poetry, medical treatises, essays and policy studies) to complement artifacts and observations from areas where our knowledge of elderly men and women remains scant. The visuals, effectively illuminating each chapter's thesis, invite readers to rethink commonplace assumptions about growing [End Page 1059] old(er) in past times. They spur us to envisage in fresh ways the associations of older people with wisdom, their roles at work and in the community, family relations in late life and, inevitably, decline, and death. More importantly, A History of Old Age emphasizes women's experiences and enduring class differences over the life course, thereby mitigating the androcentric and elitist biases evident in some previous historical overviews.

Authors seize on nuances to be inferred from demographic data. For instance, in "The Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds," Tim Parkin notes that some persons survived into their nineties and beyond. Yet, because of prescribed marriage ages, only 1% of all twenty-year-olds in the Classical era would have a paternal grandfather still alive. This means that "we cannot map any meaningful chronological development in attitudes toward ageing" (p. 35), much less sustain the presumption that Greeks valued old age more than Romans. Similarly, Shumlamith Shahar's account of age in "The Middle Ages and Renaissance" acknowledges low life expectancy at birth, but quickly adds that men (the focus of that period) who attained early adulthood had a reasonable chance of reaching 60 or 70. "Seventeenth-century Europe was both patriarchal and hierarchal," observes Lynn A. Botelho, "but the over-arching themes—the worries and preoccupations, the desires and dreams—can immediately be recognized over much of Western history" (pp. 127, 172).

David Troyansky depicts the 18th century as a diverse, transitional era: "a shift from the religious to the secular, from retreat to retirement, from a literature of ridicule to respect" (p. 209). Revolutionary regimes in France and Germany sought legitimacy in part by honoring the elderly with feasts and parades. Nonetheless contradictory, ambiguous images persisted. Thomas Cole and Claudia Edwards accentuate how major transitions caused by industrialization, urbanization, and secularization in Europe and North America widened divisions in older people's lifestyles. The pair use photographs and wood engravings to limn the faces of poverty, loneliness, and illness. "The core themes of diversity of experience within old age, of competition and cooperation between generations and of the physical hardships of old age continue unabated" (p. 259).

Pat Thane affirms that in modern times most babies could expect to live longer than earlier cohorts amidst improving living standards and medical advances. Films...


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