Becoming Your Parents
What is it Like to be Old?

The History of Old Age – A Beginning

I have recently begun a new project, one that will probably go on for a long time before I feel finished. It is, as the headline states, to study the history of old age.

It's going to be a lot of work because aside from no more than eight or ten books, the information is scattered hither and yon among many topics other than aging.

That's all right. I always enjoy the chase or, in this case, the chasing down.

Long History of Old Age cover It is starting out nicely with a beautiful British volume titled The Long History of Old Age edited by Pat Thane, a historian in London who has published several other books on the history of aging. I will get to those in time too.

This one, lavishly illustrated with images of old people from antiquity until now, discusses the ways that Western society has treated old people through all those centuries.

In the introductory chapter, Thane notes – as we here at Time Goes By sometimes mention – that conventional wisdom declares that past eras treated elders better than we do now. But that has almost never been true, according to Ms. Thane.

”Indeed,” she writes, “the belief still common today that older people are less respected than they 'used to be' is as old as old age itself.”

She then quotes from the opening pages of Plato's Republic, a section in which Socrates, on meeting the aged Cephalus, asks what it is like to be old.

Cephalus begins by relating the complaints of old men he knows who like to meet regularly:

”...most of them are full of woes; they hanker for the pleasure of their youth, remembering how they used to make love and drink and go to parties and the like, and thinking it is a great deprivation that they can't do so anymore.

“Life was good then, they think, whereas now they can hardly be said to live at all. And some of them grumble that their families show no respect for their age, and proceed to harp on the miseries old age brings.

“But, in my opinion, Socrates, they are putting the blame in the wrong place. For if old age were to blame, my experience would be the same as theirs, and so would that of all other old men. But in fact, I have met many whose feelings are quite different...

“In all this, and in the lack of respect their families show them, there is only one thing to blame; and that is not their old age, Socrates, but their character. For if men are sensible and good-tempered, old age is easy enough to bear; if not, youth as well as age is a burden.”

I've read through only the early chapters on ancient Greece and Rome and the beginnings of the Middle Ages, and the quotations from writers and philosophers of those times are as familiar in theme as what I read in today's publications about age.

Isadore of Seville whose life spanned the end of the classical era and the beginning of the early Middle Ages, sounds like he could be writing this blog:

“Old age brings with it many things, some good, some bad. Good, since it frees us from the most violent of masters: it imposes a limit on pleasures, it smashes the force of lust, it increases wisdom, and it grants wiser counsels.

“Bad, however, because advanced old age is most wretched in terms of both the disabilities it inflicts and the loathing it incurs.”

And always, always – then as now – people aspired to rejuvenation:

“Galen mentions the intriguing case of a contemporary Sophist who had, at the age of 40, published a book on how to avoid the effects of old age and remain perpetually young,” writes Thane.

“By the time this fellow turned 80, however, age had indeed taken its toll, making him appear shrivelled and dried out, and earning him general mockery.

“He then revised his book and brought out a second edition, stressing that only some individuals may enjoy eternal youth...”

There's one good thing about all the longevity gurus of today, all selling some kind of live-forever potion or pill: they too will meet the Sophist's fate.

Cicero uttered one of my favorite quotations: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Thane quotes him about old age, words I had not read before and now, may take as my motto:

“Old age will only be respected if it fights for itself, maintains its rights, avoids dependence on anyone, and asserts control over its own to the last breath.”

This history project is one of the best ideas I've ever had. I'm already having a load of fun and if you enjoy this stuff, I'll keep you updated from time to time.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Stroppy: Policeman's Heel or Plantar Fasciitis


Great post, Ronni, and I'll look forward to more. Also, really like the last quote that you may take as your motto--it's a good one.

What a great project- good for you! Yes, please keep us updated.

Yes, mam, I sure do enjoy this stuff. :)


I once worked for a man whose business was subject to many government rules and regulations.

When the new regs arrived at our office, my boss had neither the time nor the inclination to read all 1,000 + pages to see what pertained to our business. As a result, he would walk up to my desk, throw the regulation book down and say," Read this and tell me what it says." He expected a condensed version that pertained ONLY to us.

Now it's my turn. My eyesight is not good enough at 84 to read Plato or Socrates and I'm not certain I would understand what they are saying if I could read it.

So, taking a page from my former boss' book I am pleading with you to read this material and "Tell Me What It Says."

Thank you for doing all the reading and research for our benefit. I'm sure we all appreciate it.

Intriguing post. Please do continue to let us know what you find.

This project is going to be fun. In a world of tweets and the 24 hour news cycle, I refuse to succumb to the notion that our predecessors were either stupid or as different from us as we sometimes think. Maybe the old are particularly good at figuring those truths out? At least in this culture ...

Fascinating! Looking forward .

I think our old age is unlike that of previous generations because of our increased access to medical and dental care. It seems to me that I'm the first in my family to have all my teeth and be able to eat healthy foods daily.

I've gotten shots to prevent pneumonia, hepatitis, and the flu as well as shingles and lockjaw. Aren't we the living result of having had these medical advantages? I think my 69-year-old body and mind are unlike those of past members of my family because I live close to and use the medical services available to me in a preventative manner. My older relatives chose to wait until a crisis occurred before seeing a doctor.

This is going to be interesting, both in the history of aging in humans, and the history of aging in each of us.

”In the introductory chapter, Thane notes – as we here at Time Goes By sometimes mention – that conventional wisdom declares that past ages treated elders better than we do now. But that has almost never been true, according to Ms. Thane.”

I wonder if this is reflective of Western culture only Ronni. Does Thane indicate this in her book or does she spread this view across all cultures, including the native American culture?

Thane makes a point to explain that this book is about western culture only - mostly Europe and North America because to take on Africa, Asia, South America, etc. is obviously beyond the scope of a single book which, in this "limitation," is more than 300 pages. Nor does she consider native American culture.

I too will be sticking with European and European-derived western culture because it is my heritage, what I know and what I am most interested in.

Others might like to consider a similar project on the rest of the world.

What an exciting and appropriate project. I, too, am looking forward to reading the results of your research.

Good for you for doing the hard work so we can all enjoy the results. Many thanks.

Yea! Excellent choice. I follow you every day as a student of gerontology.

"avoids dependence on anyone"

Cicero! au contraire! the better suggestion in my view is to accept help when you need it.

Great Idea!!!
Keep us posted often...

With your skills and our modern information revolution, as well as this blog, I expect this to be a groundbreaking work, if not a classic. Yippee!

All my best,
-steve kemp

This reads like an interesting series. Also, sounds like as much as everything has changed, it's remained the same -- in terms of many aging attitudes. Maybe we can learn more about how to go about .... or what successfully works to try and alter false perceptions about older people -- though I think you've discussed that here and many of us try to contribute to bringing about such change.

I wonder what sort of texts and actual historical references, if any, are used in gerontology programs at colleges and universities with such studies? Pause...

You stimulated my curiosity to contact a nearby Univ. that offers several graduate degrees in gerontology. I inquired as to what course work/texts offered aging history or books available in their bookstore. I was told there were none specifically, though some books might have a chapter on the topic the instructor might use. I was given the recommendation to "check Google." In the future, maybe the suggestion will be, "Check that blog, Time Goes By."

I am not 84, but I echo Nancy. Thanks for taking the history project on and keeping us informed! and I expect Joared's final sentence will come about!

I think this is going to be very exciting and am looking forward to what you learn and how you put it together. Wonderful topic. A great book!

keep 'em coming, kid!

Oh, yes, brighten my computer! ;)

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