Old age, sickness, death and immortality: A cultural gerontological critique of bio-medical models of old age and their fantasies of immortality. by John A. Vincent - PowerPoint PPT Presentation


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Old age, sickness, death and immortality: A cultural gerontological critique of bio-medical models of old age and their fantasies of immortality. by John A. Vincent


Title: Old age, sickness, death and immortality: A cultural gerontological critique of bio-medical models of old age and their fantasies of immortality. – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Old age, sickness, death and immortality: A cultural gerontological critique of bio-medical models of old age and their fantasies of immortality. by John A. Vincent

Old age, sickness, death and immortalityA
cultural gerontological critique of bio-medical
models of old age and their fantasies of
immortality.by John A. Vincent
Old age is the stage of life that ends with death.
  • The meaning of social categories is established
    in the process of transition.
  • It is through the practices, symbols and rituals
    which mark inclusion in and removal from social
    categories including life stages that the
    meaning of the category is established.

Social constructionist approaches have
concentrated on the transition to old age
  • The markers and social processes by which old age
    is distinguished from middle age have been
  • Excellent historical work has identified the
    establishment of retirement as a key marker of
    old age at 60 or 65.
  • Much less researched is the transition out of old
    age. There is only one way to leave old age (at
    the moment) and that is through death.

Old age has always ended in death but in the past
death was not the exclusive domain of the old.
  • Death by act of God, or at the hands of our
    fellow man, or through disease before we are old
    happens, but is increasingly unlikely
  • Thus premature death takes on new meanings and
    death is marked by spectacle, horror, outrage
    and hysteria

There are two academic traditions from which to
understand modern death and its significance for
old age.
  • We can use the sociology of science and
    specifically the medicalisation of old age as an
    aid to understanding the cultural construction of
  • The sociology of the body has become an important
    part of modern sociology and can make a
    contribution to understanding the modern meaning
    of death.

Medicalisation of death and old age.
  • Western scientific medicine transforms old age
    from a natural event to a disease. Successful old
    age is not seen as it was in the 18th and 19th
    century as the outcome come of a moral life but
    as the absence of disease. Old Age has become an
    object of scientific and rational knowledge
    controlled by experts.
  • You are not only old as you feel when there
    is a scientifically trained expert waiting to
    tell you the basis of your feelings, your
    probabilities of survival, and which drug will
    make it all bearable.

Science is the principle method through which old
age is understood
  • Modern death means
  • Death of the body
  • Caused by biological failure
  • Unredeemed by medical intervention
  • Certified by a medical practitioner

What is the link between science as culture and
the search of anti-ageing medicines and bodily
  • Are attempts to achieve immortality the result or
    the cause of the medicalisation of old age?
  • Are the research efforts to avoid the devalued
    status of old age the cause of the medicalisation
    of old age. Or, does science as progress and
    perfectibility medicalise old age and thus lead
    to its low status?
  • Is the immediate cause of the cultural
    de-valuation of old age its association with
    bodily failure?
  • Or, does this devaluation stem from the failure
    of science understand and control old age?

What cultural processes are involved in
  • The model for looking at this question is the
    feminist history of science, particularly Haraway
    (1991, 1997)
  • Her work deconstructs gendered discourses on
    reproduction within bio-medical science.
  • Ageist metaphors are replete in the literature
    and mission statements of the biology of ageing.
    They use imagery in which some cells and their
    bio-chemical components appear as personalised
    images of old age and senescence.

Aging and the biochemistry of life Robin
Holliday (2001)
  • The paradox of evolution is that those forces
    which gave rise to animals with all their
    adaptations for successful life also gave rise to
    aging and the ending of that life.
  • One reading of this sentence draws its meaning
    from an equivalence
  • Success Ageing
  • Life Death.
  • i.e. ageing is the opposite of success - a
  • An alternative reading of the same sentence
    might be
  • successful life successful ageing successful
  • i.e. ageing is not contrasted with life, it is
    life, and thus evolution makes sure all parts of
    life are successful.
  • However, the paradox is only present if you
    intend the first reading that ageing is

Science fiction imagines the future of old age as
  • fantasies of super-longevity and immortality
    reflect the technology of their time.
  • immortals are inevitably imagined as being the
    age that is the appropriate cultural prime of
  • the development of super longevity and
    immortality are only a matter of time.

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Ageing is a process, old age a category.
  • Attractiveness, health, and youth are linked and
    contrasted to old age, disease, and repulsion.
    Hence the distinctions between techniques to
    preserve youthful appearance and techniques to
    control biological ageing become problematic.
  • The enterprises selling youthful appearance are
    highly lucrative.
  • There is no shortage of scientific research into
    ageing and there is a plethora of anti-ageing
    medicines. So many that there are wars raging
    within bio-gerontology as to legitimate practice
    and the boundaries of genuine science

The Juvensa Group say that their
  • For the first time in history we have an
    increasing understanding of the fundamental
    biological processes of aging and how to mitigate
    their effects. The market opportunity for new
    ventures to address these needs will be measured
    in the billions of dollars.
  • " all the key components of mammalian aging are
    indeed amenable to substantial reversal (not
    merely retardation)." Aubrey D.N.J. de Grey,
    Ph.D. (et al), Department of Genetics, University
    of Cambridge

The Alcor Life Extension Foundation has been
providing immortality since 1972.
  • Cryonic suspension is an experimental process
    whereby patients who can no longer be kept alive
    by today's medical capabilities are preserved at
    low temperatures for medical treatment in the
    future. Although this procedure is not yet
    reversible, it is based on the expectation that
    future advances in medical technology and science
    will be able to cure today's diseases, reverse
    the effects of aging, and repair any additional
    injury caused by the suspension process. These
    superior technologies could then resuscitate
    suspended patients to enjoy health and youth

The debate about the efficacy of anti-aging
  • Three key papers are
  • (i) No truth to the fountain of youth. by S.
    Jay Olshansky, Leonard Hayflick And Bruce A.
    Carnes published in the Scientific American
  • (ii) The War on Anti-Aging Medicine by Robert
    H. Binstock in the Gerontologist and
  • (iii) Whos afraid of life extension? by Harry
    Moody in Generations.
  • They raise the issue of whether the objective of
    Gerontology should be life extension.

Old age is denied by the construction of bodily
  • The sociology of the body tell us preservation of
    the body in perfect/ youthful/ healthy condition
    is a supreme modern value.
  • The cultural dominance of science tells us death
    is a medical problem solvable by the techniques
    of science. If it cannot do so now, it will do so
    in the near future.

What would a successful mature bio-medical
gerontology achieve?
  • The cultural dominance of medical knowledge which
    is seen scientific truth and an infallible
    practice aligns medicine with the goal of
    defeating of death. A goal which implicitly
    devalues old age and turns it into a realm of
    failure. Success becomes the use of science to
    create immortality.

Alternative cultural tools for a good death
  • At the point that we can celebrate death, we will
    know a good old age preceeded it. The cultural
    tools for a good death may be anti-modern,
    post-modern or traditional
  • Traditional theocratic, lifes duty fulfilled
  • Postmodern going out with a bang original,
    creative and spectacular
  • Anti-modern humanistic, celebration of social

Old age as a problem waiting for a solution
  • Science plays a key cultural role in modern
    society in authenticating knowledge and is
    presumed in modern cultures to be an omniscient
    problem solver. Hence reports of dramatic new
    discoveries on ageing reinforce the view of old
    age and death as technically soluble problems.
    However this set of understandings inevitably
    condemns old age and older people to the status
    of failure and to meaningless social roles.

Fantasies of immortality are bad for older people.
  • The great investment of time, resources, and
    cultural ingenuity to find ways to live longer
    and if possible for ever, have consequences for
    old age. These attitudes
  • postpone action on current problems of old age
    seek technical solutions to cultural problems
  • waste resources in pursuit of undesirable goals
  • inhibit research into death as a natural event
    and the final stage of the life course as a
    positive meaningful coda.

The presentation, and two papers can be viewed
  • http//www.exeter.ac.uk/JVincent/Tampere
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