In this set of interviews, four scholars whose age studies work informs the premises and continues to expand the reach of the field—Tom Cole, Toni Calasanti, Marilyn Gugliucci, and Roberta Maierhofer—generously share their experiences and their hopes for the past, present, and future of age studies scholarship.1 The conversations explore how these scholars became involved in age studies; the ideas they see as the field’s key concepts, particularly for scholars new to this research; and their visions of the field’s future. Together, the interviews focus critical foresight on how the history of age studies serves as the foundation for its future.
The diversity of their backgrounds—in history and medical humanities (Cole),2 sociology (Calasanti),3 kinesiology and medicine (Gugliucci),4 and American cultural studies (Maierhofer)5—highlights the variety of disciplines that contribute to age studies.6 Although they work in widely disparate disciplines, each of them found, as their careers developed, a critical use for new methods of investigating age. As they were drawn further into the field, they recognized the transformative potential of age studies and saw the need for additional development in this area. I should note that in addition to age studies, terms these scholars used to identify the field include critical gerontology, cultural gerontology, humanistic gerontology, social gerontology, and even just gerontology, without any modifier. The employment of these names varies across disciplines; the nuances of definitional differences is perhaps worthy of its own article. For clarity, this essay uses age studies as an umbrella term that covers all of those areas.
Many emerging and established age studies scholars share the experience of entering the field through circuitous yet overlapping routes. This pattern was also followed by the interviewees: Cole and Calasanti each explained that their work on economic inequalities led them to consider age as a category of analysis. Both Calasanti and Maierhofer discussed seeing age studies as a gap in feminist analyses, with age as an identity category similar to gender, made invisible by normative assumptions about gender and age, but not yet addressed in women’s studies or in the initial publications of foundational feminist texts such as Ourselves, Growing Older (first published in 1987). In a pedagogical context, Cole and Gugliucci applied age studies methodologies as a means of giving medical students insight into their future patients.
The interviews were about an hour each, conducted by telephone. Each interview was meant to cover, from a different disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspective, questions such as these: How did you get involved with this field? At that time, who were key people and what were key ideas and initiatives? What is your dream vision for the future of age studies? What do you think are sizable stumbling blocks in the path between where we are now and your dream vision? What advice would you give to graduate students interested in age studies? Although the plan was to have a comparable set of answers to the same questions from multiple disciplines, the discussions instead reflected each individual’s scholarly passions. Exhilarating and staggering, the array of theories, methodologies, and praxes in these conversations span from the fundamentals of age studies to the enactment of its ideals to elegant abstractions. A captivating glimpse into these scholars’ histories, the conversations reveal that the lineage of their ideas is as rich and varied as their contributions to the field.
The interview with Tom Cole focused mainly on the question about how his personal academic biography connected with the field of age studies. A conversation with Cole—who is trained as an historian—about the past and future of age studies is much like a trolley tour of San Francisco. The discussion progresses in fits and starts, with some long, smooth stretches, explaining the emergence of well-known landmarks and revealing broad vistas, interspersed with snapshots of local color. The mid-1980s, said Cole, were an exciting time to be involved with age studies ideas, because newly available “resources were lining up with the people” productively: “We were trying to define a field that was aimed at providing critical, cultural, moral scholarship toward mainstream gerontology.” Cole says that at the start of his career, people who cared for the elderly—nurses, social workers, social scientists, people working in nursing homes—“lacked a language when talking about moral, spiritual, and cultural questions.” The initial project, therefore, was “an attempt to shift the language into more existential and cultural terrain.”
Cole warmly invokes key figures with whom he began this work—Kathy [Woodward], Andy [Achenbaum], Bob [Kastenbaum], Anne [Wyatt-Brown], and Elinor [Fuchs]. At that point in time, he says, there were about 1100 publications available on aging and the humanities, which the editors of the first Handbook of the Humanities and Aging located and read. In the introduction to the Handbook, Cole recounts sharing a meal with Robert Kastenbaum at the origin of that book project: “On a yellow napkin at Wendy’s in New Orleans between Gerontological Society sessions, [Kastenbaum] initiated the effort to map this new area of knowledge,” diagramming the “boundaries and contours” of the field (Cole, Van Tassel, and Kastenbaum xii). Although Cole regularly participates in gerontology conferences, he says that his cross-disciplinary work makes him a somewhat peripheral figure in discussions of gerontology, a marginalization that stems in part from conceptual and terminological differences.
Cole is acutely aware of the tensions between what he calls “the two sides of myself”: the humanistic bent toward postmodernism and the medical focus on modernist convictions about Truth, Reality, and Ethics. That duality plays out in the need to develop caregiving innovations that are “constructive as well as critical.” As much as Cole is “committed to a critique of the social construction of knowledge,” he encourages scholars to appreciate how literature “hits students very personally.” He explains that when medical students read a literary text that involves a death, for example, the discussion focuses their thoughts on “What does this mean for you—for when you walk into a room and the person is dying and doesn’t have family. How is this going to change how you function?” Medical students tend to view their professional personas in quite concrete terms, Cole says, and he has to negotiate within their knowledge frameworks in order to support their emotional and professional development. He thinks of individuals with diverse ideologies and philosophies as if they were people walking around inside a cloud, initially bumping into each other and getting in each other’s ways, yet ultimately realizing that they need to learn how they can help each other.
Humanities age studies scholars may see his work in a medical school as coming from a place of institutional power, Cole acknowledges: “There is a temptation in age studies to view gerontology or humanistic gerontology as an entrenched power, with authority and keys to access that age studies doesn’t have.” His experience and analytical understanding allows him perceive—and yet chafe at—the larger view: gerontology and geriatrics are at the periphery of the larger field of medicine, and humanistic gerontology is even farther from the center. Moreover, his location in a medical school sometimes similarly locates him at the edge of humanities’ scholarly circles. “It’s frustrating when your interests are so marginalized,” Cole says, even as his dual fringe locations afford him a unique perspective on the workings and interplay of multiple academic arenas.
Despite his perception of his own location as peripheral to both the humanities and the medical fields, Cole appreciates the vital importance of the work that happens in both arenas and cross-disciplinarily. He makes a conscious effort contribute to the medical humanities, “publishing things that helped train people in helping professions, in ethics . . . .” He encourages scholars in any field, especially those who feel similarly marginalized, to stay the course: “Let’s build something that matters—to older people, to each other, to the field . . . . Let’s keep building it. It’s a very exciting time!” This excitement echoes through each of the interviews, as does the frustration with the field’s illogically durable marginalization and an intense conviction about the importance of age studies.
Consider, for example, Toni Calasanti’s answer to a question about her entry into age studies. She bluntly explains that research on age relations was not part of her initial career plans. She cautions students about going into this field, yet her response reveals the path from those initial feelings to the depth of engagement for which she is so well-known:
I never had a desire to do [age studies] at all. Don’t expect huge rewards. [You are] not going to get a lot of money out of it. I think you have to have a passion for wanting to know sources of inequality and wanting to change that. Otherwise, I don’t know how you do it. Maybe to understand that we’re really studying about ourselves anyway. We’re all going to be there. We’re all participating. We’re always already reinforcing inequality. This isn’t about later on, it’s about right now. You act age out. You naturalize inequalities based on age every day.
Calasanti followed up on the interview with an email emphasizing that research about aging and age relations can transform scholars’ understandings of intersectional identity and interpersonal relations.
Throughout the interview, Calasanti’s tone was relaxed and informal: “You dye your hair? Yeah, I don’t give a shit about that.” In response to questions about hair dye, she draws a parallel to the debates about feminists wearing makeup, asserting that it’s an individual choice. She dyes her hair, not wanting stereotypes about grey hair to be part of the scholarly conversations about her research. Without hair dye, she says matter-of-factly, “I will be discriminated against.” She wants to be able to choose which battles to fight, and grey hair is not on her list. Calasanti’s internal critical lens is well-honed; even in a relatively casual interview, she offers an insightful array of sociological analyses, including her understanding of what it means to have a critical view. Calasanti defines critical as inherently activist, a means by which to challenge the status quo, question the images one tends to take for granted, interrogate the ways that perceptions shape policy and care work, and explore how social forces impact individual outcomes. A drive for change is at the core of her ideas about age studies.
From the start, Calasanti says, she understood ageism as “structural. It’s ideological.” She also appreciates the challenge of learning to see an aspect of society that we never were asked to notice. Her voice blends compassion and frustration as she considers a social blind spot present even for—or perhaps, especially for—individuals who dedicate their careers to improving elders’ lives. Calasanti suggests that an internal dialogue of repeated proclamations—I like old people; I want to help old people—reinforces age privilege to the extent that ageism becomes so deeply entrenched as to be nearly invisible. This cultural myopia she explains as an almost-logical element as people try to dissociate themselves from less powerful social positions.
Calasanti believes that with an improved understanding of the process of aging, elderhood can serve as a lens through which scholars and activists more clearly see age relations among people of all ages, so that age becomes one of the many categories of intersectional identity. As with gender, for unreflexive understandings of age, “performativity naturalizes inequality,” but age offers some possibilities that would be almost impossible to access using gender-based analyses, because gender is generally constant, whereas age is not. Scholars can understand the processes of becoming aged better than they can the process of becoming gendered, Calasanti indicates, because individuals are, or can be, more actively aware of the process and its complexities.
For instance, in one of the texts for which Calasanti collaborated with Kathleen Slevin, they delineate four dimensions of aging: chronological age, the most commonly-used measure, tracks the time since birth; occupational age considers the capability and distance from retirement in a certain line of work; functional age compares an individual’s chronological age within the chronological age of people who are equally as physically and mentally capable as the individual in question; and subjective age focuses on one’s capabilities when compared with one’s age peers (17). As much as age studies has in common with the long list of identity categories that tends to begin with race, class, and gender, some of the key differences inhibit development in this field, she said.
She explained that in academic and social gatherings, overt ageism tends to be more acceptable than overt other-isms, such as racism and sexism; similarly, expressions of internalized ageism, such as referring to a memory glitch as a senior moment, are more accepted, almost conventional. She observes that “millions marched in solidarity for Black power, women’s power, and power to the people,” but there is not a larger social movement advocating for equal rights for elders. The lack of a critical movement in academia and of a social movement advocating for change is “mutually stunting,” laments Calasanti, “because understanding old people gives us greater understanding of all age groups.” Her perspective situates old age as a political location from which we can better understand and eradicate age-based inequality.
Many qualities and perspectives of Calasanti’s and Marilyn Gugliucci’s approaches overlap, including their shared understanding of the connections among feminism, intersectionality, and age studies. Nonetheless, as Gugliucci says, “knowledge is always a negotiation,” and some elements of the conversation with her reveal concepts that age studies scholars (myself included) need to keep in mind as we navigate in other fields. For example, this interview highlighted that medical care scholars and practitioners sometimes consider “the humanities” as equivalent to “the arts”—film, literature, theatre, and the fine arts—whereas cultural criticism gets linked to the social sciences.
Also notable in this interview were Gugliucci’s specific ideas about the definitions of activism and belief, and the relationship between them. Gugliucci allows that changing cultural attitudes about aging is pragmatic activism, yet she firmly avows, “I am not political.” Her declared goal is to modify how people think about aging and old age. Gugliucci asserts that her role in medicine is to “spark passion in working with older adults [and] change the world regarding negative attitudes about aging,” a goal she accomplishes in part by assigning each medical student a mock-diagnosis and then placing them, with their diagnosis, in a nursing home. This practice is more widely used now, but when she began doing it in 2006, the experience offered students an uncommon “significant emotional experience” useful in their professional practice.
Through an overview of how elderhood is perceived across the life course, Gugliucci outlines her understanding of how ageism develops. First, she says, younger people learn to associate old age with decline, disease, and withdrawal. Next, their fear of their own aging blinds them to the myriad experiences of old age that other people have. Finally, the negative associations becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. For Gugliucci, that blind spot serves as a powerful pedagogical tool. Gugliucci is bent on changing ideas about aging “one person at a time.…” She reports that after her presentations, “people say that I’ve changed how they think.” Gugliucci connects her methods to the visions of people such as Rick Moody, Atul Gwande, Desmond O’Neal, and particularly Lars Tornstam, whose concept of gerotranscendence informs the core of her ideas. Gerotranscendence presupposes a positive emotional development as one ages into old age, so that one’s perspective on old age can include wisdom and life satisfaction.
Age studies as a tool can help students reconsider their ideas about old age, says Gugliucci, because “you’re catching them young enough to create new models of aging,” new ways of appreciating the art of communication, and new ways to experience life stories, music, and art that keep older adults “connected to the world.” Trained in kinesiology, Gugliucci’s approach to teaching geriatrics was not initially grounded in medicine. She has a history of using nontraditional methods to spark critical thinking and understanding in her students. For instance, she recently adapted the nursing home live-in program for students to learn about hospice care. She appreciates how these learning-by-living programs give students significant and memorable emotional experiences that inform the ways in which they practice medicine.
Despite the expanded view that she attributes to her background outside of geriatrics, Gugliucci emphasizes that knowledge of the field’s history is crucial for its advancement, asserting that scholars who do not know how the field evolved will have a more difficult time advancing their ideas into other parts of academia. For example, she believes that without understanding the history of disease-and-decline models in gerontology’s past, age studies scholars are more likely to replicate those frameworks. Age studies, according to Gugliucci, needs to be a critically sound field in which scholars must grasp “what is currently known about aging, what are societal constructs about aging, and then question that” to advance the field.
For Gugliucci, the goal is to block the spiral of reductionist, negative ideas about aging and old age and provide what she calls “a more functional view.” She quotes Ingmar Bergman from memory: “Getting old is like climbing a mountain; you get a little out of breath, but the view is much better.” With Gugliucci, as with Tom Cole, there is a tension between the importance of appreciating age studies’ critical complexities and the use value of monological instructional practices. The focus on gerotranscendence, which has been critiqued as reverse ageism, and the Bergman quotation both may seem critically problematic, but they work well for Gugliucci’s pedagogical objectives.
Even though she avers that change occurs one person at a time, Gugliucci speaks with pride about her successful campaign to have the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education adopt a new definition of geriatrics. The italics come through in her voice as she explains that the old definition focused on problems and diseases of aged persons, whereas the new definition centers on health, disease, and comprehensive healthcare for people who are members of what Gugliucci calls the older adult population. She is hopeful the word geriatrics also will gain more positive connotations, because improving attitudes about aging and old age impels people to be more functional as they age. In the current situation, Gugliucci says regretfully, the problem is not that medical students reject ideas of age studies, but that the curriculum does not give them enough time to be self-reflexive or to consider the humanities.
In her follow-up to that problem statement, Gugliucci, who has received accolades for the quality of her student mentoring, adheres to her own award-winning advice: “never bring me a problem unless you also bring me a solution.” She envisions how medical students could understand aging and old age differently if age studies were adopted across the curriculum, and she gets more enthusiastic with each sentence. In her vision, age studies and the medical humanities improve understanding because “aging is about life and the humanities are about life.” Medical students now, she explains, are focused on disease and decline models. Medical students who have experience with age studies could better appreciate the positive potential in their patients, and that will make those students become better physicians. As always, Gugliucci is optimistic about the potential for change: “I look forward to the day that it reaches a critical mass.”
Roberta Maierhofer has envisioned the possibility of that “critical mass” since 1987, when she read the newest installment in the Our Bodies, Ourselves series, Ourselves, Growing Older, and had a prescient sense that age studies was an emergent field. At that time, says Maierhofer, most feminists asked old women only about their past, and young women who rejected their biological mothers’ sexist beliefs also discarded connections to their intellectual foremothers. Despite that conundrum, she borrowed heavily from feminism to construct her own analytical approach, anocriticism. This critical methodology recognizes that biology is not destiny and that aging happens in a social, political, and cultural context over time. As such, the approach crosses the boundaries between the material and the immaterial, and highlights intersectional identity as a lived reality, one that is not abstract, yet not stable. Anocriticism creates a position of movement, of feminist changes over time. Maierhofer considers anocriticism’s lack of stable certainties as a strength, a confirmation that this approach is a tool, not a doctrine. Anocritical scholars, she says, have to make their own answers with which to support, reject, and advance their work.
In life and in academia, people seek answers, but sometimes the best we can do is acknowledge our own inability to answer, explains Maierhofer. Anocriticism integrates the sciences, social sciences, and humanities seamlessly, and life itself is a narrative. According to Maierhofer, a key challenge to the success of age studies and anocriticism is that people do not want to recognize the ongoing temporal sequencing of their lives. Instead, they attempt to reach “a level of unchanging,” of timelessness, because change reminds people of their own mortality.
Anocritics and other age studies academics seek to do the same thing with scholarship out of a desire to have that same stability in their own lives and to have their research be permanently sound, asserts Maierhofer; the deconstruction of those false, or at least incomplete, narratives opens the space for ambivalence and development. In Maierhofer’s vision, the opening creates a subversive maker-space for theory, a locale of non-hierarchical power in which extant ideas and missing ideas—the absence of presence—can be deconstructed and redefined, expanding the possibilities of resistance and productive ambivalence. Without spaces like that, she explains, a culture becomes a closed system.
This complex critical framework has some gaps, and Maierhofer welcomes the contributions of other scholars to develop age studies theory, methodologies, and approaches, including work on cultural heritage and narrative interpretation. One specific item on her theory wish-list is an expanded shorthand in the field’s critical vocabulary—words that distinguish between the biological and the performative, to offer for age the differentiation available in the contrast between gender and sex.
Maierhofer’s penetrating humor shows as she discusses the importance of opening the field, of making it more accessible, which can lead to a loss of “purity and sophistication” that is nonetheless crucial because expansion is needed and because “incompleteness . . . makes for communication.” The value that she places on the exchange of ideas led her to create the Aging Studies in Europe book series and to contribute to formation of the European Network in Aging Studies (ENAS). Despite the absence of an age-based equivalent to the Women’s Movement or the Civil Rights movement, Maierhofer considers age studies to be the academic wing of a political movement, a change agent that contributes to a cultural shift. Throughout the interview, Maierhofer’s comments highlight her activist principles as well as her critical vision, and she encourages current age studies scholars to welcome into the field people from all positions across the academic and activist spectrum.
Aging can allow us to question ideas about social difference, individual identity, and collective identity more broadly than other forms of identity, but in some respects, all of us are illiterate about aging and ageism, because we have not yet learned how to fully deconstruct it, says Maierhofer. Age is an element of intersectional identity, but even within a single individual at a moment in time, the categories of age may overlap. She explores how the use of categorical terms such as too young, old enough, and too old create a constant transgression of definitional boundaries. Two of her examples: in the U.S., a person can be too young for social security, old enough to run for president, and too old to have to register with the selective service; and feminist scholars who eschew essentialism may be surprised to notice that their understanding includes some invisibility of privilege embedded in the stereotype that feminists are not old and that old people are not feminists.
Age can create a coherent common identity, or it can serve to make people aware of the time-and-experience matrix, in which to be human is to change, suggests Maierhofer. She encourages an integrated, intergenerational approach, which foregrounds an acknowledgement of time and a collective connection that does not privilege youth. Instead, such an approach puts age into relational terms and creates a definition of self and of reality that does not arise from identification with an age cohort. Rather than relating with others through a stereotyped narration about age, Maierhofer proposes, individuals can resist divisive norms and collaborate on the ways in which they choose to define themselves and their lives.
Some years ago in Northern Idaho, I saw an amusement park marquee that announced, “Drag Racing Tonight.” Acutely aware of the region’s conservative politics, I was momentarily stunned, disoriented, envisioning the locals cheering as contestants in glittering high heels, tight leather miniskirts, and impeccable makeup sprinted toward a finish line. Then I remembered: drag races are car races. In age studies, many of us are familiar with that sense of disorientation, working with ideas that may seem out of synch with the local customs and more-standard analytical approaches of one’s field. Within a discipline, and especially when connecting to age studies concepts in other fields, the complexity multiplies. What exactly is it that we do? Can one define and distinguish among the multitude of terms: age studies, critical gerontology, cultural gerontology, humanistic gerontology, social gerontology, and so on? And if distinct definitions are possible, are they useful?
In some respects, the questions themselves reveal an embarrassment of riches and serve as a marker of how advanced the field has become. For the recent generation of age studies scholars, these are heady times, as age studies inquiry further expands into dense theory and self-reflexivity. Still, in some fields, an age studies focus continues to feel as awkward—perhaps even as conspicuous and vulnerable—as a drag queen would be at a NASCAR rally. The work of Cole, Calasanti, Gugliucci, Maierhofer, and other longstanding leading scholars can offer some grounding and clarity, and it may shift the tenor of the rally crowd’s response toward interest and acceptance.
When a sense of disorientation becomes familiar, the awkwardness of age studies work may come to feel temporally limited, as if the logical development of both society and academia will lead inevitably to an appreciation of the field. As these interviews aptly demonstrate, despite the current strength and depth of the field, over the last 30 years, that seemingly-logical advancement has been somewhat limited. The difficulties scholars have had developing the field—still so similar to the challenges these four advanced scholars faced at the start of their careers—is evidence of ageism’s durability. As these scholars suggest, the twin challenges of addressing individuals’ age-based prejudices and the ageist stereotypes that guide social groups add to ageism’s frustrating tenacity.
One of the ways in which age studies parallels other identity studies, of course, is in its emphasis on individuality among members of a group. That is, age does not dispel distinctiveness, so viewing “the elderly” as a standardized group is just as fallacious and prejudicial as believing that all Blacks, Irish, women, Jews, or disabled people are the same. Younger people who are able to see elders as individual people, rather than as a homogenous set, are better able to appreciate the other elements of age studies. Thus, most age studies scholars support a focus on individuation.
In the larger cultural conversation, discussions that reference people of age as a group with any power tend to include phrases such as “generational warfare” and “the silver tsunami,” invoking fears of the seemingly-dangerous, chaotic capacity of such a collective. In contrast, from Gugliucci’s appeal for more age studies scholars to be “out front” to Cole’s call to keep building and Maierhofer’s emphasis on commonality and inclusion, each of the interviewees references the positive power of the collective for creating social change, appreciating that, as Calasanti says, “larger social forces have an impact on individual outcomes.” Tension between the individual and the group sometimes is attributed to the division between the realms of the theoretical and the activist. These interviews remind us that the potency of the collective can contribute to greater critical understandings, just as insights and actions of the individual can generate social change.
Age studies needs both of these approaches, and many more. Indeed, last year’s editorial in this journal highlights the need to actively include considerations of the collective component of the aging experience and recognizes aging “both as an individual experience and as an element of cultural ideology,” entrenched in cultural perceptions and social anxieties, with the ability to “define and divide” (Port and Swinnen). The foundational and ongoing efforts of scholars such as Cole, Calasanti, Gugliucci, and Maierhofer illuminate a vast landscape of interwoven trails, the branching and converging conduits of age studies work that leads from the field’s past to its potential futures. Age may indeed define and divide, but the chart of those paths, the testimony of these interviewees, the existence of this journal, and the work that its readers do, together provide incontrovertible evidence that age and age studies also can combine and connect.
|↑1||This title has been adapted from a quotation attributed to William Faulkner by the historian Barbara Fields (The Civil War).|
|↑2||Tom Cole is the McGovern Chair in Medical Humanities and the Director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston.|
|↑3||Toni Calasanti is a professor of Sociology at Virginia Tech. She has had leadership positions in the American Sociological Association and Southern Sociological Association and is a past Chair of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Section of the Gerontological Society of America (GSA).|
|↑4||Marilyn Gugliucci, Director of Geriatrics Education and Research at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, has held leadership roles in the American Geriatrics Society, was a GSA Section Chair, and is past president of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education.|
|↑5||Roberta Maierhofer, Chair of American Studies and Director of the Center for Inter-American Studies at the University of Austria, Graz, was one of the foundational leaders of the European Network in Aging Studies (ENAS).|
|↑6||All four scholars were involved in the discussions that led to the formation of the North American Network in Aging Studies (NANAS).|
- Calasanti, Toni, and Kathleen Slevin, eds. Gender, Social Inequalities, and Aging. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira/Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
- The Civil War. Dir. Ken Burns. PBS, 1990.
- Cole, Thomas R., David D. Van Tassel, and Robert Kastenbaum, eds. Handbook of the Humanities and Aging. New York: Springer, 1992.
- Port, Cynthia, and Aagje Swinnen. “Age Studies Comes of Age.” Age, Culture, Humanities 1 (2014). Web. 3 March 2015.