Other Free Encyclopedias » Medicine Encyclopedia » Aging Healthy - Part 4 » Status of Older People: Preindustrial West - How Was ‘‘old Age’’ Defined?, How Did Older People Support Themselves In The Preindustrial West?, Charity And Poor Relief

Status of Older People: Preindustrial West - How Did Older People Support Themselves In The Preindustrial West?

age aging social children death poor societies

Some older people possessed property, often in substantial amounts, on which they could live until death, employing others to care for them, if necessary, either in institutions or in their own households. From the earliest times in most western countries aging individuals could legally assign property to relatives or nonrelatives in return for guaranteed support until death, and they could invoke the protection of the law if the agreement was not honored. Older people determinedly sought to control their own lives and to retain their independence throughout much of western culture through time. For the propertyless and impoverished there was, in most times, little choice but to work for pay for as long as possible, whereas the propertied could in all times retire from work when they chose. In Norwich, England, in 1570, three widows, ages seventy-four, seventy-nine, and eighty-two, were described only as ‘‘almost past work’’ and they were still earning small sums at spinning. Poor relief systems encouraged older men and women to work, supplementing but not replacing meager incomes. Most communities provided specified tasks for poor older people. Roadmending, caring for the churchyard, fetching, and tending horses on market days were tasks for old men. It was often easier for women to support themselves at later ages, by caring for children, providing casual domestic labor, such as cleaning or washing, taking in lodgers, or running small shops or alehouses.

Another important resource was family support. As far back in time as can be traced, it has not been the norm in all western societies for older people to share households with their married children. To do so was conventional in Mediterranean societies and in some north European peasant cultures, such as Ireland and parts of France, where land was the family’s only asset and the heir shared land and household with the elders until their death. In much of northwestern Europe, however, elders retained control of their own households for as long as they were able, rarely sharing them with adult married children, though they might move to the home of a relative when they were no longer capable of independence, perhaps for a short time before death. North European folklore, even in medieval times, expressed few illusions about intergenerational support, but long conveyed warnings of the danger to older people of placing themselves and their possessions under the control of their children. Such stories achieved their most sublime expression in William Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Most countries incorporated into law some obligation upon adult children and sometimes other close relatives to support their elders. How frequently such practices were implemented was variable, not least because the kin of the aged poor were often very poor themselves and could not realistically be expected to give support. The customs and practice of the Old World were transported to the New. Settler societies gave even greater salience to the independence and self-help that was necessary for survival, and such societies took time to build the communal, often religious-based, institutions which supplemented self- and family support in much of Europe.

But the fact that older people did not conventionally share a home with close relatives, and determinedly retained their independence for as long as they were able, does not mean that there were not close emotional ties and exchanges of support between the generations. Parents and adult offspring might not share a household, but they often lived in close proximity, even in the highly mobile society that England was for centuries before industrialization. Generally in western societies ‘‘kinship did not stop at the front door’’ (Jutte, p. 90). Sociologists Rosenmayr and Kockeis have described the north European family as characterized by ‘‘intimacy at a distance’’, the intimacy being as important as the distance. Old people could in general expect help from their children based on the sustenance and protection provided by parents during the childhood period. Family members at all social levels exchanged support and services from a mixture of material, calculative, and emotional motives. That it was often an exchange relationship should be emphasized. Older people in the past, as now, were rarely simply dependent upon others, unless they were in severe physical decline. They cared for grandchildren, for sick people, supported younger people financially when they could afford it, and performed myriad other services for others. Intergenerational exchange often took the form of services (a daughter performing housework or providing meals, a grandparent caring for grandchildren) or gifts in kind rather than of cash.

But not all older people had families to support them. High death rates meant that parents might outlive children. Up to one-third of women living to age sixty-five in England between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries had no surviving children. Geographical mobility was limited at a time when transport was slow, and many people who were illiterate might break contacts even between survivors.

Those who had no families could create them. Older men married younger women able to look after them; older women married younger men if the men were wealthier, or could care for children after a wife’s death. Orphan children were adopted by older people, gaining a home in return for giving service. Unrelated poor people shared households for mutual support.

Status of Older People: Preindustrial West - Charity And Poor Relief [next] [back] Status of Older People: Preindustrial West - How Was ‘‘old Age’’ Defined?

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