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Productive Aging

Definition, Some Controversy, Variables That Influence Productive Aging, Policy Considerations

In the formative years of gerontology as a field of study, considerable attention was paid to the frailties and limitations associated with the advancing years of older people. This attention to both the physical and psychosocial aspects of aging provided the essential foundation for an understanding of the challenges facing an aging society. Older adults were often viewed as a "deserving poor," worthy of public intervention after a lifetime of contributions. In the decade that followed the 1971 White House Conference on Aging, programs and services for older people experienced substantial expansion in their array of services and levels of funding. Perhaps no other single volume stirred the passion of the public in this regard more than the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Robert N. Butler, Why Survive? which chronicled the "tragedy" of growing old in America.

By 1980, the early years of growth in social programs for elderly Americans had slowed, and considerable effort went into maintaining those that had been developed during the previous two decades. While this was generally a time of social program retrenchment, many of the programs designed for elderly persons were left intact.

Perhaps as a reaction to the prevailing public perception that aging was synonymous with decline and disease, Robert Butler became concerned by the perception and misrepresentation that older people were less able to participate fully in society than their younger counterparts, and that they were a costly burden on a vital nation. Butler introduced the term productive aging at the 1983 Salzberg Seminar in an attempt to reflect a more balanced view of the capabilities and potential of older people. According to Butler, "Many people express concern about the costs and dependency of old age. . .I wanted to stress the mobilization of the productive potential of the elders of society" (Butler and Gleason, 1985, p. xii).

While the contemporary aging network remains composed primarily of professionals focused on the problems associated with growing old, the field has made strides to examine the normative aspects of aging and the positive contributions of older adults in modern society. Better balance has been given to the significant contributions of older people in terms of volunteering, helping with children and grandchildren, assisting friends and family who are sick, and professional achievements through work and hobbies. Begun as a broad concept to counter the negative images associated with being old, the term productive aging came into wider use in the 1990s, and along with its wider use came efforts to better define the term.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3