The Power of Stories

Telling stories is the best way to teach, persuade, and even understand ourselves.

Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man, Revisited

Should we fear or revere old age?


metaphors of life that we find in stories have the power to shape our views of the world, ourselves, and our lives. In one of Shakespeare's most vamous speeches (rivalling "out damned spot" and "to be or not to be"), the character Jaques in "As You Like It," declares that "All the world's a stage" on which we play seven roles. Rich with imagery, each stage carries with it the usual combination of wit and wisdom in Shakespeare's more famous soliloquies. That is, up until he gets to old age: "Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

Shakespeare (1564-1616), who died just days away from his 52nd birthday, was an old man for his time. The average life expectancy in 17th century Europe was about 25, but that is because so many people died in childhood and many women died in childbirth (his son, Hamnet, died at the age of 11). According to a paper by Claude Masset, those who made it past the age of 20 had a life expectancy of about 35 years, and 1 in 2 adults lived until nearly 60.

It goes beyond the scope of my expertise to analyze Shakespeare's biography in terms of his projections about old age, though I find it interesting that this speech is the personification of "ageism," defined by the American Psychological Association as "prejudice toward, stereotyping of, and/or discrimination against any person or persons directly and solely as a function of their having attained a chronological age which the social group defines as "old." Ageism, first defined by psychiatrist Robert Butler in the 1960s, is generally thought to be associated with industrialization and modernization, historical changes that contributed to the obsolescence of society's elders. Others believe that ageism is related to fear of mortality, a view espoused by Terror Management Theory. However, here again, we may argue that in Shakespeare's time, death was accepted as a part of life and it is not until the past century that death was feared and denied.

Rather than ageism accounting for Shakespeare's portrayal of the old, it may simply be the case that at the time, the majority of older adults were infirmed, lacking in sensory abilities (and teeth), and cognitively impaired. At that time, 50 was not the "new 30" as it is said to be today, but more likely the "old 70" or even 80. Even so, Shakespeare's portrayal was hardly sympathetic to the plight of his elders and moving forward through the centuries, the continued citing of this speech from one of his most famous plays, only reinforces the view that so many gerontologists today r

efute with evidence to the contrary.

So, we don't know exactly why Shakespeare espoused this pessimistic view of aging but we do know that it no longer applies to our current generation of elders. Back in the late 1500s, it's safe to say that virtually no older adults breezed off to the gym 3 or 4 (or more) times a week, pounding the treadmill or heaving the free weights. They didn't worry about their diet, how much they alcohol they drank, or whether they should keep their mind active with crossword puzzles and Scrabble.

We now know that successful aging involves maintaining a physically, psychologically, and socially active lifestyle from midlife and beyond. The majority of older adults rate their physical and mental well-being as good or very good and the current generation of Baby Boomers appear to be heading in the same direction as they get older. However, Shakespeare's contrary notions continue to make it difficult for older adults to gain the respect they deserve. For example, on Oct. 19, 2009 New York Times Op Ed columnist Ben Schott summarized not only Shakespeare's stages but similar categorizations throughout the ages, all of which portray the last period of life as a time to be feared, not revered.

Not only do these characterizations reinforce cultural stereotypes of the aged as infirmed but they also equate old age with a "second childhood." Infantilization of older adults is a manifestation of ageism that takes many forms-- calling an older person "honey," "dear," or "sweetie;" or referring to an older person by first name (without checking first to see if that is okay) are just two examples. Calling older people "cute" or "adorable" are also forms of ageism. Health care workers seem especially prone to infantilization, perhaps because they see older adults in situations where their physical depe

ndence implies regression to the dependence of the child.

Referring to older adults in these infantilizing terms is not only demeaning, but it can actually impair their cognitive performance. The Communication Predicament Model of aging states that infantilization reinforces the internal stereotypes of older people and can actually cause cognitive declines in situations where their memory or intellectual skills are being evaluated. Treating older adults as dependent can also cause them to become dependent. In a study published many years ago, my colleague David Sperbeck and I conducted a behavioral analysis of the self-care behaviors of institutionalized older adults. When staff took over their daily activities for them (shaving, dressing, bathing), the residents became less able to perform those functions themselves. They literally became the children the workers imagined them to be. When we trained staff to reinforce independence, the frequency of self-care behaviors dramatically increased.

So, Shakespeare got it wrong. But we don't have to. Armed with knowledge about the negative effects of ageism, we can treat our elders with respect and expect the best out of them, not the least. If for no other reason than our own self-protection, for all of us will become old if we're lucky, it's time to re-vision aging. And, as Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice, we can instead proclaim, "With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come."

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2009




Aries, P. (1974). Western attitudes toward death: From the Middle Ages to the present. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.

Butler, R. N. (1969). Age-ism: Another form of bigotry. The Gerontologist, 9, 243-246.

Masset, C. (June, 2002). What length of life did our forbears have? Population & Societies, 380.

Pyszczynski, T.; Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (1999). A dual process model of defense against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts: An extension of terror management theory. Psychology Review, 106, 835–845.

Ryan, E.B., Hummert, M.L. & Boich, L.H. (1995). Commjunication predicaments of aging: Patronizing behavior toward older adults. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 14,  144-166.

Sperbeck, D. S., & Whitbourne, S. K.  (1981).  Dependency in the institutional setting:  A behavioral training program for geriatric staff.  The Gerontologist, 21, 268-275. 

The Power of Stories