Studies On Ageing

I am grateful to HelpAge for giving me this opportunity to reflect upon the scope and development of studies on ageing, as we move to the second decade of the 21st century; which marks a new phase of emphasis on ageing societies across the world due to demographic change in population age structures, with many countries witnessing a rapid increase in numbers of older people. In India, this decade is even more significant as it is ten years since the National Policy on Older Persons was formulated, which gave impetus to many initiatives on ageing issues. Now, is then, an opportunity to review the progress made in the country, besides many other aspects related to ageing, on research, growth of gerontology as a discipline, contribution of studies from various disciplinary perspectives to enhance our understanding of ageing and about lives and needs of older people. We need to critically assess what is available as part of studies on ageing; but, more significantly to suggest what aspects need greater attention in our studies so that we can contribute more meaningfully to the field of gerontology and geriatrics, which in turn should develop to address a number of crucial issues related to ageing and society.

Through this editorial I stress the need to develop “critical gerontology” which allows us to unify research on ageing within cross-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and multidisciplinary perspectives and by absorbing realities of our changing world in the globalisation era. As the discipline grows, we need to pay greater attention to its expansion as a science, to its development as a specialised discipline with professional status, with rigour in methodology and theoretical orientations. We need to frame appropriate questions and derive adequate analysis, which permits us to understand the social processes involved in shaping age and the life course. While we take in the contemporary reality, our conceptions must also provide vision for the future of old age in the country.

With the above grounding I reflect on studies on ageing and growth of gerontology in India by touching on only few pertinent aspects, leaving many other aspects to be dealt at another opportunity in the future, in the some of the forthcoming issues of this journal. This issue is the beginning of covering different disciplinary inputs to the growth of gerontology by putting together thoughts of experts on ageing from their specialisation; perspective. In this special issue we include three different area specific contributions, namely ‘Issues in Education and Research on Ageing’, ‘Ageing and Mental Health’, and ‘Geriatric Social Work’. There are many more dimensions which require attention as gerontology has developed around a multidisciplinary base covering the interrelated and complex process of human ageing.

Today, many of us in academics, research, activitism are interested in ageing issues from various perspectives, realise that in India as well as elsewhere, we are not fully prepared to meet the requirements of ageing societies. Despite the two World Assemblies on Ageing, one in 1982 and the other in 2002 and development of national policies on and for older people in many countries, we still need to face challenges in developing appropriate research and policy agenda nationally and internationally. Taking clue from one of the most noted contributors to the field of ageing, Matilda Riley, I strongly recommend for making gerontology relevant to the twenty first century, by basing our conceptual foundations on the formulation of the important elements in the multilayered relation of ageing and society.

In fact the idea to bring together this special issue with focus on ageing studies in India came to my mind when I recently read scholarly work of accomplished social theorists from Europe and North America, who edited and contributed to an extremely interesting and remarkable book ‘Aging, Globalisation and Inequality – The New Critical Gerontology’ as part of the Society and Ageing Series. This is a masterly volume which puts together thirteen articles besides an introduction by the four editors, namely, Jan Baars, Dale Dannefer, Chris Phillipson and Alan Walker. It provides a comprehensive insight of issues in gerontology, which affect the developed countries and takes the reader through the path of maturity which has evolved over the years in the field. Quite clearly, the book stakes out a new variant of critical gerontology, providing contemporariness and theoretical critique to the necessity for viewing age as a social construction bringing in macro-structural perspectives and linkages with ageing experience of individuals through their life course.

While reading the book, comparisons with India, were unavoidable. In our country, the field is still young and faces many inadequacies in building theory, leave alone bringing in critical theoretical evaluations. Yet, veteran and budding researchers have contributed significantly to studies on ageing and in a shorter span, compared to the western counterparts. While in Europe and North America gerontology has seen an explosive growth since the last half century and more, in India the discipline came in prominence only in the last two decades of the 20th century, in spite of its emergence as a branch of study since India gained independence around mid 20th century and establishment of the Indian Gerontological Association in the late 1960s by bringing together a group of experts from different disciplinary backgrounds. However, Kumar, Dey & Nagarker pointed out in early 1990, “Ageing in India is not an established field. Scattered experimental observations have been provided by a handful of Indian workers since last few years”. In one of the articles in 1993 Ramamurti and Jamuna also observe that systematised research on ageing is of recent origin. According to Bali (2001), most of the studies carried out by psychologists, social workers, anthropologists, demographers, sociologists and biologists have dealt with problems of the aged and the processes of ageing, with the research being influenced to a large extent by western theoretical perspectives, methodologies and paradigms. As Shankardass in 2004 in review of the study of ageing in India also commented that from the 1980s there has been a steady growth in publication of research studies on ageing issues, however their contribution to increments in scientific knowledge is limited. As she points out “the field of studies on ageing reflects many inter disciplinary amalgams but we still need to negotiate differences in individual scholar’s interests and concerns with data incommensurability, notwithstanding multiplying disciplinary traditions and loyalties”, which need to be urgently dealt with.

During the last three decades there have been numerous studies accumulating vast data from micro and macro perspectives; but, nonetheless development of theory and contribution to critical development of the field of studies on ageing in India has not made a mark worldwide, though we take a lead in the SAARC region and influence much of research and academic work in other South Asian countries. The technical complexity achieved by researchers in gerontology is recognised even though there are certain doubts about theoretical insights. Nevertheless, debates over theory and praxis have been part of development of the field also in developed countries, where gerontology has a long history, and yet, has only modest scientific sophistication (Achenbaum, 1995). It is important that research be properly designed, conducted and interpreted, so that it does not contribute to the validation of the myths and stereotypes of old age. This means, as mentioned by me in my earlier work also (2004) that, gerontology requires theories and data that explicates the interaction of different forces which affect all aspects of growing old. We need research data that is scientifically collected and driven by appropriately defined questions covering basic assumptions and larger theoretical issues. Our questions must be informed by critical understanding of the processes and not merely by assumptions which can create fallacies of the analysis, missing an opportunity of establishing gerontology as a professional discipline.

Various Indian scholars and experts from various parts of the country affiliated to different universities, research organisations, to a range of government and private institutions have contributed to research and theoretical expositions in gerontology. Most social scientists have kept their focus on studies of ageing as a social process or on studies that depict social conditions of life of older people. Such work together provides interesting insights into ageing, life course and social structures which orients us to focus on issues related to longevity, health, work, retirement, family life, intergenerational relationships, social care and diverse related concerns.

Many studies draw on ethnographic accounts of the old and theorise on social conceptions of ageing and old age. There is of course growing awareness about the gap between public images of ageing and personal perceptions of older people necessitating the requirement to recognize in research, the emphasis on documenting the needs of older people, as indicated by them. Use of ethnographic approaches and qualitative data can be made part of ‘critical gerontology’ as indicated by Lubinsky and Sarkar (1993) and in the works of Gubrium (1992, 1993) and in India too Shankardass and Kumar (1996 [a] & [b]) challenging much of the fields epistemological girding drew attention to thinking of gerontology ‘critically’ by bringing in humanistic elements in theory for discourses in gerontology. But, we need to bring in better assimilation of the diversity of experience and the contingency and uncertainty of meaning — an analysis and understanding of phenomena linked with social change as integral part of theory (Baars, et al, 2006) as is happening in new developments in gerontology in countries where ageing is a bigger concern, but will soon impact India too.

The above mentioned stance gives weight to methodologies which incorporate older persons’ voices and examine the social, cultural representations to grasp the gap between societal conceptions and experiences of older people. Work over the years also indicates a gradual shift in focus not only on individual representations of ageing but understanding derived from social, economic and demographic changes that impact on ageing societies. Certainly, we need to press on understanding heterogeneity among the ageing population and recognising not only cohort differences in ageing, but, also related to gender and marital status. We do need better understanding of ageing through cohort analysis as well as from insights derived by understanding the interplay of social forces, including demographic, economic, structural, historical and social changes.

By now we know that processes affecting ageing are very complex and we need different disciplinary perspectives to throw light on ageing features of societies. Of course, there is need for continuing greater inter disciplinary studies which cut across sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, social work, medicine, psychiatry, architecture and gender and development studies. Encouragingly, there is notable increase in state, regional, national and international networks that cut across disciplinary and professional boundaries which are promising developments in gerontology and probably an indication of being able to face the challenges in the field of ageing.

In recent times emphasis on ageing and social policy has gained momentum. This provides platform also for studying roles of older people in society and bringing attention to their contribution to economy, society and focus on opportunities and constraints from both welfare and development perspectives. There is emerging awareness on rights of older people and promotion of policies and programs to enhance the potential of older people in society. Clearly, studies on ageing have to develop major gerontological paradigms and provide insightful research for theoretical development. We have to continue to develop traditions that influence both theoretical and methodological questions and bring attention to the actual experience of ageing, not just at the individual level; but, through the complexity of social consciousness and action through the conjoin of the micro and the macro.

— Dr. Mala Kapur Shankardass*
* Sociologist, Gerontologist, Health & Development Social Scientist; Associate Professor, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi, South Campus.

HelpAge India Research & Development Journal
- January 2010


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