A Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging

What Does It Mean to Grow Old?


  • A Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging: What Does It Mean to Grow Old?
  • edited by Thomas R. Cole, Ruth E. Ray, and Robert Kastenbaum
  • The Johns Hopkins University Press
  • May 2010
  • 384 pp
  • ISBN 9780801894336

This volume explores the moral, spiritual, and cultural terrain of aging through interdisciplinary scholarship and clinically based research.

Aging has long been of interest to scholars and practitioners in a vast array of academic fields and professions. Thomas R. Cole, Ruth E. Ray, and Robert Kastenbaum have brought together leaders from a variety of academic realms to explore how aging is depicted in the modern era and the effect of these portrayals on individuals and society.

The first section views aging and old age through the lenses of four disciplines: history, literature, religion, and philosophy. It probes the idea and effect of age in different places and times in history; discusses the concept as put forth in novels, memoirs, and literary studies and criticism; and raises important existential and spiritual questions about the meaning of growing old.

The chapters in the second section demonstrate how interdisciplinary humanities can be applied to the study of aging through such thoughtful queries as: How do creativity and health relate in old age? What does “old” mean in an era of high-tech medicine, and what is our moral obligation to care for the elderly? Why are friendships of special importance to older people?

Section three uses semiotics, cultural analysis, and ideological critiques to identify key social issues related to aging, including the concept of “home,” ageism and discrimination, and our understanding of aging in the era of globalization. The text closes with Robert Kastenbaum’s poignant reflection on his own considerations of meaning and mortality as he journeyed back to health following heart surgery.

This comprehensive guide works at the nexus of the humanities and health professions to provide the intellectual rationale, history, and a substantive overview of humanistic gerontology as it has emerged in the United States and Europe.

Thomas R. Cole is the McGovern Chair in Medical Humanities and director of the John P. McGovern, M.D., Center for Health, Humanities, and the Human Spirit at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. Ruth E. Ray is a professor of English at Wayne State University. Robert Kastenbaum is an emeritus professor of gerontology at Arizona State University. Cole, Ray, and Kastenbaum edited the Handbook of the Humanities and Aging, second edition.

Table of Contents


Thomas R. Cole and Ruth Ray,
The Humanistic Study of Aging Past and Present
Why Gerontology Still Needs Interpretive Inquiry

Part One: Disciplinary Perspectives

    1. Pat Thane, The History of Aging and Old Age in ‘Western’ Cultures
    2. Anne Wyatt-Brown, A Literary Explosion: Novels and Memoirs about Age
    3. Barbara Frey Waxman, Literature and Literary Critics Team Up against Ageism: Reading M.F.K. Fisher’s ‘Sister Age’ and Maya Angelou’s ‘Living Well, Living Good
    4. Jan Baars, Philosophy and Aging
    5. Stephen Sapp, Aging in World Religions: An Overview

Part Two: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

    1. Brian deVries, The Value and Meaning of Friendship in Late Life
    2. Susan McFadden and Janet Ramsey, Imagining the numinous: Relationality, the arts, and religion in later life
    3. Gene Cohen, Creativity and Health in Late Life
    4. Ron Manheimer, The Five People You Meet in Retirement: Philosophical Explorations of the Third Age
    5. Sharon Kaufman, The Age of Reflexive Longevity: How the clinic and changing expectations of the life course are re-shaping old age
    6. Martha Holstein, Bioethics and Aging

Part Three: Age Studies in the Public Sphere

  1. Stephen Katz and Kevin McHugh, Age, Meaning, and Place: Cultural Narratives and Retirement Communities
  2. Rudiger Kunow, Old Age and Globalization
  3. Margaret Gullette, Ageism and Social Change: The New Regimes of Decline

Part Four: Personal Perspectives

  1. Robert Kastenbaum, Treadmill to the Far Side: An Informal Guide To Coming of Age with Mortality

Selected and Annotated Filmography

Robert Yahnke, The Experience of Aging in Feature-length Films