Ageing & Society review of ‘Aging & Time’

Time and ageing are at the heart of gerontology. Yet we have only a vague idea of what time is. We only know that it passes. All the contributors to this volume agree that time is meaningless. Does that mean that ageing is also empty? Quite to the contrary, the intent of this book is to discover the meaning of ageing by demonstrating that there is more to time than the flat index of chronology. Most of the authors are European scholars from philosophy, psychology, physics and physiology. They ask important questions which are rarely explored in gerontology. Chronology is a seductive way to organise data simply because it is parsimonious, elegant, easy to use, and has the illusion of being beyond culture, but chronological age is as cultural as it can be. After all it took some 18,000 years to invent, beginning with the Magdalenian calendar sticks of Palaeolithic Europe to the Gregorian reform of 1582. It is also a multicultural invention that conjures a cultural calendar to subdue the irregularities of nature. The distinctive contribution of this volume is that it asks us to look at time differently. Because ageing is concerned with what happens in time, we are impressed with not only the multi-dimensional nature of time, but also with its complexity.

The book has ten chapters. The first and the last by the editors effectively integrate the themes of the book. Jan Baars, in the second chapter, argues for a triple temporality of time to do justice to the complexity of human ageing. This involves chronological measurements, personal experience and narratives of ageing as living in time. In Chapter 3, Elke van der Meer presents an overview of cognitive and brain-based research on psychological time. This persuades that temporal experiences are cognitively mediated and are hard-wired in the brain. Time is subjectively experienced as the brain integrates the past, present and future. In the following chapter, Freya Dittman-Kohli presents research employing both qualitative and quantitative methods on temporal perspectives of self. Around midlife the temporal self changes, becoming subjectively aware of a limited future. K. Warner Schaie methodologically resolves the dependencies in the age-period-cohort confounds by avoiding calendar time. Instead he sees event- time as anchoring the research design in a specific event such as a transition. Thus one has the option of defining other relevant variables as well as the option of using chronological age. Through the next four chapters we learn about a confrontation between Jos Uffink and Eugene Yates. Uffink contributes an overview of time as constructed in several fields of physics with little enthusiasm for their application in gerontology. Yates responds by offering a theory of homeodynamics’, which argues that biological systems are ultimately chemical and physical. In the concluding chapter, Henk Visser explores the challenges and possibilities for inter-disciplinary research on ageing and the promises of multilevel and inter-level theories of ageing.

Gerontological theory is undoubtedly strengthened by the scholarship in this volume. As it stands, it offers a relatively complete treatment of the dimensions of time and ageing, ranging through the physical, chemical, biological and psychological. Although the primary focus is on subjective time, each author is aware of social and cultural dimensions. Dittman-Kohli especially sees her subjects use cultural knowledge and expectations in revealing their temporal understandings of the self. However, there is no systematic treatment of how societies use time to define lives and ageing or how cultures interpret time and give it meaning. Likewise, a chapter on time and language would strengthen the argument since language mediates not only how we communicate about time, but the tense structure preconditions temporal cognition. English has descended from an Indo- European language and has three tenses : past, present and future. Consequently, we see time in three phases. With a three-second present (van der Meer’s chapter), why have a present tense at all? Speakers of two tense languages as spoken in Aboriginal Australia, Southeast Asia and some native North Americans are predisposed to see time in two phases. The future is anticipated as a becoming, while the past is a going or a receding to be stored in the memory. These languages may quite adequately reflect how humans process temporality.

This book is not an easy read because it does things that few gerontology books accomplish — it makes you think about the foundations of the enterprise. The authors ask very important epistemological and methodological questions that we sometimes wish would just go away but do not. Aging and Time is a must-read for researchers interested in gerontological theory construction.

— Christine L. Fry (Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, USA)

Ageing & Society, published by Cambridge University Press – Volume 28 Issue 4 – May 2008