To begin an overview of biological ageing will be offered. Some ideas surrounding different ageing theories, such as genetic and cellular will be discussed, along with the difficulty of distinguishing ageing from illness. Despite this conundrum, some bodily processes have been considered. Whether these should all be defined as decline is debated. Retirement is then touched upon as this typically occurs in later life. A qualitative study of Australian women’s experiences of retirement is used to demonstrate the diversity in how people manage this time of life. This ultimately illustrates that loss and decline is not inevitable.
In contrast to this research, two early theories of ageing are initially discussed, Cummings & Henry’s (1961) ‘disengagement theory’ & Havighurst’s (1963) bio-psycho-social ‘activity theory’. Both ideas essentially paint a negative picture of a Western ageing population. They suggest it is adaptive for people withdraw from mainstream society and that trying to maintain a mid-life lifestyle is the ideal. The notion of gerotranscendence, a contraposition to both of these theories is then reviewed. This perspective takes a more positive approach and aims to explain some of the behaviours of the elderly as transcendent rather than decline. Following this the paper concludes with a summary of the positions, approaches and ideas put forward. Further thoughts are posed, along with considerations of how life circumstances, gender and ethnicity may affect ones life course. Finally this essay closes with the position that it is inevitable that the later years will be a time of loss, deterioration and decline, but that later life offers more than this alone.
How we age biologically is complex. This is reflected in the plethora of theories surrounding this phenomenon such as cellular, genetic and physiological functioning theories (e.g. Arking, 1991; Medvedev, 1981; Partridge, 1970). Ageing is often not the cause of death, other causes such as illnesses (e.g. cancer), starvation or an accident may occur even before senescent changes are displayed. We can see however, that ageing does have biological implications by comparing ageing organisms, with those who are essentially “immortal”, such as germ cells which can rejuvenate themselves (Medvedev, 1981). Unlike some germ cells, human cells can only copy themselves a finite number of times (Hayflick, 1997). This is a popular idea, but it is unlikely that cells are the only biological factor involved in senescence. Currently we do not fully understand this process and perhaps we never will. Even clinical trials have been unable to determine whether immune functions decline in later life (Arking, 1991). This is a circular argument; is it ageing that causes deterioration, leading to vulnerability to illness or the illness itself? Furthermore genetic variation and exposure to different environmental factors will also mean that changes will differ from person to person. Nevertheless it is apparent that some bodily changes do occur to us all in later life. This can be seen externally by greying of hair and facial wrinkles for example. Internally all organs experience a succession of changes related to ageing. This can lead to becoming slower and less accurate,