The meaning of “old age” can vary tremendously across time and across cultures, profoundly influencing how we order our lives. It can even vary within communities and families. Anthropologist Usha Menon has conducted long-term ethnographic research on the role of aging in women’s lives in Bhubaneswar, a city famous for its Hindu temples, in the Indian state of Orissa. A recent article of Menon’s in the Journal of Cross Cultural Gerontology examines some different understandings of older adulthood in the lives of women in Bhubaneswar.
Drawing on the researcher’s own ethnographic data (consisting of interviews and participation in the daily lives of families in Bhubaneswar), Menon identifies two main local definitions of “old age.” One of these was associated with the local Hindu tradition, and defined old age as time of rest, withdrawal, and freedom from life’s responsibilities. The other definition was more negative, tied to local understandings of physical and mental aging, and presented older age as a “second childhood” of dependency on others. The author illustrates these with two case studies of older women, one who saw her family as treating her with care and respect, and the other who felt marginalized and improperly cared for.
The author draws on her ethnographic research to provide some important context. According to her interviews and observations, age categories were less defined by chronological numbers and more about role relationships within the family. Households of extended three-generational families were seen as the ideal, where ten to fifteen children, parents, and grandparents. According to the author’s research, within this family ideal, the age when women’s lives were most (meaningful) is what the author refers to as “mature adulthood,” a life stage that roughly matches the American idea of middle age or middle adulthood. At this life stage, a woman would not yet be the oldest woman in the household (most typically, this would be her mother-in-law), but would have either daughters-in-law or younger sisters-in-law living in her household. Women of this life stage were at their most powerful and central to the workings of the family, and most deeply involved in the religious and social well-being of the family.
Life after this “mature adulthood” stage could vary tremendously, as illustrated by the article’s two case studies. One case was of a 72-year-old woman, who was widowed at a relatively young age and, while working hard to maintain her household, gradually handed off most of her responsibilities to her daughters-in-law. Her case is a positive example of relative “withdrawal,” in which she was no longer responsible for providing her family, but pursued religious activities that earned respect for herself and her family. Her behavior matched her family’s cultural norms of older adulthood as a period of rest and acceptance of change. The subject of the other case, a 78-year-old widow estranged from most of her children, was seen as angry and impulsive by her family, who considered such behavior to be a negative example of older adulthood as a “second childhood.”
These cases are not representative of all of India or of all older women in Bhubaneswar, but illustrate the variability of definitions of aging, and show how these varied definitions are related to wider cultural values and social relations.