18th May 2021

Book in Focus

Understanding the Discourse of Aging

A Multifaceted Perspective

Edited by Vincent Salvador and Agnese Sampietro

“To this class old age especially belongs, which all men wish to attain and yet reproach when attained; such is the inconsistency and perversity of Folly! They say that it stole upon them faster than they had expected.” (Cicero)[1]

More than 2000 years ago, Cicero explained one of the most striking contradictions of human life: everyone wants to reach old age, but once they get there, they wish they were younger. We want to live a long life, but we do not want to get old! This paradox manifests itself at multiple levels. From the societal point of view, increased life expectancy is often praised as an indication of welfare, but also as a source of problems, such as medical and financial assistance. Personally, we want to live longer, but we hide the signs of aging as soon as they are noticeable. The imperative is to stay young as much as possible. Aging is a societal taboo.

Exploring these contradictions was among the motives that pushed Professor Vicent Salvador and I (Dr Agnese Sampietro), to edit Understanding the Discourse of Aging: A Multifaceted Perspective. Vicent recently edited a book around another taboo topic, death, and led several research projects related to health discourse. He was thrilled to keep investigating discourses associated with the later stages of life and societal and personal taboos. Despite my different background (I have taught and carried out critical discourse analysis on various topics, such as political discourse and media discourse around technology), I am deeply interested in critical approaches to discourse and was eager to learn more about how old people and the aging process are not only talked about, but also hidden, and even denied.

The discourse of aging is not a new research topic. There are specialized journals, volumes, and even specific research groups and disciplines that are interested in it. The novelty of Understanding the Discourse of Aging is that, as its subtitle indicates, we adopted a multifaceted approach. Not only does the volume analyze the discourse of aging from multiple perspectives, but also we adopt a wider definition of discourse, encompassing multiple disciplines and multiple issues related to aging. Some authors have a background in linguistics (namely Vicent Salvador, Esperanza Morales, Abarrategui, Pascual, and Villas-Boas), while multiple chapters address the issue of aging from a literary perspective (Marta Miquel, Emma Domínguez, Ieva StonĨikaitÄ—, Núria Casado, Vicent Montalt, María Ángels Francés, Jordi Oviedo, and Adolf Piquer). Two authors (Antoni Maestre and Olga García, deal with old age in cinema), and a further chapter (by Martí Domínguez and Tatiana Pina) analyzes the image of the elderly in cartoons. Finally, the book also covers the topic from the point of view of health sciences (María Desamparados Bernat), sociology (Marcos Bote and Ignacio Clemente), and anthropology (María Cátedra).

The book is organized in four sections: the first (“Aging: An Interdisciplinary Overview”) addresses some general problems about this stage of life (including definitions, contradictions, stereotypes, and the proximity of death). The second part of the book adopts a gender perspective on the issue of aging, while section three (“Aging in literature across time and space”) analyzes literary representations of aging from varied cultural and temporary perspectives. The final section deals with representations of the elderly in the media and popular culture, and in relation to information and communication technologies.

The book addresses some of the most common stereotypes and contradictions related to aging[2]. An entire chapter (Chapter 16 by Martí Domínguez and Tatiana Pina’s) is devoted to stereotypes of aging and the elderly transmitted by humorous vignettes from 36 different countries. Despite the wide geographical range, the humorous representations of old people consistently portray physical decline, forgetfulness, nostalgia, poverty, and inactivity after retirement. In her chapter on contemporary English theatre (Chapter 12), Núria Casado-Gual observes that even two contemporary theatre plays (The Children and Escaped Alone) with opposing dramaturgy, end up reinforcing the prejudice of the “crisis of aging,” this is the (real or perceived) physical and social decline driven by growing old.

Another issue addressed in the book is age denial. In her analysis of the image of famous old people in the media, Esperanza Morales (Chapter 3) observes that people whose role revolves around their body, whom she calls “object persons,” are especially praised by the media for how they have physically survived or resisted the passage of time. Additionally, famous Spanish actor Paco Martínez Soria, studied by Olga García in Chapter 15, is consistently portrayed as younger (despite his inevitable aging) in his films by exaggerating his virility. Besides reinforcing masculinity and the values of patriarchy, this denial of age also symbolizes resistance to being replaced by younger generations.

Age denial is especially tangible for women. Gender roles persist even in the literary, cultural, and popular representations of people of age. Several chapters in the book adopt a gendered perspective. For example, Maria Angels Francés (Chapter 5) studies how two contemporary Catalan women writers, Montserrat Roig and Ana Penyas, have given voice in their works to elderly female characters. In doing so, they give them a place in the world and rescue them from the silence and isolation of the patriarchy. From a comparative diachronic perspective, Adolf Piquer (Chapter 6) analyzes ancient and modern literary adaptations of the legend of Phaedra, an aging woman experiencing desire for Hippolytus, a younger man. This brings us to a taboo related to aging that is also analyzed elsewhere in the book: sex in later life. Two chapters specifically deal with the discourse around online dating. Sociologists Marcos Bote and Juan Antonio Clemente (Chapter 13) consider it a useful way to build relationships in later life. By contrast, Ieva Stoncikaite’s analysis of Erica Jong’s “Fear of Dying” (Chapter 14) offers a more negative view, addressing the problem of sexual harassment.

Finally, the ultimate taboo related to aging is death. Quoting Rauterberg and Irandoust: “any culture and society neglecting this [death] can be considered incomplete and bound to become inhumane”[3]. As mortality is consistently denied in most contemporary societies, the proximity of the end of life is the most fundamental vulnerability. Contrary to modern Western customs, the vaqueiros (mountain shepherds) studied by anthropologist María Cátedra (Chapter 3) learn how to die, by being released from responsibility and workload, and being accompanied through illness and death by family members.

All in all, by studying the attitude of resistance that still permeates how aging and the elderly are perceived in society, this book contributes to understanding the incredible complexity of the phenomenon of aging looking at the past, present, and future.


[1] De Senectute by Cicero. Translated by Bill Thayer. Available at: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cicero/Cato_Maior_de_Senectute/text*.html

[2] Due to spatial limitations, this post does not summarize all the chapters of the book. In the book launch held on March 3rd 2021 at the Institute López Piñero (a recording of which is available at http://repositori.uji.es/xmlui/handle/10234/192458), Professor Barbara de Cock from the University of Louvain, Belgium, gives an excellent and insightful summary of all the chapters.

[3] Rauterberg & Irandoust (2015). Ageing and Death - Breaking a Taboo. Paper presented at the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Ageing Well and e-Health. https://doi.10.5220/0005473900750080.

Read Extract

Vicent Salvador is Full Professor of Catalan Philology at Jaume I University, Spain. He has conducted research primarily in the fields of Catalan literature, literary theory and discourse analysis, and has led several research projects funded by the Spanish Government. His autobiography as a linguist has been included in the book La linguística en España. 24 autobiografías [Linguistics in Spain: 24 Autobiographies] (2014).

Agnese Sampietro is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Jaume I University, Spain, with expertise in computer-mediated communication and multimodality. Her work draws on different academic traditions around language and communication, including discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, multimodal discourse analysis and cultural studies, in order to analyze the way language, writing, reading and communication are changing due to the use of digital devices.

Understanding the Discourse of Aging: A Multifaceted Perspective is available now in Hardback. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount.