The age of aging

Andrew Sneddon explores the concept of old age and offers some intriguing perspectives on Canada’s aging demographic.

by Sean Rushton

There is no getting around the fact that from the moment we are born, we age.Aging is simply a fundamental biological journey that we all have to take, one that begins with birth and ends with death.

Yet aging is also a concept, and a highly ambiguous one at that, reflecting a multiplicity of cultural and societal conventions that are themselves rapidly evolving as the number and proportion of older people around the world continues to grow.

As a moral philosopher who studies contemporary issues in ethics such as the nature and significance of autonomy—that is, of individuals exercising control over their own lives, professor Andrew Sneddon is questioning what this aging trend has in store for our future and how this profound demographic change will shape our views, understanding and experience of aging itself.

“One thing is for sure, the best perspective on the benefits and pitfalls of aging is going to come from those who have gone through it,” says Sneddon.“As the population ages, there is going to be a tremendous increase in the number of those elderly voices, as well as in the amount of information on what it is like to age and live life as an older person.”

Depending on a variety of factors, such as personal philosophy and cultural norms, aging has historically been seen either as a negative process that brings degeneration, frailty and helplessness into our lives or a positive process that adds value to our life’s journey by bestowing gifts such as moral wisdom, respect and psychological maturity.

No matter how we view it, Sneddon thinks it is reasonable to assume that the massive, aging baby-boom generation is going to redefine the reality of aging and push it to unprecedented limits.However, informed by his research on assisted suicide and personal autonomy, Sneddon remains skeptical about notions that we will reach some kind of equi¬librium between the undesirable aspects of aging and its benefits.

“I think we will probably find ourselves genuinely pulled into different directions as issues that concern our physical condition, such as illness, death and our control over these things, gain a higher profile both politically and in pop culture,” says Sneddon.

“One movement will concern itself with issues of freedom and autonomy and probably be rooted in the kind of debates I study about euthanasia and conditions for assisted suicide and how far our rights to control our bodies extend.”

On the flip side, Sneddon believes we will also see an increase in the business of ‘hanging on to youth’ as more people experience the effects of aging.

“These are very different concerns,” admits Sneddon, who insists that both these concerns will nonetheless be driven by the relative age of the population and the kinds of physical changes that come with that.

“It remains to be seen whether these changes will inspire us to value more control over our own lives, or lead us to hope that we can avoid aging altogether.” 

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