Anthropologist challenges assumptions of aging in the U.S.

Anthropology professor Jay Sokolovsky says Tampa Bay has been innovative when it comes to addressing aging. In the ’70s, it “was the first area in the United States to develop really innovative home care programs,” he says.
Anthropology professor Jay Sokolovsky says Tampa Bay has been innovative when it comes to addressing aging. In the ’70s, it “was the first area in the United States to develop really innovative home care programs,” he says.
Published Nov. 27, 2013

Back in the early 1970s when University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Jay Sokolovsky began his career as an anthropologist, nobody bothered with elderly Americans.

Anthropology was mostly a study of "international populations and often small tribal populations in Africa, the Amazon or in Arctic areas where they still have hunters and foragers," Sokolovsky explained.

But he got involved in a field project in New York City that worked with newly released mental patients living in residential hotels in Midtown Manhattan. Many of them were elderly, yet they were managing to survive with very little support and very little money.

Sokolovsky was intrigued. Colleagues told him that wasn't really anthropology. He didn't listen and over the next several decades he helped define the study of aging.

Last month, Sokolovsky, 66, received the 2013 Robert B. Textor and Family Prize for Excellence in Anticipatory Anthropology. The award recognizes contributions in anthropology that encourage informed policy choices.

Do you look back and say, "I told you so"?

It's not so much a matter of "I told you so" as I'm glad the discipline finally sees the merit of this kind of research. When I think about the work myself and a core of other people were doing, I see us creating a safe space — intellectual space — for other young anthropologists to work in this area, which they have now in great numbers.

It seems to me that we have a certain approach to aging and it's predominantly trying to delay the process and looking backward to try and recapture youth rather than dealing with aging as it is. Have the studies you have done given you any indication of what effect that has on the experience of aging here?

When you have cultures like our own that put an emphasis on youth, one response of people as they get old is to try to mimic those who are viewed as old. One of the interesting things that has happened, especially in the last 10 years, is efforts by the elderly themselves to say that there's more to being mature than just looking older than your adult kids or the teenagers in your neighborhood. And one of the things going on in the United States and globally in other postindustrial societies like Japan and England and Denmark is a really dramatic redefinition of what late-life human maturity looks like … even in the language that we use. If you travel around the Tampa Bay area you can see places that used to be labeled as senior environments or senior apartments now as "active living" apartments. This is basically a cultural response to the negativity about being at the wrong end of the youth-age continuum. And this is, to me, a very, very dramatic change from when I was a younger adult.

What myths do we have about aging in this country that, if we knew the truth, would change our perspective?

I think a basic myth is that we haven't really done anything innovative or that we haven't really done anything important to address the issue. And the real irony to me is — now living in Tampa Bay for almost 20 years — is that back in the 1970s Tampa Bay was the first area in the United States to develop really innovative home care programs. They developed America's first real hospice program. And, interestingly enough, you had people from Japan, people from Denmark and England and Germany coming to Tampa Bay marveling at the community-based programs that were developing in Tampa Bay and then taking back those ideas, adapting it to their national context and making it national policy.

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But the irony is we haven't implemented them as national policy.


When you talk to a lay audience, is there one thing that you say to them about how America handles its aging population that you think could create some sort of sea change in quality of life at the end of life?

One of the things that has so dramatically changed is the extension of relatively healthy late life in populations like the United States. For example, if you look at 50-year-olds in 1950, for women especially, a little under 10 percent could be expected to live to age 90. If you fast-forward to 50-year-olds in your audience at the turn of this century … 26 percent of those women can now expect to live to 90. And they will be living to 90 in a much more healthy, active and often socially involved context than … our parents and even grandparents. So I think that this is to me an incredibly exciting time period if you don't get overwhelmed by the fact that people can eventually get chronic illnesses and disability and everyone dies at some point or another, but it's what you do before that stage that really counts.

I'm 61 years old. I jogged 2 miles this morning. When my grandfather was 61 years old, he was nine years away from his death.

And he wouldn't have even thought probably of jogging down the street. It would have been something that would have marked him, probably, as an insane person.

Craig Kopp is the host of "All Things Considered" on WUSF-FM 89.7.