American Professor of Medical Anthropology at Institute for Health & Aging, Author
People do not define themselves directly through a chronology of life experiences. Rather, they define themselves through the expression of selected life experiences... people crystallize certain experiences into themes… considered building blocks of identity. Identity in old age – the ageless self – is founded on the present significance of past experience, the current rendering of meaningful symbols and events of a life.
An individual does not comprehend his or her self as a linear sequence – a succession of roles or a trajectory of “socialize” beings, learning and then acting out (or deviating from) a set of socially appropriate rules of behavior. Moreover, identity in old age is not merely the sum of the parts, whether roles, achievements, losses, or social norms. Instead, people dynamically integrate a wide range of experience – unique situations, structural forces, values, cultural pathways, knowledge of an entire life span – to construct a current and viable identity.
Personal identity as a phenomenon can be studied only in the present; the researcher cannot know about those themes which have been altered or abandoned, because the integration of experience takes place only through presently existing frameworks of understanding.
The construction of a coherent, unified sense of self is an ongoing process. We have seen how old people express an identity through themes which are rooted in personal experience, particular structural factors, and a constellation of value orientations. Themes integrate these three sources of meaning as they structure the account of a life, express what is salient to the individual, and define a continuous and creative self.
The dominant values of activity and productivity, the overwhelming importance of close family ties as well as friendships, the reliance on good health, and now, in old age, the concern with the depletion of one’s life savings and the fear of senility and dependence are commonly held attitudes…
The focus on themes in the lives of the elderly allows us to conceive of aging as continual creation of the self through the ongoing interpretation of past experience, structural factors, values, and current context…. Identity is built around themes, without regard to time, as past experiences are symbolically connected with one another to have meaning for a particular individual.