Aging without agency: theorizing the fourth age

Aging Ment Health. 2010 Mar;14(2):121-8. doi: 10.1080/13607860903228762.


This article looks at the "fourth age" as a manifestation of the fragmentation of "old age". We argue that the fourth age emerges from the institutionalization of the infirmities of old age set against the appearance of a third-age culture that negates past representations of old age. We outline the historical marginalization of old age from early modern society to the contemporary concentration of infirmity within long-term care which makes of old age an undesirable "social imaginary". As "old age" fades from the social world, we liken this to the impact of a "black hole" distorting the gravitational field surrounding it, unobservable except for its traces. Within this perspective, the fourth age can be understood by examining not the experience itself but its impact on the discourses that surround and orientate themselves to it.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging* / physiology
  • Aging* / psychology
  • Culture
  • Health Status
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Long-Term Care
  • Nursing Homes
  • Quality of Life*
  • Social Change