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10 Apr 2012
SOC246 4/4/2012 7:24:00 AM
Sociology of Aging
Class Notes
Fall 2011, Class 12
I. Introduction
The reading today (Endings by Michael Kearl) gives an account of two approaches to death and dying
that are prevalent in modern times:
01. One that is subjective, humanistic, and philosophical --what is the meaning of life and
02. Another that is scientific and seeks an objective description of life and death
Talk: What is successful aging?
“Aging is a sexually transmitted disease from which there is no cure. Whenever disaster strikes people
often claim that lives were saved by quick thinking. But this is not so, lives are never saved, only
Contrast that with:
Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should buran and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against
the dying of the light
Dylan Thomas
These two quotes show different perspectives - shows that we can express death as blunt biological
reality or we can try to find a deeper meaning of what death actually means
II. Modernity and death
Death has changed from our pre-modern times to modern times
Religions such as ancient Judaism; Hebrew idea of eternity of darkness Shio (sp?) below earth there
was this dark place called Shio
Poetry or scriptures just as a cloud dissipates and vanishes, those that go down in Shio do not come
Sense of nothingness a lot of poetry and confusion and artistic effort that was spent on thinking about
what Shio was
Rabbis disagreed over what Shio was like disagreed whether people who went to Shop were
resurrected and came back and were poor vs others who said there was no such thing
Christian era medieval literature - Dante’s inferno - more elaborate view of what death entails in his
view, death is a passage to this other world journey of Virgil leading Dante through 9 circles of hell
Elaborate conception of the afterlife. What happens after people die?
Muslim idea of paradise, of relaxation, going to a place of beauty
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All of these religions, there is an understanding of death that was based around the idea of religion;
somehow death signified a mystical, magical passage of an immaterial soul leaving an immaterial body
and going into some sort of other form of existence
Mystical passage way going from physical to nonphysical ideas that were the forefront of the religious
worldview that permeated western life
In this pre-modern era, death was all around people - many people were exposed to death this idea of
afterlife was a real reality that people confronted on a daily basis
Painting - passageway of life - men and women progressing from young to old - focal point of this art
was eventual judgment
Passageway from death bed to more existence or a sense of damnation and punishment in afterlife
What’s changed in modern life?
According to the eminent British sociologist Anthony Giddens, the hallmark of modernity is “its
purchasing of ontological security through institutions and routines that protect us from direct contact
with madness, criminality, sexuality, nature, and death.”
Modernity represents “the exclusion of
social life from fundamental existential issues which raise moral dilemmas for human beings.”
He doesn't say that criminality, madness and sexuality etc don't exist out there; he says that institutions
have created a barricade between us and the experience of these types of issues that cause us
existential struggles
e.g: Modernity has separated us from nature one of modern guiding principles of architecture is the
issue of building tall buildings that are sealed off from the outside world sealed windows, thick
concrete and climate controlled environment
We have a sterile environment where we control all aspects a sense of control over environment
We neutralize the effects of nature
Those of us that eat meat, we don’t have to confront reality that they’re live creatures in past days
everyone had to kill them with their own hands
Modernity has given us the industrialized slaughterhouse and it’s conveniently out of the view of us
We don’t have to go through the steps of killing it ourselves – we get it packaged up nicely in a grocery
store without feathers
Doesn’t just apply to animals but our species too
100 years ago, a lot more people would've seen someone die now we don’t experience that a lot
because now we've changed the location of where people pass away it happens behind close doors
Shift in location of death
o 49% in hospital
o 31% LTC (long term care facility)
o 20% at home
Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pg. 156
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Very different than how life used to be 100 years ago- also, 1/3 of all deaths in 1920s in North America
were children
One reason why we have this separation and institutionalization of death is because so much more
death is for older people with chronic illnesses live out the last days of their lives in institutions
The reality of having seeing someone die was more common especially when 1/3 of deaths were
children like smallpox, etc
Now in Canada, 2/3 of deaths are cancer or cardiovascular disease
Location of death has been removed far away from our view
Another thing that modernity has changed shift in the way we understand death from something
mystical to a much more rationalistic scientific view of what death is
Emphasis on the medical and scientific understanding of death
Modern life represents a disenchantment of the world
An example: 1950s, after world war II, a lot of innovations around the world
Before 1950s, people assumed death was easy to identity two vital signs breathing and a pulse
1950s innovation iron lung a mechanical respirator device that can sustain breath and the flow of
oxygen in the absence of a beating heart
Technology in the mid 20th century allowed a distinction between cardiopulmonary function and brain
Unique experience where we can separate heartbeat from the flow of oxygen have respiration without
having heart beat
Newfound understanding of what death is
Defibulators came out 1960s to jump-start a heart how do we understand death when we can
separate respiration from heart beat
Advances in brain science in post WW2
1960s 1968, the Harvard medical school came up with criteria of death that revised the two vital signs
came up with brain standard
- Increasingly precise medical definitions
Medical and scientific aspects over mystical or magical notions
o With better understanding of neuroscience, definitions of death came to
emphasize brain functioning: e.g., “human death is the irreversible cessation of
functioning of the entire brain”
o Harvard Medical School criteria for death
(1) No response
(2) No breathing or moving
(3) No reflexes
(4) No sign of brain activity on two EEGs taken 24 hours apart
Now we have an increased understanding of brain’s role in sustaining life
Higher brain Cerebrum 4 lobes in top part of brain advanced processing like sustain human
consciousness language, memory, advanced emotions
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