Theses Doctoral

Honor Thy Father and Mother: Defining and Solving the Problem of Old Age in the United States, 1945-1961

Mann, Tamara Beth

In the twentieth century, Americans got old. The average lifespan grew from forty-eight to seventy-eight years of age and new policy questions and ethical challenges accompanied this demographic transition. How should old age be defined? Who would care for the nation's elders? What should older Americans give back to their communities and what should they expect from their government? Where would the infirm elderly live? Where would they die? This project returns to the middle of the twentieth century when experts within universities, foundations, social welfare organizations, and the federal government took on these questions and sought lasting solutions to the mounting problem of old age. More specifically, Honor Thy Father and Mother investigates how "old age" came to be defined as a social problem worthy of federal attention in the 1950s and how that federal attention shaped a national discussion on the nature and needs of the elderly.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, the definition and problems of old age were in flux. Scientists, social workers, policy makers, doctors, and religious leaders challenged the viability of chronology as a medical and political marker of old age and questioned the wisdom of seeking longevity over a purposeful and dignified end. Their perspectives, while present in scientific, medical, and political discourse, did not translate into broad, well-funded federal programs. In their stead, the government threw its financial and administrative weight behind what I call the Medical Security Solution: initiatives such as bio-medical research and Medicare, which sought to cure the diseases of old age and relieve financial insecurity by covering the health care costs of social security recipients.

Honor Thy Father and Mother explores how the Medical Security Solution captured the attention of policy makers, activists for the aged, and senior citizens in the middle of the twentieth century and what ideas were lost in this process. This project offers a needed history of the assumptions that continue to frame, and limit, public discussions on care for the elderly.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Blackmar, Elizabeth S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 6, 2014