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Keywords:

  • ageing;
  • ageism;
  • healthy ageing;
  • normal;
  • norms;
  • successful ageing

O’ROURKE HM and CECI C. Nursing Inquiry 2013; 20: 51–59 Reexamining the boundaries of the ‘normal’ in ageing

Textbooks and policy documents tend to present the boundary between normal and abnormal ageing as natural and clearly demarcated. In this study, we trouble the notion of natural and clearly demarcated boundaries between normal and abnormal ageing by considering how these boundaries have been established and maintained in present-day Western contexts. We draw on both Canguilhem’s discussion of the normal and the abnormal and Foucault’s emphasis on the role of the sociohistorical context in the social practice of boundary generation. In doing so, we critically examine common conceptualizations of normal and abnormal ageing, including those found in antiageing science, successful ageing and healthy ageing policy discourses and in health education textbooks. We argue that the growing emphasis on ‘healthy’ ageing both reflects and shapes the societal views of those individuals who are not able to remain disease-free and represents a kind of mystification of ageing where ageing without functional or cognitive decline is instituted as the norm. Awareness of the role that the social context plays in shaping definitions of normal and abnormal ageing encourages critical consideration of the effects that Western conceptualizations of normal ageing may have for older adults who continue to age with cognitive or functional decline.