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University of California Press
Growing Old in Silence / Edition 1

Growing Old in Silence / Edition 1

by Gay BeckerGay Becker


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"This sensitive and well-written anthropological study of the aged deaf describes a vital subculture of disabled persons . . Thought provoking implications are drawn from the deaf aged for the more general experience of being old in America."
Science Books and Films
"A book that takes us into a community distinguished by a disability that, from an outsider's view is full of liabilities. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Instead, we find assets and strengths enabling people who were born deaf or who lost their hearing in early childhood to cope with their advancing age ... . a sensitive, well-written portrait of the people and the community studied. It is a must for researchers who study the old and for those who work with the disabled."
Medical Anthropology Newsletter
"Becker reveals how the adaptation to deafness early in life provides the basis for social interaction, coping mechanisms, and strong group and community bonds. Early isolation, special schooling, separation from family, and communication limited to deaf peers create long-lasting adult groups that provide exceptionaJ social support for old age . . . Becker calls attention to values and circumstances that stress and build an enduring group life. Social interdependence seems to ease the process of aging among the deaf, whereas the mainstream stress on personal autonomy and individualism may be less efficacious for the aging process." 
Contemporary Sociology
"The straightforward text, filled with brief histories and quotations from interviews, relates how the homogeneity and intimacy of the group develop from childhood in response to their isolation from the hearing world. It is this unity, Becker stresses, that aids the deaf elderly to better accept aging and its accompanying trials." 
"Social science observation is combined with case history material in a most readable format. It is fascinating."
Sociology and Social Research

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520050587
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/15/1983
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Gay Becker is Professor in Residence, Medical Anthropology and Social and Behavioral Sciences, UCSF.

Read an Excerpt

Growing Old in Silence

By Gaylene Becker

University of California Press

Copyright © 1983 Gaylene Becker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-05058-4

Chapter One

Entering the Community

Singer raised his hands timidly and began to speak. His strong, skilled fingers shaped the signs with loving precision. He spoke of the cold and of the long months alone. He mentioned old memories, the cat that had died, the store, the place where he lived. At each pause Antonapoulos nodded graciously.... Eagerly Singer leaned closer.... CARSON McCULLERS, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940:187-188)

I first saw Stella Jackson at a special workshop for older deaf people. She immediately caught my eye as she made her way through a crowded room, pausing to greet each person enthusiastically. An attractive seventy-year-old woman, Mrs. Jackson was wearing a checked shirtwaist dress with a big bow tie. She was small and slender, with short gray hair, curled in a casual style. She radiated vitality and warmth; people flocked around her, hugging her and exchanging small talk with her. As I watched Mrs. Jackson and her friends I saw none of the symptoms of self-hatred, denial, and depression so commonly described in the gerontological literature.

Many hearing people in the general population are vigorous and well-adapted in old age. Perhaps the deaf are not more well-adjusted than their hearing contemporaries. But most hearing people have not been excluded from major American institutions, such as public schools, over the life-span, as have the deaf. It seemed logical to me that lifelong exclusion would have a negative influence on adjustment to life, and it came as a surprise when I observed the high degree of social intactness among these aging deaf people.

When I introduced myself to Mrs. Jackson she was very friendly. She made every effort to communicate with me, slowing down the speed of her signs and finger-spelling, and articulating carefully. She was interested in learning about me as a student, and she established me in relation to her own social world by asking me about my sign language teachers and about mutual acquaintances. She was open to talking about herself too, and over the course of the following year she told me much about her life.

Mrs. Jackson's adjustment to old age as a deaf person is exemplary. In fact, Mrs. Jackson's warm social personality struck me from the beginning of our acquaintance. Yet her life had not been a happy and painless one. As I talked with her I was struck repeatedly by the ways in which she had learned to deal with her deafness.

Mrs. Jackson slowly and painfully learned to cope with her deafness, beginning in her earliest years. "Being deaf has been hard," she says. Her mother never learned sign language and thus could not communicate with her except through gestures and writing. This was particularly difficult for her in a family that, as she says, "always put a lot of stock in family togetherness... because I'm deaf I have always been an outsider."

It was as an outsider that she left home when she was five years old to attend a state school for the deaf. There she discovered a new world. For the first time she learned the signs for words. She could communicate not only with the teacher but with other children as well. Predictably, Mrs. Jackson loved school and hated to go home in the summertime, where silence once again dosed in around her.

For over twelve years Mrs. Jackson stayed in the state school. The environment, which had initially seemed so exciting, grew restricting. Curious about the outside world, she struck out on her own when she was seventeen, eager to experience independence.

Lacking job skills, Mrs. Jackson had a hard time finding work. When she finally did get a job in a factory, she was fortunate to find another deaf woman, Mabel Griggs, working there. Mabel's presence made the grueling work of the assembly line bearable. They became close friends, a relationship that has continued to the present.

"It was an exciting time of life," says Mrs. Jackson, "making my own money, doing what I wanted." She and Mabel shared an apartment, and on the weekends they went to the deaf club, to picnics, and to sports events sponsored by different groups in the deaf community. Mrs. Jackson met her husband-to-be at one of these picnics some five years after leaving school. He had recently arrived from the Midwest. Like Mrs. Jackson, he had gone to a state school for the deaf. Six months later they were married.

At first, married life was enjoyable. They had plenty of friends and led a busy social life. Mrs. Jackson had to stop working when their first child was born, but they could not live on her husband's salary (he was a printer's apprentice), so she had to go back to work at the factory. "It seemed like overnight we started to fight about everything. We couldn't get along." But they continued to live together, Mrs. Jackson always hoping things would get better. "Being deaf, I didn't know the first thing about getting a divorce. I didn't see any way out."

Soon after their second child was born her husband was laid off, and the economic strain brought a sudden end to their married life. They split up, Mrs. Jackson taking her two hearing children home for her mother to take care of, and going back to the factory to earn money for their support. Her husband left the area in search of work, and her family eventually helped her obtain a divorce. "That was a bad time. When I was young, divorce was not common, and some of the people in the deaf community looked down on me. My kids didn't like it much either, but I think they understand better now that they're grown. My relationship with my son is better. Now he does occasional interpreting, [and] we have more to talk about."

One Saturday evening at the deaf club a visitor walked in, a deaf man from New York who was moving to San Francisco. He and Mrs. Jackson got along from the start. Fifteen years had passed since her divorce. Shortly after they met they were married. The tenor of Mrs. Jackson's life changed dramatically with her remarriage. For the first time since she left school money ceased to be a source of stress. Her second husband was a glazier with a comfortable income. "Oh, what a relief! I was finally able to leave that awful factory." Since that time she has enjoyed being a housewife.

Mr. Jackson has considerable prestige in the community. Mrs. Jackson, after many years as "a divorcee," enjoys the social standing she has acquired as a respectably married woman. The end of her drudgery and her heightened status in the community have enhanced her relationship with her husband. They do everything together except watch television. Television is really important to Mrs. Jackson because it is her link with the outside world. She watches all captioned TV programs, and as these programs have increased in number they have begun to conflict with her husband's sports viewing. Finally, he went out and bought her a TV of her own. She is very happy about it. "One of the hardest things about being deaf is not knowing what's going on in the world. I felt shut out for so long." According to her, her ideal day includes staying home and reading, knitting, and watching television. "Some deaf go to socials all the time, but twice a week is enough for me."

Mr. and Mrs. Jackson are active in the social life of their peer group. They no longer go to the deaf club, because they do not like to go out at night. Instead, they go to senior citizen groups and alumni meetings. They spend a lot of time visiting with friends, often meeting them at the various functions they attend. Mrs. Jackson now calls up her friends on her newly acquired TTY (a teletypewriter attached to a telephone) when she wants to see or talk to them. She contrasts the easy way of communicating with people with what she did in the past. Now she can make plans a day or so in advance, instead of waiting until the next deaf social to make all her plans at once. Even better, if she needs to cancel an appointment she can use her TTY instead of leaving the person waiting and wondering what happened to her. Mrs. Jackson says, "You know, being deaf sets you apart. Not being able to use a phone, having to carry around a pad and pencil to write with, and knowing people think you are different... it used to bother me a lot, and I guess it still does. I would rather be hearing."

As Mrs. Jackson reviews her life her deafness recurs again and again, as something that has interfered with the smooth flow of daily life. I shall discuss the themes that emerged in her account of her life history later.

Deafness, as I shall use the term, refers to a permanent hearing loss that occurred at birth or in early childhood and prevents an individual from communicating meaningfully through speech. Deafness hinders the development of language and communication skills and thus inhibits the deaf person's social growth and development. Throughout life the deaf individual must make enormous adjustments in order to function in a "hearing" world.

Growing Old Deaf Little is known of how people adapt to deafness over the course of a lifetime. Schlesinger and Meadow (1972:29), who have specialized in mental health issues surrounding deafness, state, "We simply do not know the effect that deafness has on the crisis of old age."

My major thesis in this study is that the ways in which an individual learns to cope early in life with a marginal social status provide him or her with an invaluable repertoire of skills and resources for dealing with the problems encountered in old age. Given the right conditions, disabled populations have the potential for such adaptive behavior, and adaptive strategies, once patterned within a group of such people, contribute in turn to cultural variation. This developmental process takes a lifetime and thus is most apparent from the vantage point of old age. What I have observed is the end of such a process among deaf people who are now old.

Much of the deaf experience is embedded in the fabric of American life. There are, however, significant experiential differences between deaf and hearing people who are the same age. These differences pervade individuals' lives, coloring them and invoking variations in the pattern of life. The key to these variations lies in the progression of adaptive behaviors in each individual's life history, layer building on layer as the individual matures and grows old.

The old individual is the sum of his or her life experience, and views ongoing events in the light of that past experience. This process shapes the individual's world view and influences his or her actions. By the time a person is old this process is further influenced by the cumulative effect of long-term adaptive strategies. For example, long before she became old, Mrs. Jackson's friends became a crucial part of the coping mechanisms she developed to deal with different living situations. In fact, peer support became an important part of her life when she was sent to school some seventy years earlier.

In order to understand how the old deaf person functions in daily life, we must examine these formative processes and their influence on the individual. Some of these experiences, such as education, differ radically from that of most Americans, while other experiences, such as marriage, seem no different. The similarities are as crucial as the differences to our understanding of the social patterns that have developed. It is the particular combination of these experiences that contributes to adaptation in old age. Most important, these aging deaf people have demonstrated the ability to transcend some of the differences that exist between them and the outside world and to make their way in American life, a factor that has great implications for their well-being in old age. In chapters two through five I pay considerable attention to the critical life experiences of childhood and young adulthood.

The functioning of deaf people in old age is directly related to their disability. Throughout their lives they have striven to adapt so that they, and their disability, will fit into society. The ways in which they have adjusted to the disability over the course of their lives happen to be particularly adaptive for old age. The behavior of individuals in old age is the final step in a lifelong process of adjustment to deafness and its social consequences. This adjustment begins early in life, at the time language acquisition begins, and continues over the life-span until death. Some of the themes that emerge in the portrait of Mrs. Jackson, such as the continual confrontations with one's disability, play central roles in the adaptive process. The pattern of adaptation to the disability has eased the later adjustment to old age, as will be seen in chapters six through ten.

As we trace the lives of deaf individuals through life histories we shall see how identity is formed and maintained, and how it operates to prepare deaf people for old age. Maintenance of identity among the deaf is reinforced by interaction with the world around them, a world that presumes all its inhabitants can hear.

While development is taking place on a personal level, change is occurring at a cultural level. The idiosyncratic movement of the individual through time interacts with the tide of culture. The interplay between the individual life history and the formation of the group meshes to create a unique sub-society. I have tried to depict this interaction throughout, picking out the various motifs that form pictures of aging deaf people in their cultural context.

Much of the deaf individual's response to disability in relation to identity, personal development, and life adjustment can be explained by social roles and relationships. Therefore, I emphasize the role of social interaction in various contexts throughout the book.

One of the major problems deaf persons face throughout life is the effect that their relationships with others have on their self-esteem. During the course of my fieldwork I saw a pattern in the interaction of the aged deaf recurring again and again. When individuals were in a group of deaf people they were talkative, confident, outgoing and relaxed. When they were interacting with people with normal hearing, whether alone or with only a few deaf people present, they became quiet and hesitant. Strained interaction such as this is not unique; in all societies where different linguistic groups live in close proximity, lack of a common language creates social boundaries (Ross, 1975). Strained interaction is especially frequent in interactions between hearing and deaf people.

Deafness is called an invisible handicap because it is noticeable only when a person attempts to communicate (Meadow, 1976). No visible indicators, such as the white cane of the blind person, give other people cues about what to expect in communication with a deaf person. Once the disability is known, the effect of it may be heightened (Davis, 1961).


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