The aim of this paper is to examine meanings of “age” in Swedish psychiatric institutions from
1850 to 1970. The paper focuses on psychiatry’s perspectives on individuals of advanced age and
on the way that they were understood in terms of age. The majority of aged patients were described
as irresponsible, unable to provide for themselves, and more or less unaware of the consequences
of their actions. Such patients were regarded as child-like. The childish person’s development had
stopped prematurely, and any improving, i.e. through developmental therapies, were scarcely to be
had. For old people, this child-like stage in life might be reached sooner, or later. No matter: all that
remained was a more-or-less steep downhill course marked by confinement in bed, lack of activities,
and waiting for the inevitable.
My choice of psychiatry as object of investigation is motivated by its place at the very centre of
modern society. In psychiatry we find explicit norms of how human beings are meant to behave,
how they are supposed to think, and to what moral standards they should conform. This paper
analyses and shows the slow change and continuity in the practices of psychiatric care and its everyday
perspectives on age.