Children in Old Bodies


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.


ageing, mental hospitals, institutions, everyday practices, psychiatry, age, history

How to Cite

Jönsson, L., (2008) “Children in Old Bodies”, Ethnologia Europaea 38(2), 31-44. doi:

Publisher Notes

  • This article was previously published by Museum Tusculanum Press.


Download PDF



Lars-Eric Jönsson (University of Lund)



Publication details



All rights reserved


Peer Review

This article has been peer reviewed.

File Checksums (MD5)

  • PDF: 720cb06a8166e02f67580f91c31ba868