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This paper attempts a new look at an old problem. Throughout this century there have been many reports showing that certain characteristics of family structure are associated with the individual's performance in evaluative situations, be these IQ tests, tests of achievement, school and university examinations and even occupational success (for an excellent summary, see Anastasi, 1956). It is well known, for example, that children from large families tend not to do so well in such situations as children from small families, and that this phenomenon appears to be, in some degree, independent of socio-economic differences. This we can illustrate with our own data (Text-fig. 1) in which we see a steady decline in score on a nonverbal group test of intelligence as the size of the family increases. Less clear is whether other features of family composition, such as the spacing between siblings, the sex composition of the sibship and the ordinal position of the individual within the sibship, also affect achievement. (There is no lack of reports but, as we shall show, the evidence they provide is conflicting.)
While I was drafting this chapter, The Guardian published an interview with Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (Moss, 2010). When asked about the postnatal deaths of her three children she commented:
When you are very old, you accept what has happened. You cry over some things, but not a lot. It's too distant. It's as if part of you gets nearer to it yourself, and then you think the churchyard here is very handy …
It is not often that people describe themselves as ‘very old’, but when they do it is often, as here, in the course of claiming some kind of temporal distance along with acknowledging the proximity of the end.
The ebb and flow of debate over the definition of old age and the homogenising effect of any such categorisation have generated periodic interest in the idea that there is a category beyond ‘ordinary’ old age. This is rather different to proposals to divide the category of old people into ‘the young old’ and ‘the old old’ and, similarly, different to the more radical re-categorisation of the stages of life that launched the concept of the third age. To quote Mike Hepworth (2003, p 93):
If we live long enough there comes a time when we really are ‘in’ old age and there's no escape and biological embodiment claims us at the last.
What does he mean by the idea of ‘really being in old age’? In analysing documents for my 1982 study of the uses of the concept of old age, my attention was caught by some of the ways in which the word ‘very’ was used, and how being ‘very old’ was linked to ‘frailty’. For example, the Secretaries of State, in their Foreword to the White Paper Growing Older (Department of Health and Social Security, 1981), claimed that they had in mind the needs of ‘the growing numbers of elderly people – particularly the very old and frail’. Later the White Paper referred to the same group when expressing concern over the quality of life of ‘elderly people, especially the very old and frail’ (para 1.5).
In this penultimate chapter I want to discuss the relationship between gerontologists and older people. There is in this a classic example of ‘us and them’. As Margaret Simey commented a few years ago, when addressing the annual conference of the British Society of Gerontology:
“For us, ‘we’ are older people and gerontologists are ‘them’.”
To overcome this harsh divide, there have been moves to promote ‘participative research’ through projects in which older people are actively involved in ways other than just as research subjects. The RoAD project is a good example, and I have little doubt that the outcomes would have been very different had the project not involved older people from the outset. It was funded according to a planned schedule and specific aims and it had a budget to cover the expenses of all the various participants. The entire project was undertaken jointly with Help the Aged and many (but not all) of the older people who took part were members of the local forums that Help the Aged supported.
One consequence of such collaboration is that as researchers we may find ourselves engaged in tasks and situations that cannot be easily justified in terms of the agreed contract. Nevertheless, they provide many insights into the wider context of the issues being researched. In addition, we may find the tables being turned and questions being posed about our involvement and commitments. Here is one example drawn from a long-running involvement that I had in the 1970s and 1980s with Age Concern.
In 1974, when at Keele University, I undertook a project for Age Concern researching the attitudes and priorities of its many local groups. A year later I moved to University College Swansea and, shortly after arriving, members of Age Concern West Glamorgan reminded me that they had responded to the Keele enquiry. When they asked me if I would join their committee I was pleased to accept. In 1978 a bid to the Welsh Office for the funding of a Hospital Discharge Scheme was accepted. I saw the setting up of this scheme as an opportunity to develop a proposal for funded research into hospital discharge and community-based care.
In this chapter, I consider ways of researching age. I start by discussing well-established strategies, before developing the case for alternatives. There are two key issues to bear in mind: how we as researchers collect or generate data that might cast light on age, and how we secure the necessary resources and then the relevant opportunities to achieve this. In particular, a critical question is how access is gained to older people, and the extent to which access may be biased towards particular categories. There is a constant risk that we end up (a) tackling questions set by funding agencies, or other stakeholders, who may have their own particular interests in the results of the research, and (b) engaging with people who want to participate in research in order to unload their grievances or the benefits of their own experience of surviving into later life.
The aim of much gerontological research is to understand the lived experience of growing older and being old. An obvious way of pursuing this is to talk to people, but conveying any kind of lived experience is difficult since it involves skills in articulation and performance. Here is a first-hand account of one such attempt. My aim was to capture my first experience of fieldwork in a seminar presentation in 1986. This had entailed interviewing men about working in the steel industry and, in particular, their recent experience of redundancy. This started in the summer of 1984, 19 years after I had left university and become a researcher. As I have explained in Chapter One, I was ‘piggy-backing’ a larger study of the impact of the 1980 redundancy programme of the British Steel Corporation on the local Port Talbot economy. I had become somewhat embarrassed that it had taken me so long to undertake any fieldwork myself, and, although the project was funded for only 12 months, something like six had passed before I embarked on my first interview. At the time I denied that I was putting it off, but looking back I am now willing to admit that I was apprehensive and uncertain as to how to start.
In writing this book I have tried to focus on the concept of age and to examine critically how it is used in social research and gerontology. Is age real? Of course it is: it is clearly evident that our bodies age in fairly standard, predictable and visible ways. As Mike Hepworth has argued:
… sociologists do not deny that ageing is a process of biological change; rather they wish to draw attention to the social and personal implications of the ways in which the meanings of biological change as ‘decline’ are culturally constructed and interpreted through discourse. (2003, p 90)
And it is not just the assumption of decline that we might challenge. The reasoning that starts with the various physical signs of age and ends in the conceptualisation of ‘age’ is essentially the result of a history extending over many nations and centuries, a history that has engaged many disciplines and occupations as well as biologists. Out of much observation, listening, reading and thought about how individual lives change with time, age has emerged: it now occupies an undisputed position in popular conversation as something that is real, something we all have to live with. So my overall aim involves examining how this belief is sustained. In believing that age exists, are we simply facing up to the reality of our ageing bodies? Are we recognising hard facts and their consequences? Or are we setting up ways of institutionalising assumptions and tensions, and making life all the more difficult for ourselves as a consequence?
I set about answering these questions by reflecting on the state of gerontology, by drawing on my recent, and not-so-recent, experiences of researching age, and by tapping into some other sources of insight. As a social researcher, my objective has been to collect evidence that casts light on age as it affects and is experienced by human populations, preferably from different angles, posing challenges to the ‘received wisdom’. This entails the deployment of various methods, acquiring access to different sources of information and undertaking original analyses. At the end of this chapter, I will reflect on how social research in the future might develop in ways that increase our understanding of age.
The history of gerontology may accurately be described as the history of the social construction of meaningful images or metaphors of old age. (Hepworth, 2004, p 11)
While engaging with people in interviews or other participative activities is essential to gerontological research, this in itself is not sufficient. The analysis of language and image and how they are used to represent age in the wider cultural landscape, is just as important. So the issues I address in this chapter relate to roadside billboards, government documents and statistical samples – any attempt, in fact, to ‘represent’ age.
Representation is a word with many associations (Hall, 1997). I use it here to cover the ways in which words, pictures and diagrams might be used in attempts to convey the realities of age, not only about what age is, but also about how it could be different. These attempts are often described as ‘models’: what it is to grow older is represented by a model. Essentially, as Mike Hepworth implies in the quote above, such models are metaphors. Each representation produces an image not of age itself but of ‘what age is like’.
Words and images underpin models of age. In particular, they create structured understandings of the characteristics of older people: what they might need, how they might behave, where they might live, and how ‘we’ should relate to ‘them’. The idea of ‘model’ is helpful insofar as it implies mechanisms that explain how circumstances change and people age. A model might be devised, for example, to represent the ageing process. But it is important to appreciate that at best a model represents ‘a truth’, not the whole truth about age.
From his study of the history of gerontology, Stephen Katz concluded that ‘gerontological texts linguistically shaped old age’ (1996, p 79). He referred in particular to terms such as ‘senile’; to the organisation of textbook chapters and the use of scientific rhetoric; to the production of inventories and cataloguing charts; and to the endorsement of how gerontology might parallel other, more established, areas of research such as paediatrics. What he argues is that textbooks have not only disseminated knowledge, they have also influenced the ways we think.
We are all growing older and our bodies, slowly but surely, are constantly ageing. So we all have some first-hand experience of what this entails. But only up to a point: our understanding of what it is like to be older than we are currently is, necessarily, only second-hand knowledge gained through observing and listening to our elders. And what older people tell us about being the age they are is, of course, loaded with all sorts of emotions. ‘When you’re my age, then you’ll understand …’ is a classic put-down that reasserts the authority of personal experience.
In Chapter Six I consider relative ages and the significance of age differences. In this chapter I first consider the significance of lived experience in understanding how people account for age, and then I move on to the business of living in an ageing body. In the second half of the chapter I contrast how the annual routines of life such as birthdays signify the ageing of the self, before finally considering evidence of the impact of transforming experiences on the course of life.
It is important to recognise how, both at the cultural and individual levels, growing older is something that is paradoxically both resisted and accepted as inevitable. It follows that there is always a tension surrounding debates and discussions about ‘the reality’ of age.
Experience is a concept that should be fundamental in gerontology. In Bytheway (1996a) I sought to make a clear distinction between experience of the ways of the world and the lived experience of growing older, arguing that this distinction should be incorporated into social theories of ageing. On the one hand we gain experience by observing and learning from others; and on the other we ourselves experience and survive a wide range of challenges and life transitions. In the inter-generational conflicts that often characterise work relations, it is the experience of the older worker that is challenged by the up-to-date expertise of the newly trained; tried and tested methods set against innovations and new resources. In the broader historical picture, the older worker loses, of course, and traditional methods are adapted or abandoned.
Clocks and calendars provide a scale against which temporal change can be plotted. However, Jan Baars (2007) warns that ‘a large part of the gerontology community’ is still under the ‘spell’ of predictions based upon chronological age (p 2). His concern is that gerontology should focus on the causes of ageing rather than the correlates of chronological age:
While it is true that all causal relations are also temporal relations, or relations working ‘in time’, it would be wrong to identify causality with time or to reduce the process of aging to the causal effects of time. (Baars, 2007, p 4)
In his paper proposing a ‘triple temporality’ of ageing he begins by noting how:
The identification of aged research populations […] builds on chronological age and presupposes an organization of the life course in which chronological time has become an important instrumental perspective. Concepts such as age groups, age norms, or age grading presuppose chronological age as the typical instrument to regulate many transitions or entitlements. (pp 16-17)
He goes on to argue that:
We are getting older with every tick of the clock, but this ‘older’ has a precise meaning only in a chronological, not gerontological sense. (p 17)
Nevertheless, he acknowledges the power of age norms and age regulations, and so his triple temporality brackets chronological age with personal experience and narrative articulation. He develops the case for a subjective time perspective:
What we tend to think of as our selves has a lot to do with the ability to situate our lives in the interrelated temporal dimensions of past, present, and future. (pp 28-9)
Baar's third temporality, narrative articulation, is based upon Ricoeur's emplotment and the reconstruction of personal experiences as stories to be shared. Contrasting the grand narrative of the anti-ageing industry with that of care providers, he suggests that in both contexts narratives are not intended to be listened to; rather they are there to keep older people ‘buying and busy’ (p 36). Advocates of anti-ageing treatments would have you believe that by buying their products, you can ‘turn back the clock’, and the providers of care services aim to ‘keep you independent for as long as possible’.
Age is a simple word that really shouldn't need any introduction or explanation. Consider the following. It is the entry for 31 October 1965 in the diary of the British comedian and writer, Kenneth Williams:
Read the new Carry On, ‘Screaming’, & wrote to Peter Rogers that I didn't want to play another ‘old’ character. If he offers to make the age younger, I’ll do it, not otherwise. I’d rather play my own age. (Davies, 1994, p 265)
There is nothing exceptional about this extract; quite the opposite. I could have chosen any number of examples of people talking or writing about age and about the impact that age has on their lives.
Williams died in 1988 after a long career that included acting in many of the celebrated Carry On films. This diary entry is representative of a certain characteristic bitterness that he felt about his public persona. What it also indicates is that age was a matter of concern to him: he wanted to ‘play [his] own age’ and to appear younger than the ‘old’ characters he had previously been given.
Diaries that are published are, of course, edited, and editors often include footnotes to explain details for the reader. However, there are no such footnotes attached to the above entry, and this confirms, should this be needed, that readers are assumed to know what is meant by the word ‘age’ and how it relates to a sense of personal identity. It is not difficult to imagine the conversation that might have taken place between Williams and Peter Rogers and the ways in which the actor might have insisted on playing his own age.
Typically actors are made up, sometimes to appear younger and sometimes older. Williams was 39 when he wrote the above entry, and it is possible that he was made to appear older in his earlier films: lines drawn on his face or a greyish wig placed on his head, perhaps. Sometimes, in extremes, actors wear masks in order to appear very much older. The concept of ‘the mask of age’ has been much discussed in social gerontology and I consider it again in Chapter Five.
The popular media often expresses its concern about ‘the ageing population’. How is the population ageing? To answer this basic question, it is necessary to consider first the concept of population and how demographers have studied it.
Although demography, defined as the statistical study of human populations, has developed the tools for analysing any collection of people, much of its literature focuses on nation states and their constituent populations. This is driven by the politics of nationhood. It is in this context, for example, that universal suffrage has been promoted, and it follows directly from this that democracy depends upon there being the political will to identify and register a nation's population. Moreover, policies regarding ‘public health’ can only be effective if the health of the public (that is, the population) is systematically monitored. These and other national concerns require the compilation of statistics based (a) on periodic censuses that count and locate the national population, and (b) on systems for monitoring the ‘flow’ of people entering the population (the newborn and immigrants) and leaving it (the deceased and emigrants).
A census can produce the age distribution of the population by recording the chronological age of each person counted. The overall population is then described as ageing if between two censuses the average age rises. Throughout most of the past few centuries, the average age of most national populations has indeed been rising and it is often assumed that this implies greater numbers of old people. It may, however, be due to a falling birth rate just as much as a falling death rate and it does not necessarily follow that there are more old people. The average age of the population will increase if there is a falling birth rate while death rates remain the same. That said, the evidence is that, in the first decade of the 21st century, life expectancy is increasing in many countries and this, not surprisingly, concerns those with responsibilities for the costs of pensions, healthcare and various other forms of welfare arising from the needs of older people. This concern generates political debate and it is here that panic often takes over.
Age is a relative phenomenon as well as an absolute one. What does it mean to say that A is older than B? What is the significance of age for the relationship between two people? If A is chronologically older than B, can B be older than A in other ways? Well, regarding that last question, I remember at the age of 21 being the proud owner of a second-hand Austin A30 and being taught to drive by my younger brother who, unlike me, had passed his driving test first time: an example of how the teacher-pupil relationship does not necessarily reflect differences based on chronology.
Parents and children
The parent–child relationship, possibly more than anything else, socialises us as children into a social order that incorporates age. It is probably fair to say that relative age first impinges upon our consciousness when we absorb as fact that our parents are not just taller, heavier and stronger, but also older than us. They’re ‘grown up’, adults; we’re just ‘kids’. The distinction could hardly be starker.
Birthdays are numbered and when we learn to count, perhaps around our third birthday, we realise that thirty-something (or however old our parents might be) is an awful lot older than three. Moreover, our fourth birthday seems a long way off, never mind our 34th. So we quickly learn that interpersonal age differences can be indicated by number and by generation.
Childhood birthdays are complicated events. The fact that on that day you are a ‘special person’ creates various tensions and anxieties, and some of these may survive well into later life. Here is how one Mass Observation (MO) writer described her childhood birthdays:
Looking back at my childhood my parents always made a great fuss of my birthday – there was a big party, lots of presents & a ‘rainbow’ cake.
However I can remember lots of the birthdays somehow went wrong by the end of the day & ‘ended in tears’ usually because I got what they called ‘over-excited’. Looking back I think my parents expected so much from my birthday – I always had a new frock made by my mother – usually something frilly & decorative.
I never expected that the two people who would feature most prominently in this book would both become centenarians. In very different ways, the lives of May Nilewska and Frances Partridge have been highly revealing for me, and it has left me wondering why. The reason, in my opinion, is that the evidence demonstrates how the lived experience of growing older is one of slow but constant change, change that continues for as long as there is life. Undertaking research with centenarians is not easy and much of what exists has been largely epidemiological, aimed at discovering their ‘secrets’, the predictors of longevity (Yong, 2009). An unintended consequence of this curiosity has been the idea that they are in some way ‘freaks’ who have escaped the fate of the ordinary person.
As I was drafting the concluding chapter, Remembrance Day 2010 approached, and some attention was given to Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier who fought in the trenches, who had died in July 2009. In 2008, Andrew Motion, then Poet Laureate, was invited by the BBC to visit him. Motion's grandfather had fought in Flanders and he himself had edited an anthology of poetry from the First World War, and so he was pleased to take up the invitation. The staff at the nursing home where Harry lived told him that Harry was ‘amazingly robust’ for someone aged 110 years, ‘but, nevertheless’, they said ‘110 is 110’ (Motion, 2008a). Talking to them, Motion began to realise that for several years Harry had been regularly visited by media people and well-wishers. Although Harry insisted he was ‘just an ordinary chap’, he’d come to be seen as a hero: he felt awkward about this as well as pleased. In media interviews he had stuck to the same few stories, so what Motion hoped to do was ‘surprise Harry back into his old self ‘.
When they met, Harry was in a wheelchair, ‘little and frail but, given his great age, astonishingly spry-looking’. On his ‘sparrow-body’ there were medals on his chest:
I shook his hand, then held it for a moment. I had expected to be moved, but not this much.