To most people, growing old means changes in their social life, economy and health. Gerontological research is often framed by the idea of life conceptualised as a process involving ‘normal’ stages of childhood, schooling, professional career, family, and where old age is seen as a final stage. Ageing and old age, however, are not static or fixed concepts, but their contents vary over time. Some current changes can be related to the fact that the population, mainly in Western countries, is becoming older. In Sweden, life expectancy has increased by about six years for both men and women in the period between 1970 and 2004 (National Board of Health and Welfare, 2006). Increased longevity has also been accompanied by a generally improved health in the elderly. The notion of a ‘third age’ has become well established (see Chapter Four). This refers to the period after retirement in which people live an active and satisfactory life that is not limited by disease or disability. This period, it is sometimes suggested, may be extended further and further before the arrival of the so-called ‘fourth age’, when infirmities and disabilities can no longer be postponed.
People who live a life with early acquired and lifelong mental disabilities often have a lifecourse that does not easily fit into these assumptions of a life with normal stages. They often face particular difficulties, such as social stigma in various forms, and the elusive and invisible character of the disability.
The aim of this chapter is to describe and discuss experiences and interpretations of life and ageing by people with long-term mental illnesses and disabilities. The main part consists of a presentation of the results of a life story-oriented interview study with a small number of older people with experiences of mental disability. As a general context for the study, some ideological and discursive perspectives on old age are briefly outlined. By way of introduction, we provide a brief historical review of psychiatry. This is important in understanding the negative image that people with mental illnesses and disabilities face in our society, even today. Being a ‘mental patient’ is to hold a negatively valued social role that has deep historical roots.