Date of Award

2012

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Psychology

Faculty

Faculty of Computing, Health and Science

First Advisor

Professor Julie Ann Pooley

Second Advisor

Professor Lynne Cohen

Field of Research Code

380106, 1701

Abstract

In recent years, a strong focus has emerged towards developing and implementing guidelines, policies, governmental strategies and research agendas that best support a growing ageing population (United Nations, 1983, 1990, 1991, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2012; United Nations Programme on Ageing/International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 2007; United Nations/Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2008; World Health Organization, 2002, 2004a). Locally in Western Australia (WA), nationally and internationally, this attention has culminated in a focus on promoting the notion of “healthy ageing” (Commonwealth of Australia, 1999; Commonwealth States and Territories, 2000; Office for Seniors Interests and Volunteering, 2006; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000; Welsh Assembly Government, 2005) based on the World Health Organisation (WHO) definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing; not solely the absence of disease” (World Health Organization, 1946, p. 2). However, policies and theoretical understandings based on healthy ageing narratives have been questioned in regard to their underlying assumptions continuing to medicalise, problematise and objectify the ageing experience (Biggs, 2001; Cardona, 2008; Estes, 1993; Estes, Biggs, & Phillipson, 2009; Holstein & Minkler, 2003, 2007; Powell & Biggs, 2000; Sabelli, Patel, Konecki, & Nagib, 2003). This propensity to precondition a highly intra-personal, variable, and socially located experience (Estes, 1993; Estes et al., 2009; Featherstone & Wernick, 1995) prompted the need for further examination of current conceptualisations of the ageing experience as it is lived and experienced by older adults themselves. Moreover, a dearth of understanding remains about how older adults socially construct and attach meaning to their ageing experience. For these reasons, the purpose of this research was to explore how older adults socially construct meaning around their lived experiences of ageing whilst drawing attention to dominant rhetoric about healthy ageing in wider society.

To explore the different ways in which older adults make meaning of their experiences of ageing, a qualitative methodology, guided by the theoretical underpinnings of phenomenology and social constructionism was used. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 59 older adults (23 males and 36 females aged between 50 and 89 years) in order to collate a diverse, but in-depth and rich sample of descriptions of the lived experience of ageing. Participants were recruited according to four purposive sample groups. Consequently, this research project presents insight into the lived experience of ageing from across four distinct contexts, three of which were located in WA including 17 participants from a healthy ageing program; 12 participants who have withdrawn from a healthy ageing program; and 15 participants from a community sample. The fourth sample comprised of 15 participants from a community sample in Wales, United Kingdom (UK). A thematic analysis approach was utilised to analyse the data exploring participants’ experiences of ageing and investigating how participants constructed meaning in ageing across each of the four contexts.

The data revealed that whilst participants described feeling that the dominant discourse in wider society caused them to anticipate ageing as a stage in life centred on experiencing decline and loss (e.g., a decline in mental functioning, or a loss of mobility), it was also evident that psychological, social and political aspects were of equal, or greater significance to the meaningful understandings they constructed about their personal ageing experience. Five major themes with related sub-themes emerged that were germane to this finding. Major themes included: primed thought (consisting of sub-themes the “lucky” view, comparisons with others, healthy ageing, and decline and loss); connectedness (consisting of sub-themes the value of groups, supportive relationships, and religion and spirituality); social values (consisting of sub-themes generational interactions, ageism, and resource allocation); negotiating transitions in ageing (consisting of sub-themes life-stages and events, the dependence-independence continuum, the ageing body, and attitude and acceptance); and agency and influence (consisting of sub-themes meaningful roles, and personal control and worth). Cumulatively, these findings suggested that although research has often reported ageing in terms of aspects associated with declines and loss, to only attend to these areas would be to overlook significant psychological and social constituents of the ageing experience.

The findings of this research uniquely contribute to current understandings about ageing. Foremost, the findings support a more holistic understanding of ageing based on lived experiences and provide evidence that ageing is a socially constructed, and therefore modifiable experience. Specifically, the findings contribute to understandings about the systemic influences on constructed meaning in ageing, particularly the disjunction between policy constructions and lived experiences. Furthermore, with comparable findings occurring across the four distinct contexts of this research, especially between the local context in WA and the international context in Wales, highlights the significance and widespread relevance of the issues raised pertaining to participants’ experiences of ageing. Consequently, findings may be used to inform existing and future policy decision-making and models of best practice towards promoting healthy ageing. Moreover, the findings contend that a need exists to evaluate the way in which ageing policy is effectively translated into practice, that is, in a way that closely aligns with the lived experiences of ageing as had by individuals. In practical terms, the findings suggest it would be highly beneficial to ensure that healthy ageing initiatives implemented in the wider community embrace awareness, and put into practice actions that account for all factors contributing to a healthy ageing experience - especially psychological and social aspects as emphasised by participants. Despite the robustness of these findings, further research is needed and encouraged to maintain the development, growth, and momentum of such understandings about the ageing experience and this is particularly encouraged with populations from different socio-cultural contexts and settings, as well as a gendered perspective of the lived experience of ageing.

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