Saturday, 14 January 2012

Some gerontological thoughts on The Iron Lady

I went to the cinema this week and saw The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd's biographical(ish) film about Margaret Thatcher. There's lots I could comment on, but I'll limit myself here to some things that struck me as a gerontologist and someone who is particularly interested in normative and non-normative life courses.

(cc) Joybot

One of the things I really liked about the film was the fact that the central character was (when not in flashback) an old woman. So few films have protagonists even in mid-life that it was really refreshing and interesting to see one in deep old age (for further discussion of older people in films, can I recommend ageing, ageism and feature films and the work of Josie Dolan at UWE). One of the things I've been thinking a lot about in the last couple of years is how people can be enabled to better imagine their own ageing and eventual old age. Fictional portrayals of later life are an obvious way of helping with this but there aren't many out there (although the FCMAP project has a collection of novels here). While I loathed the real Margaret Thatcher in her heyday with all the fervour of a leftie teenager and young adult, I found the fictional portrayal of her old age deeply moving and sympathetic.

As I understand it, hallucinations are rare in most common forms of dementia, including the form that Margaret Thatcher is thought to have, but I'm not talking here about the reality or correctness of what is portrayed. As a way of representing the sheer impossibility of believing that someone who has been an intimate part of your life for 50 years is no longer there, I thought the hallucinations of Dennis worked really well. I don't know whether that is how people feel after such a bereavement but it certainly made me imagine being in that situation.

I also thought the film did a good job of conveying the ways in which older people are so often treated as incompetent, irrelevant and foolish. Scenes such as the one in the corner shop - when she is pushed out of the way by the man on his mobile phone - are entirely everyday. For example, the Research on Age Discrimination research, undertaken by members of the Centre for Ageing and Biographical Studies a few years ago, found that being treated as seemingly invisible was reported as one of the most prevalent forms of everyday ageism. But seeing this happen to someone who used to be the prime minister makes even clearer the fact that it doesn't matter who you used to be, once you are put in the category 'old person' you are at risk of being treated in this way.

(cc) rileyroxx

I was also interested in (but much less keen on) the way the film ended up focusing so much on her personal life, especially her relationships with her father, husband and children. I am suspicious that one of the reasons the film-makers decided to do this was because if they had failed to do this for a woman who was known to have been married and to have had children, it would have felt like too incomplete an account of her life. Filming a biography of a male public figure with only passing reference to his private life would probably be unremarkable but, since they wanted to make her at least somewhat sympathetic, I wondered whether this partly pushed them into featuring her private life more heavily. I don't know. I may be coming over all second-wave feminist on this one. It has been known.

And this made me think about the cultural difficulty of telling a story of someone's old age that doesn't make it seem as if it was their family and any descendants that really mattered in the end. In societies such as the UK, where paid employment is so highly valued, I wonder whether, once you are beyond paid employment, the main culturally available narrative is of the significance of family. As you may have read in the entry previous to this one, my colleague Jill Reynolds has found that some older people without children report that their friends with children and grandchildren seems to have lives (boringly) limited to their families. I'm sure that, for many people, their family does become the main focus of their lives when they are old. And that's fine. But for other people, such as those who haven't had children, who are estranged from their families and whose lives have not revolved around their families, such as Margaret Thatcher, I'd like there to be a greater range of ways of telling the story of someone's life.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Accounting for being single without children in later life

When I originally researched singleness among women in their middle years I talked both to women who had always been single and to those who were single again following marriage or a long term relationship see The Single Woman: a Discursive Investigation, Jill Reynolds published by Routledge

Some had children, many did not and I noticed that these latter had a double set of accounting to do. They often felt required to explain why they were single. They also found it hard to respond to questions on whether they had children, which were sometimes actually followed up with a 'why not?', although more often this unspoken query remained implicit.

This brief video gives some examples of how participants responded in my interviews.

I have interviewed many of these women a second time in 2011, now that they are aged more than 60 years. In further analysing data from other researchers (Arber and Davidson*, Bowling**) who included childless people in their research samples of those aged 65+, I noted that while most participants introduced references to their children and grandchildren into discussions on the quality of their life and what made them happy, it was rare for participants to be asked how they felt if they were without children at this point in their lives. 
My follow up interviews highlighted that those without children did not lack for activities that contributed to happiness: nice walks and sunshine were often mentioned; and many felt their quality of life had increased, giving up work had meant a weight lifted from their shoulders, and they described themselves as more confident than when younger. Since my original interviews some 13 years earlier two participants had, like myself, married someone they had been seeing regularly. While for some there was no regret about not having children, a question on 'what if?' produced a number of responses such as 'who will be there to do for me what I did for my mum?'

In contrast to discomfort felt when younger in comparisons between their life and that of friends with children, many were more comfortable with their own situation and might refer to good relationships with their friends' now adult children. Interestingly, a number of participants mentioned talk by their friends in older age about younger family members as something of a nuisance that could make for tedious conversation: 'I wish we could talk about something other than their grandchildren', or 'it cuts down their self-awareness as if they can only focus on somebody else'. Something had changed in their balance of accounting so that some participants positioned themselves as companionable, free and active, while positioning their friends with grandchildren as burdened by a sense of duty that required them to prioritise time caring for them and a narrow conversational focus.

 *85 interviews men over 65 years (UKDA 6011 Arber, S. and Davidson, K., Older Men: their Social Worlds and Healthy Lifestyles, 1999-2002 of whom 15 had no children
** 80 interviews men and women over 65 years (UKDA 5237, Bowling, A. Adding Quality to Quantity: Quality of Life in Older Age, 2000-2002) of whom 14 had no children