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New tricks? Older women's expertise in the kitchen: some findings from the CAFE Study

It is often thought that older people resist or have difficulty incorporating technology in their everyday lives(1).  Findings from a recent study on older women and food assessing women’s use of and expertise with microwave ovens suggest this is not necessarily the case.  The Changes Around Food Experience (CAFE) project was a qualitative study carried out in 2007-2008 in Norfolk, England, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.  Interview and observational data were used to examine the impact of older women’s changing relationship with food on their social engagement and sense of well-being.

Forty women aged 65 to 95 (average 83) and living independently were recruited.  In the three years prior to the study, participants had reduced cooking their main meals from scratch to no more than two days a week.  Main meals were obtained through various means, including ready-meals, home-delivered frozen food, mobile meals, lunch clubs, day centres or meals with friends and family.

Findings

Microwaves were, or had been, used by 37 of the 40 CAFE participants.  How they were used, for what purpose and attitudes towards microwaves varied considerably.  Some participants had used microwaves for many years.  Olga (aged 87 – participants are identified by self-chosen pseudonyms, followed by their age) first purchased a microwave in 1989, the year after her husband died, and was now using a third one.  She used it extensively in meal preparation long before turning to ready-meals, day centres and other forms of meal support.  She carried on using the microwave daily, adding:  “I even do my milk in [it] at night before I go to bed”.

Deena (84) bought her first microwave in 1995.  She chose to cook a Christmas cake on her maiden use of the equipment, describing herself as someone who “usually dive[s] in at the deep end”.  She continued using the microwave occasionally for meal preparation, finding it helpful because she preferred to spend minimal time on cooking.

Helen (84) described the microwave as “a revelation” when she purchased one after being widowed in the early 1990s:

I’d been used to hours of cooking things and now that you could do it in a matter of minutes, so that was great.”

For several years, she used it to prepare puddings, cakes, stews and biscuits until a change in health restricted her mobility and microwave use.  Her microwave then became primarily a means to prepare frozen meals.

For other CAFE participants, microwaves were relatively new pieces of kitchen equipment.  Fritchie (84) and Henrietta (83) bought a microwave six and three years, respectively, before the study.  Both enjoyed microwaved jacket potatoes and Henrietta explained her use of the microwave, apart from jacket potatoes, as

for reheating, rather than for cooking [because I] haven’t bothered to make myself familiar with… how long you cook things...

Elsie (84) also reported using her microwave in more limited ways, typically having “[leftovers] the second day warmed up in the microwave”.  Constance (87) liked her machine but “[didn’t] use it every day or anything like that.”  Bubbles (65), the youngest CAFE participant, also made little use of her microwave:

“I only use it for heating things.  I find you can’t cook in them…”

Across the study sample, possession of a microwave and frequency of use were not age-related and older women were not more negative towards them.  Abigail (83) considered it “a god-send”, while Jayne (70) was less enthusiastic, saying it did “convenience things” and that she preferred cooking with her main oven.  Sally (85) used and rated her microwave highly.  Blacksmith (82) liked the microwave for making porridge because there was no saucepan to clean, a view echoed by Babs (91), who found microwavable saucepans “very handy”.  Kathleen (90) valued the microwave’s ease and speed:

I wouldn’t be able to do the things I do if I didn’t have the microwave.  And also if you come in hungry, ‘cause when you’re older I think you get tired and you need a little something, like Pooh Bear!  You need a spot of honey, you know, and so you can have something quick, if you’ve got a microwave.”

A few participants were not particularly interested in microwaves, although this did not deter their using them.  Helena (84) “had always refused one” until about six years prior to the study, adding that she did not use hers much.  Sugababe (84) was “not very keen on microwaves, but I do use it… but not often.”  Bananas (69) found herself without a cooker for six months, which left her feeling

“as though… I spent all my time in front of the microwave, you know that [it’s] not as convenient as you think.”

Some participants specified why they did not make greater use of the microwave:  for Tizzie (76), microwaved vegetables “never seem to taste the same” and others did not like the way it cooked potatoes (Emily, 80; Milly, 81; Susan, 82).  The attitude of 83-year-old May was distinctly different:

“I don’t know why people don’t like [microwaves], for the simple reason you can cook a wonderful meal in half the time you’d cook otherwise, or quarter of the time.”

Older women began to use or changed using microwaves in a variety of situations, one being the loss of a partner.  Three participants bought a microwave upon becoming widowed, while Tish (81) increased her microwave use after her husband died:
“We experimented with one when they first came out. …[my husband] wasn’t very keen on eating anything that had been in the microwave, but now I do use it more than an oven.”

These examples suggest that some older women may have been interested in microwave ovens, but did not necessarily pursue or expand such interests until they experienced a significant change in personal circumstances.

For other women, changes in health precipitated changes in obtaining meals and, by extension, the necessary equipment to prepare them.  Violet (82) bought a microwave to cook her home-delivered frozen meals after having a stroke.  Posh (87), who was supported by mobile meals and lunch club visits after recovering from cancer, also bought a microwave to heat soup or a plate of food her daughter might bring to her.  She said she was “not a lover” of microwaves but felt they were handy.  While a microwave was bought by Margaret’s (81) family, she had not learned how to operate it, saying she was “lazy” and kept using her traditional oven.

Only three of the CAFE participants had never owned a microwave.  Each gave distinct reasons for this.  Ninety-year-old Irene said:  “I don’t want or need a microwave because I can sit and wait [for my meal to cook].”  Owing to severely impaired vision, Jemima (95) “can’t see the buttons” and so did not buy one.  Anxiety about microwaves was mentioned by Jas (82):  “I’ve always got this fear of the rays coming out of it.”

Conclusion

The stereotyping of older women as increasingly resistant to incorporating changes, including new technology into their kitchens, was contradicted in CAFE.  Within the study sample, older women’s use of and attitude towards microwave ovens varied without reference to their age.  Two participants aged 65 and 70 appeared less interested in extensively using their microwaves than several women in their 80s and early 90s.  While some participants claimed not to be enthusiastic about microwaves, or chose not to cook certain items, such as vegetables, in them, most used microwaves on a continuing basis.

Older women identified ease, speed and convenience as the main advantages of microwaves.  For several participants who had experienced health changes and used home-delivered frozen food, a microwave oven became an essential means of preparing main meals.  By contrast, a few participants felt they could not cook with a microwave or that it was not convenient for them.

These findings reinforce other findings from CAFE that older women adapt their circumstances to maintain their well-being and engagement with daily life.  Based on their diverse and, at times, enthusiastic use of microwaves, many older women value their use in order to manage how they prepare meals while adjusting to changes in health, mobility and personal circumstances.  Key advantages for them are the ease and convenience provided by microwaves to enable them to provide cooking and eating experiences that they wanted and to make time for other things in their lives besides food preparation.

CAFE participants incorporated changes into their lives at different rates and for diverse reasons, expressing an individuality that belies any idea that older people might behave in uniformly age-determined ways.  The dynamism and adaptability of older women to engage with new technologies was demonstrated by the diversity in uses they made of microwave ovens and their attitudes towards them in seeing how they did or did not fit with other purposeful activities in their lives.

 

1. According to an investigation of the use and attitude of people aged 50+ towards technology, microwaves, along with radios and videos, “are… popular but their use is affected by age”[unpaginated, see section 3.2] http://www.dcs.gla.ac.uk/~joy/research/2003_include_questionnaires/paper.pdf (accessed 10 December 2009).  A brief newspaper commentary on research on older people’s use of technology quoted the researcher saying, “Older people will have problems when forced to adapt to a new way of doing things … [including] modern household tolls and utensils”http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/aug/21/technology.news (accessed 11 December 2009).

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