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Oral History and Ageing

Oral history and gerontology have had a rarely spoken relationship over the years. In the UK, although the Oral History Society and the British Society of Gerontology have shared almost the same 40 years since they originated - the Oral History Journal celebrated its 40th birthday in 2009 and the British Society of Gerontology will have its own 40th in 2011 - there have been few acknowledgements of each other’s existence. Yet the links between the two should be obvious primarily because each has an interest in older people. For the oral historian, older people are the key to the past, as witnesses they speak it, reconstruct it and, sometimes are its inventors, its authors. Gerontologists also talk to older people, though more often perhaps, they tend to observe them and those who are close to them: their carers, friends, practitioners and spokespersons. For both gerontology and oral history, the interview is a key research tool, both focus on remembering and both show concern for issues raised by participation, ownership and the presentation of the outcomes of their engagement with the lives of older people.

Evidence that there is a basis for mutuality amongst gerontologists and oral historians is demonstrated from delving into the very first issues of Oral History. Here, one of the founders of oral history in the UK, George Ewart Evans, talks about interviewing East Anglian agricultural workers in the 1960s and we can see an awareness of the older person as participant in a joint endeavour (Evans, 1972).

Participation by older people has, since those early times, been noted by oral historians in the context of discussions of reminiscence and sometimes in relation to questions of community, composure, identity and forgetting. However, an understanding of what it means to become old, the generational issues of being old and even the socio-economic characteristics and gendered nature of old age have tended to be overlooked by oral historians.

For their part, gerontologists, with few exceptions (notably Elder, 1974; Riley, 1987) tended to neglect the temporal contexts in which people have aged, the implications of local, national and world events on their ageing. Though what people choose to remember and why and what part stories play in the ways in which people construct their old age and relationships in old age have, with the language of biography and narrative, recently come to feature much more in the pages of a journal like Ageing & Society and at conferences of the British Society of Gerontology.

Awareness that the two disciplines tend to exist in parallel universes (Bornat, 2001) and that cross-fertilisation between oral historians and gerontologists would be of mutual benefit was a key motivation to produce a new report on Oral History and Ageing (1). Although they share these interests there have been few occasions when oral historians and gerontologists have come together to examine and reflect on issues of mutual interest. A brief excursion into the history of links between the two will illustrate this point.

As early as 1981, a conference on life history and ageing held in London, was organised by the gerontologist Malcolm Johnson, and Joanna Bornat, an oral historian. This was followed by an Oral History Society conference on oral history and reminiscence, held in 1983. Papers from this were later published in 1993 (Bornat, 1993). These developments had been preceded by research which had opened up possibilities for collaborative work of a distinctively creative type.

Malcolm Johnson was an early advocate for what later came to be known as biographical approaches to understanding ageing in an article, ‘That was your life’ (Johnson, 1976). Here he argued that to be able to respond sensitively and appropriately to the needs of an older person means knowing what experiences they have lived through and what is important to them in their life story. At about the same time, Peter Coleman a psychologist with an interest in reminiscence, had begun publishing from his PhD research. His interest lay in understanding older people’s inner lives through their accounts of past experience (1974) but when he later came to publish the book, the influence of cohort experiences of war and unemployment and the times they had lived through was strongly evident in his analysis and theorising (1986).

These first UK expositions of biographical approaches to ageing were undoubtedly inspired by the work of Robert Butler, an US psychiatrist with an interest in ageing who, in 1963, had published a paper advocating use of life review as a helpful intervention in encounters with older people who were in some way troubled (Butler, 1963). Drawing on his experiences as principal investigator into the mental health of older people living in the community he had argued against the assumption common amongst psychologists and psychiatrists that talk of the past, reminiscence, was a sign of pathology, of mental deterioration. Those who followed his lead in the US and UK helped to shift reminiscence from being studied for its function, pattern and content to becoming an activity which might be deliberately encouraged and established as beneficial and, unavoidably participatory.

Butler’s role in championing life review was undoubtedly enhanced by his reputation as an engaged and outspoken critic of ageist policies in US health care and social policy. His critique of government policies, drawing on evidence as to the social, political and psychological determinants of late life marginalisation, Why Survive? Being Old in America (1975) won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction within a year of its publication. In the book, chapter 14, 'Growing Old Absurd' includes, 'The tendency toward life review' amongst 10 'special characteristics of later life' which counter stereotypical 'placing (of) the old…in prescribed roles' (1975, p. 409).

Butler’s focus on inequalities and the positive contribution of encouraging people to remember fed into developments in the UK which were to bring oral historians and gerontologists together working on practical projects. In the late 1970s, an architect working for the then Department of Health and Social Services, Mick Kemp, had developed a series of sounds and images which he called ‘Reminiscence Aids’. Later to be taken up and published as Recall by Help the Aged Education Department, these tape-slide sequences were to make a mark on care relationships in formal and informal settings (Bornat, forthcoming) particularly when espoused by sensitive practitioners (Adams, 1986). Recall legitimised and reversed attitudes to an activity that had previously been disregarded as valueless at best, demeaning at worst. Linked with community-based oral history projects, evidence that older people’s remembering had value not just for individuals, but for groups and for the communities where they lived, contributed to the nature of oral history too, as the first edition of Thompson’s Voice of the Past (1978) was already able to demonstrate.

Evidence of programmes and materials such as Recall fed into oral history’s development at grassroots, as well as academic levels as community activists engaged in publishing memories and writing by local people, drawing on the life experience of older people.  Organisations such as Centreprise in Hackney and QueenSpark in Brighton were leaders in this respect. More recently such activity has become a central part of funded oral history with Heritage Lottery alone having spent £49M on projects by 2007 (Thomson, 2008, p.103).

It was against this backdrop that an oral history and ageing seminar was organised, ninth in the series from the Centre for Ageing and Biographical Studies at the Open University and the Centre for Policy on Ageing.  The aim was to create an opportunity to reflect in the company of some leading UK oral historians on what common and shared interests and concerns may be. Paul Thompson (University of Essex), Al Thomson (Monash University), Graham Smith (Royal Holloway London University and Pam Schweitzer (European Reminiscence Network) were invited to engage with the theme of ageing as they presented their perspectives. The papers from the seminar have now been published1 and illustrate the distinctive contribution that oral history work has made to methodological innovations in ageing research.

Oral History and Ageing edited by Joanna Bornat and Josie Tetley, published by the Centre for Policy on Ageing and the Centre for Ageing and Biographical Studies at The Open University is available from Central Books. Tel +44 (0)845 458 9910 or order online at www.centralbooks.co.uk

Adams, J. (1986) ‘Anamnesis in dementia: Restoring a personal history’, Geriatric Nursing, September/October, 25–27.

Bornat, J.(1993) Reminiscence Reviewed: Perspectives, Evaluations, Achievements.Buckingham: Open University Press.

Bornat, J. (2001) ‘Reminiscence and oral history: Parallel universes or shared endeavour?’, Ageing & Society, 21(2), 219–241.

Bornat, J. (Forthcoming) ‘Remembering as the politics of later life’, in D. Ritchie (ed.) The Oxford Handbook to Oral History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Butler, R.N. (1963) ‘The life review: An interpretation of reminiscence in the aged’, Psychiatry, 26, 65–76.

Butler, R.N. (1975) Why Survive: Being Old in America. New York: Harper & Row.

Coleman, P. (1974) ‘Measuring reminiscence characteristics from conversation as adaptive features of old age’, International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 5(3), 281–294.

Coleman, P. (1986) Ageing and Reminiscence Processes: Social and Clinical Implications. Chichester: Wiley.

Elder, G.H. (1974) Children of the Great Depression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Evans, G.E. (1972) ‘Approaches to interviewing’, Oral History, 1(4), 56–71.

Johnson, M. (1976) ‘That was your life: A biographical approach to later life’, in J.M.A. Munnichs and W.J.A. van den Heuvel (eds) Dependency and Interdependency in Old Age. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, pp. 147–161.

Riley, M.W. (1987) ‘On the significance of age in sociology’, American Sociological Review, 52, 1–14.

Thompson, P. (1978) The Voice of the Past, third edn 2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomson, A. (2008) ‘Oral history and community history in Britain: Personal and critical reflections on twenty-five years of continuity and change’, Oral History, 36(1), 95–104.

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