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Valuing Older Age?
This year’s BSG conference theme, Understanding and Promoting the Value of Older Age, situated population aging within a celebratory rather than an apocalyptic paradigm. From this standpoint, researchers have been documenting the participation and contributions of older adults to their families, communities and the polity. Yet the celebration is muted by evidence of exclusion of older persons from full participation, and of tremendous diversity in their social, and community connections. In this article I discuss some of the research in which we are engaged with colleagues in the UK, Ireland and Canada. Positive views of ageing are important but must be tempered through critical evaluation of contemporary evidence of both valuing and devaluing older age.

We have a long tradition in Europe and North America of prescribing pathways to a good old age. Many of these expert views been couched in terms of how older adults can best meet societal needs for renewal or for reducing anticipated costs related to population aging. Aging as a societal problem variously required action on the part of older persons who were expected to disengage, or to substitute leisure or voluntary activities for employment in order to remain active, or to maintain mental and physical capacities (Chapman, 2005). Valuing of later life has not been a prominent part of this theoretical discourse.

In the past few years I have been involved in a UK-Ireland-Canada research program on diversity in how older people are connected to people and place. In this article, I review briefly some of our work and what we have learned that addresses the issue of understanding and valuing older people. Our joint work with UK scholars such as Sheila Peace (Chapman & Peace, 2008) and Judith Phillips (Keating & Phillips, 2008) in the development of critical human ecology theory has been important in framing this research program.

In our work together we have moved forward our understanding of the heterogeneity of older adults and the contexts of their lives. We are beginning to understand the ways in which some may age well, while others are at risk of being marginalized, excluded and not valued. We hold two basic assumptions. The first is that a good old age is a construction of the interaction of people and contexts in which they live their lives. The second is that perspectives matter. We must privilege the views of older adults themselves about what is valuable in their lives in terms of their connections to people and place.

In a recent systematic review of 20 years of research on rural ageing in Canada (Keating, Swindle & Fletcher, 2011) we found that publications reflected two lenses which inform our understanding of how we value or at least how we view older age. The first is on older adults who are at risk because they lack personal or community resources to meet their needs. The second rural lens is focused on quality of life, independence and social connections. The ‘aging-well’ lens reflects an interest in the contributions of older adults to their families and communities, and their engagement in their communities. In both of these areas, ongoing critical analyses are warranted. The marginalization lens brings with it a risk of adopting views of old age as a time of disadvantage and disconnection. The lens has been predominant in research in rural areas, especially in Canada. In contrast, the ageing well lens has been justly criticized as being overly evaluative—surely if one can age-well, one also can fail at aging. Is contemporary valuing of older age based on active engagement and ongoing contributions of older members of society?

In a second project (Burholt, Swindle and Keating, in review) we addressed questions of how older people themselves understand and value their connections to others. This research is based on a national telephone survey of older rural adults in Canada in which participants were asked what kinds of things they did for others in their communities and their reasons for doing them. Our main objectives were to determine what older people see as the main motivators of support they provide and how do their individual characteristics and contexts contribute to diversity in these activities. More than two-thirds said that they did things for others because that was the way things were done in their communities, while almost 30% said they provided assistance in response to a need such as a chronic health problem. Those most likely to provide assistance were women, younger, more highly educated and embedded in diverse social networks. Our conclusion from this study was that older rural adults value the image and practice of supportive rural communities but that personal history and social contexts influence the extent to which they assume the dominant ideology of connected and supportive rural elders.

The World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Communities initiative is an excellent example of attempts to value older age through identifying community contexts that optimize quality of life as people age. However, there is a need to better conceptualize how elements of communities might differ across world regions; whether current indicators comprise the full set of key facilitators of community inclusion; or whether these differ across older adults at different life course stages and over time. In a recent project (Menec, Means, Keating, Parkhurst and Eales, 2011), we proposed the notion of social connectivity as a conceptual tool to make explicit key issues related to the interplay between persons and environments. The proposed model hypothesizes that personal characteristics in combination with characteristics of interpersonal, community and policy environments influence the extent to which communities are age-friendly. It sets the stage for interrogating conflicting assumptions about issues such as whether the positive elements of engagement are overshadowed by ‘compulsory volunteerism’ in the face of declining community infrastructure.

The most macro of our projects on valuing older age is a book on global issues of social exclusion (Scharf and Keating, forthcoming). Its overarching purpose is to increase understanding of older adults who are marginalized and to challenge conventional wisdom about the place of older adults in society. Authors who come from all world regions have examined contexts that may exclude including legal and policy settings, ideologies related to families and employment, and built environment. Three domains of exclusion—from social relations, material resources and civic engagement— were important in all regions although there are clear differences in their salience. Exclusion from family relationships is a preoccupation in all world regions in response to population ageing although in some the focus is on families as sources of positive social relations and others on families as providers of needed material resources. Access to material resources, important in all regions, is viewed as a process at the intersection of changes in personal resources and in surrounding neighbourhoods or communities. Neither person nor place is static; at different points in the ageing process the ‘same’ home in the ‘same’ neighbourhood can foster or impede access to other material resources or social relationships. Macro discussions of globalization, international migration and human rights have extended knowledge of elements of exclusion from civic engagement. We are reminded that the construction of old age is informed by national age profiles and cultural orientations that in turn have differential influence on the nature and extent of exclusion across world regions; but that some exclusionary processes such as ageism are pervasive.

In sum, our explorations of valuing older age have helped us better understand dynamic processes of person-context fit within an era of increasing individualisation of risk. We have much more to learn about diversity in the ways older people value later life, set priorities about their ways of engagement with others, and the criteria by which they are valued and included as full citizens.


Burholt, V., Swindle, J. & Keating, N. (in review). Social and supportive connectivities of older people in rural areas of Canada: the role of ‘generalized other’.
Chapman, S. (2005). Theorizing about aging well: Constructing a narrative. Canadian Journal on Aging, 24(1), 8-18.
Chapman, S. & Peace, S. (2008). Rurality and ageing well: ‘a long time here’. In N. Keating (Ed.) Rural Ageing: A good place to grow old? (pp 21-31). Bristol UK: The Policy Press.
Keating, N., Swindle, J. & Fletcher, S. (2011). Aging in rural Canada: A retrospective and review. Canadian Journal on Aging, 30(4) [First view, published online, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&fid=8330277&jid=CJG&volumeId=-1&issueId=-1&aid=8330275&bodyId=&membershipNumber=&societyETOCSession= 1-16].
Menec, V., Means, R., Keating, N., Parkhurst, G. & Eales, J. (2011). Conceptualizing age-friendly communities. Canadian Journal on Aging, 30(4) [First view, published online http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&pdftype=1&fid=8325361&jid=CJG&volumeId=-1&issueId=&aid=8325359 pp 1-15].
Keating, N. & Phillips, J. (2008). A critical human ecology perspective on rural ageing. In N. Keating (Ed.) Rural Ageing: A good place to grow old? (pp 1-10). Bristol UK: The Policy Press.
Scharf, T. & Keating, N. (Eds.) (forthcoming). From Exclusion to Inclusion in Old Age: A Global Challenge. Bristol UK: The Policy Press.

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