Dr Kate Davidson
Dr Kate Davidson, Senior Lecturer, co-director Centre for Research on Ageing and Gender, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford
How did your interest in ageing begin, and why?

Like most people, my interest in ageing was serendipitous. After qualifying as a nurse, my specialism was neonatal intensive care, and so if the patient weighed more than 2 Kg, I didn't know what to do with it. Later, I became a Health Visitor and generally, if the child went to school, had very little to do with it. My first 'serious' brush with ageing was when I was working as a Health Visitor in Shepherds Bush in London in the late 1980s. We were given the opportunity to visit Moscow and Kiev on a field trip with the British Association for Service to the Elderly (sic) (BASE) to look at older people in residential care in the two cities. I really wanted to see Red Square and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Cathedral of St Sophia and Babi Yar in Kiev, not to mention the romantic overnight train trip between the cities, through the snow and with a samovar in each walnut and brass liveried carriage. Riverside Health Authority agreed to my taking time away from work, but as there is no such thing as a free lunch, I was expected to write a report and give presentations on my return. So I really had to take notice, take notes and take photos. Well, the visits to the residential institutions (hard to call them homes, they were huge blocks) were much more interesting than I had anticipated, and the report and presentations were very well received from my colleagues in the health and social services.

Outline your 'ageing' career.

Within a year of the USSR visit, I had started my BSc in Social Policy with Women's Studies at Roehampton and I had intended to concentrate on the then recent 1989 Children Act and the role of women in caring and the social services. However, for one of the Women's Studies lunchtime seminars I was asked to present my observations from the USSR, and in carrying out a more recent literature review for the talk, I realised that relatively little research was being done on the sociology of ageing. I decided to take Graham Fennell's final year course in the Sociology of Ageing, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Arber and Ginn's seminal book on gender and ageing came out during the module and it seemed to dovetail so nicely with my social policy and feminist studies. I had identified a gap, and so I went from the cradle to the grave in one fell swoop. The GP practice where I had worked was willing to let me use their age/sex register to carry out a survey on older people's perception of the NHS and CC Act 1990 for my final year dissertation. With a first class honours under my belt, I applied to Surrey to do a Social Research Methods course with a view to returning to the NHS in Research and Development. However, during my interview, it was suggested I did a PhD as I was interested in looking at differences between older widows and widowers and I was successfully awarded an ESRC grant. In my third postgraduate year, I was elected as Secretary of the British Society of Gerontology from 1996-2002, which was a brilliant experience and certainly opened doors I would never have gone through otherwise. Sara Arber, Jay Ginn and I set up the Centre for Research on Ageing and Gender, soon after which I developed and was Course Director for an MSc in Ageing in Society at Surrey. And the rest, as they say, is history - I never did return to the NHS.

What are your key areas of interest, and why?

Being co-director of CRAG and my doctorate research got me thinking about the meaning of 'gender' in later life and I was mindful that it means men as well as women. I also realised that comparatively little research was devoted to men and the meaning of masculinity as they age. Sara Arber and I were successful in our bid for the ESRC Growing Older Programme and looked exclusively at men, comparing their social worlds and health behaviours by marital status. Even less research has been done on never married and divorced older men and our findings have been taken up by several interest groups including the media, NGOs, social and health professionals. Financial support from the Big Lottery Fund, awarded jointly with Age Concern Surrey recently allowed us to look at lone men and their unmet needs in the community. I would now like to open the research even wider by looking at midlife and older male carers of spouse and/or elderly parents.

What's been the biggest change in ageing research since you started?

I guess the biggest change is that 15 years ago strangers, friends, family and colleagues were puzzled by my research on ageing "What on earth do you want to do that for?", but now there is considerable interest, given the recent attention from the media and government amongst others. It is encouraging that this field is being taken more seriously, and seen as an important contribution to understanding contemporary society.

What is the biggest change that you would like to make?

I would like to eradicate the term 'the elderly' from media and governmental coverage.

What do like best about your work?

There is so much I enjoy about the work, travelling, networking, being involved with older people, but I think I like it best when the undergraduate students come up to me at the end of the module and thank me for firing their interest in later life. We play a game at the beginning of the module where I ask them to list positive and negative stereotypes of old people. There are always many more in the latter than the former category. At the end of the module, the balance changes - I get such a kick from that.

What do you like least about your work?

Time, effort, blood, sweat and tears spent on research proposals, and the disappointment when they are rejected.

How did you become interested in the BSG?

I was at a Health Visitor's Conference in Harrogate in my final year BSc (1993), and there was a copy of GR on the table for the Special Interest Group on Older People. Because I could find so little literature in the university library for Graham Fennell's module, I thought that joining the society would help widen my access to knowledge. I went to the BSG annual conference at the Royal Holloway in 1994 and was made so welcome by all the members I spoke to. In 1995 I attended the IAG conference in Amsterdam, and gave my very first paper. Everyone was so incredibly supportive (you know who you are) and I spent quite a lot of time on the BSG stand helping out, answering questions and encouraging people to join. I have to admit I was winging it a bit, but I obviously pulled it off as I was elected as Secretary in Liverpool the following year.

What are you looking forward to as President of BSG?

Keeping up the reputation as an inclusive, friendly yet thoroughly professional learned society.

What do you want to achieve as President of BSG?

I would like to be instrumental at increasing the national and international profile of BSG, possible now because of our more stable financial position, thanks firstly to the efforts of key members of the Executive Committee. Secondly, to Chris Phillipson who has been highly influential in relaunching the joint learned society collaboration with the British Geriatrics Society (BGS) and the British Society for Research on Ageing.(BSRA) now called the British Council for Ageing (BCA) as a vehicle by which the three Societies can provide informed opinions and influence policy making with respect to older people and research into the ageing process. There are several important ways in which our national and international profile can be heightened. Our annual conference should attract a more heterogeneous delegate list and one aim is to widen the membership base. As an Executive Committee we will all encourage members to attend international conferences and hold joint international seminars. Another very important way of highlighting national and international involvement is through publications. The 2006-08 Strategic Plan outlines how Working Parties will take on these responsibilities. Details of the formation of these Working Parties will be put on the BSG website soon.

How do you think that the BSG could attract and retain more members?

All learned societies are struggling to retain and attract more members, but when the Strategic Plan is implemented, the sincere hope is that this trend will be reversed.

What do you want to achieve in your future career?

Heavens! Is there anywhere after BSG President? Seriously, I would like to see two more research projects through and then as a swan song, host the IAGG European Region meeting in Docklands, London in 2011. The competitive bid for this will be decided in St Petersburg in July 2007 and in the meantime I am making enquiries at EXCEL conference centre and will report back in the next GR on-line letter.

Describe yourself in three words.

Gosh!! UM, outgoing, brave, enthusiastic

What are you reading at the moment?

I'm reading 'The House by the Dvina: a Russian childhood' by Eugenie Fraser. First published in 1984 (before Glasnost), it tells the story of a wealthy Russian family during the time of the Revolution, as sort of private 'Dr Zhivago' as told by a young girl. Eugenie's mother was Scottish and she and the children escaped to Scotland in 1920. Eugenie went on to marry a Scot (hence the surname). Babushka is very powerful in the family and keeps them together in the really dark days.

What is your favourite film, and why?

Probably West Side Story for music, I remember being absolutely transported as a teenager and I still know all the words of all the songs. But I can't beat 'Top Secret' with Val Kilmer for a fun film, and every time I see it I find yet another hidden joke in it.

What is your favourite city and why?

Bristol. It's my home town and I will return there when, or even before I retire.

What is your favourite type of restaurant, and why?

I really love Thai restaurants. The food is piquant without blowing your head off and I've always had brilliant service from delightful staff.

What are you listening to on your iPOD at the moment?

I don't have one, but my husband does, I must join the 21st century one of these days.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

Marry rich, you can learn to love anyone (I didn't take it, by the way)

Who would you like to be stranded on a desert island with, and why?

That's my secret.

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