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Professor Miriam Bernard
Professor Miriam Bernard

How did your interests in ageing begin, and why?
Completely by accident! It was early 1982, I was unemployed and madly trying to put the finishing touches to my PhD (on leisure and young couples) when I went into town to draw some much needed money out of my rapidly depleting savings. In the window of the Job Centre, I spied a small postcard which said ‘Wanted – person to lead a small research team for a local charity’. I went in, got the details, was interviewed and, much to my surprise, got the job. It was a fixed-term, nine-month post at the Beth Johnson Foundation – and the rest, as they say, is history.  

What are your key areas of interest, and why?
I’ve always been interested in women’s lives; in family and intergenerational relations; and in the kinds of communities and neighbourhoods we live in. All my interests are underpinned by broader values and concerns around social justice and equality. I guess the reasons lie in a combination of my upbringing and my education. I was brought up in a working class, very left-wing environment with a mother who, unusually for her generation, worked full-time when my brother and I were growing up. It was a bit of a standing joke in our family that Dad was able to do what he did (he was a photographer) because Mum was the breadwinner! For the first eight years of my life we lived in a three-generation, three-family household with my grandfather, and with my Dad’s brother and his family. I was also surrounded by ‘older people’: my paternal grandmother was the eldest of 11 children and there always seemed to be huge family occasions with lots of great aunts and uncles and numerous cousins around.  I never imagined for a moment I would end up being interested in ageing and, in particular, women’s experiences of ageing but, as I look back, I can see how the pieces have come together.

Please can you briefly outline your career?
Following a combined honours degree in English and Geography and a PhD in leisure, my first nine months as Research Officer at the Beth Johnson Foundation somehow turned into six years. At that time, the Foundation also operated as a centre for older people and, next door, was a Beth Johnson Housing Association sheltered housing development. So, right from the start I was working with older people. The Foundation also had strong links with Keele: the late Dr Frank Glendenning was Secretary of the Department of Adult Education but also Chair of the Foundation. When he and Chris (Phillipson) decided in the mid-1980s that it was timely to start up postgraduate gerontology courses they sent draft papers to us at the Foundation for comment. I remember scrawling a note to my boss in the margin saying: ‘If this course ever comes off and I stay in ageing research, I guess I’d better do it’. Instead of doing it, in 1988 I applied and got appointed to the new three-year self funded lectureship to set up the Certificate, Diploma and Masters programmes. And, I’ve been at Keele ever since!

What's been the biggest change in ageing research since you started?
The fact that everyone now seems to be interested in it and from so many different disciplinary, methodological and theoretical perspectives.

How did you become interested in the BSG?
When I was at the Foundation it was the most obvious professional and academic society to join. I went to my first conference in 1982 in Exeter where I met people who have become lifelong friends and colleagues.

What are you looking forward to as President of BSG?
Working with such an enthusiastic and committed group of people.

What do you want to achieve as President of BSG?
Progressing the strategy we have put in place in what will undoubtedly be an increasingly difficult economic and political climate.

What do you like best about your work?
In terms of BSG – the many and varied people; in terms of my own work – I’m still a researcher at heart and it’s that I love doing most, and that includes working with research staff and research students and seeing them grow and develop.

What do you like least about your work?
The things that take me away from what I like best!

What do you want to achieve in your future career?
I’ve never really planned my career or thought about it in terms of achievements. I would like to be able to continue researching and writing and come back to doing something again about the lives of older women.

Describe yourself in three words.
This is really difficult. When I asked my husband of 30 years what he thought, he said three things I probably can’t repeat here! I’d like to think I’m a ‘completer-finisher’ (excuse the jargon); supportive; and committed.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
In terms of my professional life, always try and make sure that at any one time you have three kinds of projects (research, writing etc) on the go: one you’re doing just for you; one you’re doing with close colleagues; and one you’re doing with colleagues elsewhere.

What is your favourite film, and why?  
I’m leading a fantastically interesting theatre-based project at the moment under the New Dynamics of Ageing programme ( so, like Tony Warnes in the July issue, I’m a fan of live theatre. Combining both though, I have a real soft spot for ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and still adore Laurence Olivier in ‘Henry V’.

What three things would you take to a desert island with you, and why?
Books, books and more books! 

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