Re-Imagining Old Age: Wellbeing, care and participation

by Marian Barnes (University of Brighton), Beatrice Gahagan (Age UK Brighton and Hove), Lizzie Ward (University of Brighton)

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‘Re-imagining Old Age’ is an engaging account of a research project aimed at discerning what wellbeing means to older people. The subjects are re-imagined not as passive vessels of answers, but as capable of giving voice to the complex sensibility and shifting circumstances of their lives. The significance of this stems from the glaring contrast with an assessment industry that puts in place individualized subjects who communicate the dimensions of wellbeing at a considerable distance from lived experience.
The project is enriched by an ethic of care perspective and by what is called a “relational ontology,” that challenges the neo-liberal construct of autonomous individuals. Taking on board “the participatory turn” in social science, the relational is extended to research practice, moving beyond the philosophical by bringing older people into the project as working partners. Additional significance derives from further contrast with the assessment industry’s cultivated distance between researchers and their subjects, which in my view is methodologically misguided. It unwittingly valorizes scientistic over scientific reasoning.
‘Re-imagining Old Age’ welcomes the reader to a remarkably more complex world. Its older subjects are a lived mélange of the simultaneously material and immaterial, the coherent and fractured, the independent and dependent, the active and inactive, the hopeful and desperate, and being well enough as much as being well. These and more are the ingredients of an exhilarating and informative book.

Jaber F. Gubrium
Department of Sociology, University of Missouri

This book is an excellent account of the theoretical development and practical application of the ethics of care, which is of emerging interest across disciplines. Reporting on ageing and wellbeing research between the authors over a number of years, in-depth issues are identified in empirical work with older people about care.
This significant scholarship provides new knowledge about wellbeing as told by older people and interpreted through a care ethics lens. There is a new contextualised understanding of wellbeing that includes a relational element to challenge standardised definitions, and recommendations for policy and practice changes to improve the wellbeing of older people.
This book is innovative yet grounded, able to reach both practitioners and researchers, and comprehensive in its novel yet situated approach to developing and renewing the understanding of wellbeing in old age. Its strength is that the voices of older people are consistently drawn upon to inform the younger generation of how to think about the issues of wellbeing in older age.

Dr. Tula Brannelly,
Faculty of Health and Social Sciences, Bournemouth University, UK

The understanding that humans are relational beings is central to the development of an ethical perspective that is built around the significance of care in all our lives. Our survival as infants is dependent on the care we receive from others. And for all of us, in particular, in older age, there are times when illness, emotional or physical frailty, mean that we require the care of others to enable us to deal with everyday life.
With this in mind, this book presents the findings of a project that seeks to understand what wellbeing means to older people and to influence the practice of those who work with older people. Its starting point was a shared commitment amongst researchers and an NGO collaborator to the value of working with older people in both research and practice, to learn from them and be influenced by them rather than seeing them as the ‘subjects’ of a research project.
Theoretically, the authors draw upon a range of studies in critical gerontology that seek to understand how experiences of ageing are shaped by their social, economic, cultural and political contexts. By employing a broad body of work that challenges normative assumptions of ‘successful’ ageing,’ the authors draw attention to how these assumptions have been constructed through neo-liberal policies of ‘active ageing.’ Notably, they also apply insights from feminist ethics of care, which are based on a relational ontology that challenges neo-liberal assumptions of autonomous individualism.
Influenced by relational ethics, they are attentive to older people both as co-researchers and research respondents. By successfully applying this perspective to social care practice, they facilitate the need for practitioners to reflect on personal aspects of ageing and care but also to bridge the gap between the personal and the professional.

Chapter 1 The personal and public challenges of old age

Chapter 2 Care ethics: a relational approach to exploring wellbeing in old age

Chapter 3 Deliberating and working with older people

Chapter 4 Researching with older people

Chapter 5 Talking about wellbeing in old age

Chapter 6 Old Lives: understanding wellbeing in context

Chapter 7 What is wellbeing?

Chapter 8 Revisioning policy and practice: working together to make a difference

Chapter 9 Older people and wellbeing: The personal, the political and the professional

Marian Barnes is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the University of Brighton. Now retired, her research has focused on care, ageing, and mental health. She is well known for her use of participatory research methods and studies of user involvement and collective action by service users. She has been published widely with titles such as ‘Taking Over the Asylum: empowerment and mental health’ (2001, with Ric Bowl, Palgrave), and ‘Care in Everyday Life’ (2012, Policy Press).

Beatrice Gahagan is Health and Wellbeing Development Manager at Age UK Brighton and Hove where she has worked for the last 20 years. Her work has centred on developing and running services for older people and in building a strong culture and value base of person-centred practice. During the last ten years, she has worked with her research colleagues to develop collaborative research work involving older people. She is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British psychological society and has a D Phil on human consciousness and nature.

Lizzie Ward is Principal Research Fellow in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Brighton. Lizzie is a qualitative researcher with research interests in age and ageing, care ethics, participatory research, experiential knowledge and gender and feminist methodologies. She works in the field of community-based participatory research and has a particular interest in co-production and working with older people as co-researchers. She has published in the areas of applying care ethics to research practice and social care practice with older people.

Ageing, feminist ethics of care, participatory research, relationality, experiential knowledge, knowledge exchange, narratives

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Bibliographic Information

Book Title

Re-Imagining Old Age: Wellbeing, care and participation





Number of pages


Physical size

236mm x 160mm

Publication date

February 2018