Remembering My Hat

21st March 2011

Pictures of ageing

I’m trying out an image-searching Activity I’m planning for K319. The students are going to do a tutorial from the OU library on searching for images on the internet and using them legally (creative commons and suchlike). I just need to find some search terms that are likely to work for them, so they can apply their new skills to a topic of relevance to the bit of the course they will be studying that week.

My first search of Flikr, limited to creative commons licensed images, used the search term ‘ageing’. This is not going to work as most of the pictures that come up are nothing to do with ageing (or not that I can see, anyway). But there were one or two lovely images which I am posting here in case I want to use them again:

(cc) magnificentfrigatebird

(cc) quentinsf

(cc) ectopiclight

(cc) ma neeks

(cc) The Nice Flavor

I think I’d better stop, I’m getting carried away. So many lovely, lovely images!

Actually, I think maybe this Activity will work, if I reconceptualise it  a bit. I was thinking of getting them to choose lots of images of something and make some generalisations about them. For that, a search term that gets lots of suitable hits would be a big help. But I think it would work just as well if I asked them to find just one image that they find compelling/interesting/informative about ageing, and then get them to articulate what it is about it that made them pick it. So I will try it myself based on these images.

Ah, I immediately discover that I’d choose different ones for different adjectives.

Most beautiful would be the faded rose one, but I probably wouldn’t choose that in a public forum (which this wouldn’t necessarily be for the students) because it seems cheesy and corny for a professional gerontologist, and a bit suspect and sleazy for a relatively-young person to talk about the beauty of ageing. But (pseudo-privately) I do think that’s what makes that picture beautiful. A picture of that rose a week prior would have been obvious and not very interesting (I have several like that in my own photo albums). The ageing of that rose, to my eye, makes it more beautiful.

Most compelling for me would be the woman playing the harmonica. I like the way her gaze looks simultaneously abstracted and focused – abstracted from the photographer and the viewer but focused on the playing. I like the emphasis on her arms and their skin markings and the bags under her eyes. I like it as an image of an older(ish) person that is outside the usual canons of frail vulnerable care-receiver or golden retirement consumer heaven (Bytheway, 2003; Williams et al., 2010)

I might need to do some more distinguishing between whether I want the students to chose powerful images (which is what I’m mostly choosing) or images that suggest something interesting to them about ageing (which might be the same, but might not). But that’s a minor tweak to work out later.

Hooray for blogging – it not only helps me remember things for later, but also gives me ideas for the present.


Bytheway, Bill, (2003) ‘Visual representations of late life’. In Faircloth, C.A. (ed), Aging Bodies: Images and Everyday Experience, Altamira, Walnut Creek, California.

Williams, Angie, Wadleigh, Paul, Ylänne, Virpi, (2010) ‘Images of older people in UK magazine advertising: toward a typology’, International Journal of Aging & Human Development, Vol. 71 Issue 2, p83-114,


10th March 2011

Slow liveblog on ‘positive ageing’: Part 2

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The next installment of chronicling my getting-to-grips with the concepts of positive/active/successful ageing.

(cc) twicepix

I’ve just read this paper:

Minkler, M., & Holstein, M. B. (2008). From civil rights to … civic engagement? Concerns of two older critical gerontologists about a “new social movement” and what it portends. Journal of Aging Studies, 22(2), 196-204.

from which I have learned that the debate in the US is also about ‘civic engagement’ in later life. Part of Minkler and Holstein’s argument is that this theoretically broad idea of continuing political participation and active involvement in community life in practice gets reduced to formal volunteering in public or private organisations. They identify a number of problems with this, some of which are quite theoretical about the nature of subjectivity. Since I’m wanting to end up with something I can use to teach students, I’m going to focus on trying to render their more theoretical observations into something that I think will be more comprehensible to the sort of students I think are going to study this course:

  • that it has the effect of equating older people’s value with their continuing productivity. If you’re not producing something of public value, through volunteering, you’re not seen as ageing well.
  • that it privileges the public sphere over the private. Many older women have substantial childcare responsibilities for their grandchildren which preclude volunteering, but this isn’t seen as civic engagement.
  • that it doesn’t allow for acts of self-nurture, which people also need.
  • volunteering is much more possible for the fit and healthy than for those with health problems. Emphasising the importance of volunteering further suggests that the oldest old (the ‘fourth agers’) are not legitimate/significant/ageing well.
  • It doesn’t recognise economic differences. You can’t afford to volunteer in later life if you are still working in low paid jobs. (And I’d add, with my ex-volunteer-co-ordinator hat on, volunteering can cost you money, even within a well-managed scheme which pays expenses. Not large amounts of money but amounts that you notice if you are living on a very limited budget).
  • the emphasis on volunteering doesn’t tend to count political activism or other more contested, less apple-pie, forms of public engagement. It’s all about mitigating the status quo, rather than transforming it
  • it’s all just a way of getting older people to do for free the work that governments and other organisations ought to be doing and paying people to do (there’s an obvious link here to critiques of the Big Society idea here in the UK).

That feels like incremental additions to my previous understandings, but useful ones. I don’t think this is the droid article I’m looking for for the students, as it seems the debate is too different in the US.

3rd March 2011

Liveblogging a potential research/teaching synergy

One of the things academics are always encouraged to do is to achieve synergies between our research and our teaching activities.

(cc) Ankher

In my experience, it’s relatively straightforward to put your research into your teaching materials, as long as you are lucky enough to be working on a course that has some relevance to your research (not always the case). It’s great when that is possible, because you (hopefully) end up with teaching materials that are both cutting-edge and deeply theorised.

Sometimes your reseach and your teaching get so beautifully synchronised that you can’t tell any more which is driving which, as happened for me last year with imagining futures.

But I also really like it when my teaching leads to research areas. That happened a little bit with the concept of ‘life courses’ last year, although it feels as if I haven’t got into that properly yet in research terms. And now I can see another possible one coming along.

I need to write a new section for K319 introducing and then critiquing the notion of ‘Positive’ or ‘Active’ or ‘Successful’ ageing. This is a literature about which I know a bit but am no expert. My intial literature review found nothing suitable for students because the topic seems to get so quickly into (relatively) deep theory. One of my colleagues suggested I should write something more accessible myself. It does seem like the sort of thing I might write, since I’m interested in the topic and various people have told me that putting theory into relatively accessible terms is one of my Special Skills. It’s too late to do that for the K319 Reader, but that might be something I do in the future. Or I might not.

But either way, I need to gen up on the topic for K319 and I’m bearing in mind that it might turn into a more research kind of output too. So I thought I would do a sort of slow liveblog of how I get on with that project, even if it turns out to go nowhere in research terms.

Here’s pretty much my current summary of the debate, as sent to a producer who is creating me some film and audio clips to help introduce and personify the topic:

‘Successful/positive/active ageing’ means encouraging older people to remain physically and socially active, aiming to get away from the notion of older people as passive and needy. The critique is basically that that’s all very well, but it’s not possible for all older people, especially the oldest old, those on modest incomes and those without good health. There should be ways of being old that are not about being as much like a younger person as possible.”

I will post  more when I have a better understanding of the topic than that.

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