About Rachel Barken

Biography: Rachel Barken is a doctoral student in Sociology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. Her research interests include care relationships and concepts of interdependence, aging and critical gerontology, gender, and paid and unpaid caring labour. Her doctoral dissertation examines the ways older adults negotiate boundaries between homecare workers and family/friend caregivers. This research seeks to inform homecare services policies in a way that privileges the perspectives and interests of people directly involved in care relationships.

Considering Age Relations in Research on Care

Rachel Barken

Concerns abound regarding the social, political, economic, and individual changes necessary to care for a growing population of older adults experiencing physical and cognitive decline.  These concerns are evident in academic scholarship, with a large body of research advancing theory and practice on caregiving and receiving in later life. Despite this focus on older adults, however, the ways age relations frame experiences of care are not clearly articulated. The concept of age relations, which owes much to the work of Toni Calasanti (e.g. Calasanti, 2003, 2006), considers the structured social relations that frame interactions among members of different age groups. Age is relational because one’s membership in an age group is defined in relation to other age groups, and because membership in these groups forms the basis for access to, or exclusion from, various rights and privileges. Inequalities among age groups intersect with other power relations associated with gender, class, and race/ethnicity. In this blog post I outline three ways theorizing age relations might move forward perspectives on later life care.

First, theorizing age relations helps to understand how care for older adults is conceptualized differently than care for people in other age groups. Feminists have long recognized that patriarchal conditions diminish the value of caring for ‘dependents,’ including children, disabled people, and older adults. But the devaluation of care work depends on the social status of those who are being cared for (Calasanti, 2006). The theory of age relations, with its emphasis on relational inequalities between and among members of different age groups, helps to explain why some forms of care are more highly valued than others. Because youth is regarded as a transitional status with such positive attributes as “ ‘hope’ or ‘future,’ ” (Calasanti, 2003, 208), childcare is often considered a generative task. By contrast care needs in later life are typically associated with physical decline, impairment, and weakness. These conditions present a permanent change in status and exclusion from previous activities rather than a temporary sick role from which one will emerge. Thus, older adults needing care are often viewed as a burden. The prevalence of debates regarding ways to minimize the economic and social costs of eldercare and the low status and of paid and unpaid caregiving for older adults are indicative of the inequalities among age groups that tend to disadvantage older adults and those caring for them.

Second, theorizing age relations brings into view the structured contexts that shape experiences of care. Social relations are structural in the sense that they frame people’s life course experiences and relationships with others. Theorizing age relations reminds us that the problems associated with later life cannot be solely attributed to physiological aging processes or to individual decisions made throughout the life course; rather, they emerge in socio-structural contexts.  For example common understandings and responses to age are embedded in policies guiding the distribution of pension incomes and spending on health and social care. These policies have a very real impact on older adults’ experiences of giving and receiving care.

Third, theorizing age relations gives insight on the intersecting relations of advantage and disadvantage—including class, age, gender, and race/ethnicity— that frame caregiving and receiving. These relations do not completely determine people’s life chances, but they do frame the contexts in which individuals act and interact (McMullin, 2000). An important difference between age relations and other forms of inequality is that aging is a universal experience. All people who live long enough to grow old will experience the marginalization associated with later life in an ageist society (Calasanti, 2003). The extent of this marginalization varies, though, as it intersects with class, gender, and race/ethnicity relations occurring throughout the life course. A framework that accounts for intersecting relations of inequality helps to explain, for example, older adults’ differential access to care and involvement in caring relationships.

Theorizing age relations has much to contribute to critical understandings of later life care. Debates regarding the relative influence of structure and agency, however, point to the potential limits of age relations. This concept recognizes that individuals hold the capacity to exert agency in the context of structured social relations, but primarily emphasizes the structural conditions that disadvantage older adults. This focus on disadvantage might inadvertently contribute to older people’s powerlessness. To avoid this risk, age relations must be theorized from the standpoint of older adults’ everyday, lived experiences (King, 2006). Theorizing age relations in research on older adults’ experiences of giving and receiving care can shed light on a private setting in which relations of dependency, power, and control between and among members of different age groups are worked out.


Calasanti, T. M. (2003). Theorizing age relations. In S. Biggs, A. Lowenstein & J. Hendricks (Eds.), The need for theory: Critical approaches to social gerontology (pp. 199-218). Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Calasanti, T.M. (2006). Gender and old age: Lessons from spousal care. In T. M. Calasanti, & K. F. Slevin (Eds.), Age matters: Realigning feminist thinking (pp. 269-294). New York: Routledge.

King, N. (2006). The lengthening list of oppressions: Age relations and the feminist study of inequality. Age matters: Realigning feminist thinking (pp. 47-74). New York: Routledge.

McMullin, J. A. (2000). Diversity and the state of sociological aging theory. The Gerontologist, 40(5), 517-530.





Rethinking the Care Needs of Older Homeless People

by Rachel Barken and Amanda Grenier

The care needs of older adults experiencing physical and cognitive decline generate much attention in political, popular, and academic debates. Yet, particular subgroups of the older population are often overlooked. Such is the case for older homeless people, whose numbers are increasing across Canada and internationally. Older homelessness is also largely invisible in academic study, although interest is beginning to turn in this direction. Few gerontological works focus on homelessness, and studies on homelessness are often organized around earlier parts of the life course (Crane & Warnes, 2005; McDonald, Dergal, & Cleghorn, 2007). As a result, we know little about older homeless adults’ needs for care.

Our research project, “Homelessness in Late life: Growing Old on the Streets, in Shelters, and Long-term Care” explores the challenges older homelessness brings for aging societies as a whole and for service providers working in housing, shelter and long-term care. It involves a critical policy analysis; qualitative interviews with service providers and older homeless people; and participant observation in homeless shelters in Montreal, Quebec. This blog reports preliminary results from interviews with 15 service providers working with older homeless people. Interviews revealed three findings relevant to the challenges and contradictions of later life homelessness: (1) the need to adapt current approaches to homelessness to better accommodate older people, (2) the need to develop and sustain affordable housing across the life course, and (3) the inherent emotional conflicts and contradictions associated with homelessness in late life.

First, homelessness tends to be approached as a rupture in the life course requiring an emergency response. Support services are often provided in reaction to a fixed event, with the aim of reconnecting people with work or housing.  Interviews with service providers, though, reveal that older homelessness is often the result of marginal and precarious positions over time. The combined implications of social marginalization and older age means that traditional solutions based on work and housing are less able to ‘fix’ the problem of older homelessness. A deeper understanding of the interconnected individual and structural forces leading to later life homelessness is necessary.

Second, older people are caught between various housing and long-term care models. Housing options for older homeless adults in Canada include affordable housing units, alternative housing models, emergency shelters, and residential and long-term care facilities. Yet there is often a disjuncture between housing policies and practices on the one hand, and older homeless adults’ experiences, needs, and abilities on the other. Older people may need to compete against younger groups for subsidised housing. Pensions provide a certain level of income, but this does not address the shortage in supported housing options. Add to this that shelters or rooming houses are not intended as spaces to grow old. They are not adapted to changes in mobility and certainly do not qualify as ‘home’. Long-term care is also often inaccessible to older homeless people. They either cannot afford long-term care, or their needs cannot easily be accommodated in institutional environments.

Our third finding is perhaps most interesting to the debates circulating on this blog. Although workers do not necessarily name it as such, their interviews convey emotional, moral, and ethical conflicts around service priorities, personal associations, and expectations of aging. Their comments that one is ‘not expected to be homeless in later life’ poignantly articulate the conflicts that they experience with regards to aging and marginalisation and a profound helplessness given the lack of service options available for older homeless people.

In sum, homelessness rarely figures in to discussions of later life care. This leaves us with few directives when attempting to care for older homelessness people. We suggest that a life course perspective could be fruitfully applied to understand major pathways into homelessness, particularly risk factors and trigger events, and their prevalence across the life course. With this in place, it is necessary to design housing and care options that suit older homeless people’s diverse needs, abilities, and interests. Finally, it is urgent for discussions of later life care to address the realities of homelessness in particular, and social marginalization more generally. Our project, grounded in empirical data, seeks to generate knowledge that will enable policymakers and practitioners to account for homelessness in their responses to later life care.


Crane, M., & Warnes, A. (2005). Responding to the needs of older homeless people.         Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 18(2), 137-152.

McDonald, L., Dergal, J., & Cleghorn, L. (2007). Living on the margins: Older homeless    adults in Toronto. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 49(1-2), 19-46.

* The results discussed in this blog are part of an ongoing study being carried out at the Old Brewery Mission in Montreal, and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada: Homelessness in Late Life: Growing Old on the Streets, in Shelters and Long-term Care: Amanda Grenier (PI), Tamara Sussman, David Rothwell and Jean-Pierre Lavoie.

Amanda Grenier, PhD, is Director of the Gilbrea Centre for the Studies of Aging, Gilbrea Chair in Aging and Mental Health, and Associate Professor in Health, Aging and Society at McMaster University, Canada.

Rachel Barken is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at McMaster University and Research Assistant on the Homelessness in Late Life research project.