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.

Rethinking Age in the Context of Care

Age- and stage-based assumptions are deeply embedded in care models and across care practices (Grenier, 2012). Whether care is used to refer broadly to a concept, institutional and organisational practices, or to denote relationships between families and older people, age and care are intricately intertwined. This entry focuses on care provision as a site from which to consider the intersections of age and care, and whether current models are in line with older people’s needs, and the new realities of ageing. Care is often linked with discourses of dependence, and paradoxically associated with potential in youth, and decline in age (see Irwin, 1995; Gullette, 2004). In late life, care tends to be delivered based on age eligibility. Yet, with age and what it ‘means to grow old’ an increasingly contested terrain, it is time to reconsider how age is enacted or sustained through care practices, and consider whether age-based models of care are suitable in the contemporary context.


A number of complexities exist when we begin to unpick age and the organisation of care. Formal care provision tends to be delivered through age-based segments of youth and old age. Few formal care services are life-long. Yet, the separation of the life course into age- and stage-based periods, age as an organising principle, and former notions of ageing as decline have been called into question (Featherstone and Hepworth, 1991; Hockey and James, 2003). At the level of personal experience, older people voice that ‘they are not old’ – that the age they are assigned contrasts with their experience and sense of self (see Kaufman, 1986; Bytheway, 2011). This has created a disjuncture where suggested models and expectations are concerned, as well as an alignment with new forms of ageing that emphasise success, health and well-being (see Katz, 2005). And while universal understandings of age are quickly being unravelled, undeniable needs for care amongst older people continue to exist. Older people may need care at various points across their life course as a result of disability or chronic illness, ‘frailty’ or end of life issues, and/or at particular marginalised locations (e.g., poverty, older homelessness). Yet, are such needs for care age-based?


We are at a crossroads where the age-based provision of care is concerned. Although reconfigurations of policy based on chronological age are underway (e.g., public pension), current examples focus on age adjustments, rather than on differing needs or alternate arrangements. Perhaps the retention of age is prudent considering the realities of ageism, reconfiguring age to reduce social expenditure, and the structured inequities in late life (see Gee and Gutman, 2000). However, the contemporary context calls for reflection at minimum. How do we catch up with emerging realities of aging and adjust the organisation of care accordingly? Should age be used to organise care services? If so, in what circumstances? If not, how can we assure that those in need are not further marginalised? Such questions represent a starting point from which to reconsider age-based models of care, question underlying assumptions, and reconfigure care practices so that they are more aligned with changing notions of age and contemporary care needs.


Amanda Grenier, PhD, Associate Professor, McMaster University


twitter: @amanda__grenier



Bytheway, B. (2011). Unmasking age: the significance of age for social research. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Featherstone, M., and Hepworth, M. (1991). ‘The mask of ageing and the postmodern lifecourse’ In M. Featherstone, M. Hepworth and A. Wernick (eds) Images of ageing, London: Routledge.

Gee, E. M., and Gutman, G. M. (2000). The overselling of population aging: apocalyptic demography, intergenerational challenges, and social policy, New York: Oxford University Press.

Grenier, A. (2012). Transitions and the lifecourse: challenging the constructions of ‘growing old‘. Bristol: Policy Press.

Gullette, M. M. (2004). Aged by culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hockey, J., and James, A. (2003). Social identities across the lifecourse, Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan.

Irwin, S. (1995). Rights of passage: social change and the transition from youth to adulthood,  London and Bristol: UCL Press.

Katz, S. (2005). Cultural aging: life course, lifestyle, and senior worlds, Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Kaufman, S. (1986). The ageless self: sources of meaning in late life, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.


A Darker Side to Care..?

It’s been great to read the diverse blogs on this site and the definite slant given by commentaries on issues of identity and sexuality to the challenge of revaluing care. Some time ago I attended a meeting with some of the other members of this network where we raised the question of what is ‘queer care’. And more specifically, how could we go about finding out how it was practised and what it meant to people? We were interested in the lived realities of care for LGBT people but also whether queer theory could offer a framework for making sense of this experience.
Of the still very limited research on care in the context of LGBT ageing there is every indication that helping relationships are organised rather differently to traditional binary notions of the care-giver and care-receiver. For instance, Ann Cronin and Andy King’s work suggests interdependence over dependence in lesbian and gay relationships.  Research with the trans community by Sally Hines also points to support clusters and collective ways of helping people rather than dyadic carer/caree encounters. While Margrit Shildrick and Janet Price’s joint work on intercorporeality and their notion of ‘two bodies becoming together…’ sheds a very different light on how we think about the body itself and its potential in helping situations. However, the closeness and intimacy signalled by these accounts stand in contrast to findings regarding care for older LGBT people of the more formal/paid variety.
Here, care is an uneasy term, and comes with baggage. This is why it has been all but bracketed off in critical disability studies, with the intention that this may lead to more novel ways of thinking about the helping relationships that evolve between people. Perhaps then a queer approach could also usefully begin by treating care with caution –  after all there’s no saying that ‘revaluing care’ might not lead us to decide it is a less useful term for future understandings of helping relationships rather than necessarily investing it with new worth. Many LGBT people’s experiences invite such a possibility because so much of what is badged as care can be experienced as very negative and damaging. This can range from the wholesale neglect of the individual supposed to be ‘in care’ to a diverse range of sometimes more subtle indicators of disapproval, disgust or rejection communicated verbally, behaviourally, emotionally, viscerally etc. and all of which are enfolded within care practices. To date, these experiences are not well documented, partly because LGBT people in the ‘Fourth Age’ are largely invisible and ignored by mainstream gerontology, as Ann Cronin has pointed out, and often are too concerned for their safety to identify themselves in the context of relying upon care services. Do the assumptions that underpin how we currently think and talk about care serve to perpetuate the cultural silence about this darker side?
Taken collectively, research to date tells us that many LGBT people are afraid of a time when they might require care. Findings in the UK and US have uncovered significant numbers who would rather take their life than be admitted to a care home and many more who report a fear of care that involves body work and the prospect of being exposed to and handled by a care worker (although much of this research has been conducted with fit and independent people being asked to anticipate the need for care rather than describe the experience of it). Ironically, older LGBT people are more likely to require formal care by virtue of being less likely to have children and more likely to live alone, but evidence suggests many delay or refuse altogether the uptake of services due to anticipation of negative treatment and its impact upon their lives. At the very least then, formal care has a serious reputation problem in certain quarters. But research with older LGBT people also suggests it has a dark side – one that is perhaps most visible from certain (queer) standpoints. In our efforts to debate and revalue care maybe we should begin with the perspectives of those who have a close-up on the under-side of care and its darker recesses. And perhaps the place to start in ‘queering’ care is to dispense with the term altogether in an effort to find alternative ways of capturing helping relationships and reconfiguring the terrain of help and support in later life in ways that might feel more acceptable to minoritised groups…?