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.