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.





Care in the first two years of life: OXPIP and the emerging discipline of parent-infant psychotherapy

By Adrian Sell, Executive Director, OXPIP: The Oxford Parent Infant Project

OXPIP is one of the organisations pioneering parent-infant psychotherapy. Founded in 1998 we have been working in Oxfordshire to provide support to parents who are struggling to form a secure attachment to their baby. In the last three years we have worked with over 900 families and consistently improved mental health and the quality of the parent-infant relationship[1]. We work with babies up to the age of two and their parents, normally the mother but we have worked with many fathers as well.

Parent-infant psychotherapy is distinguished by the attention it brings to the mother’s mental health, the baby’s mental health and, crucially, to the quality of the relationship between parent and baby. This focus on the quality of the care that comes from this early experience is critical to our success in addressing intergenerational cycles of disadvantage. We all have a tendency to default to parenting our children as we were parented, even if those relationships were withdrawn, unpredictable or harmful.

Our clinicians are skilled at enabling parents to build and sustain closer relationships with their children. One of the therapeutic tools for achieving this is through modelling thoughtful, empathic ways of relating within the therapeutic relationship. For some of the parents we work with this is the first time they have really experienced being thought about and related to in this way; it can be a powerful tool for change, opening up new possibilities for how they in turn can relate to their babies.

Our team of psychotherapists come from a range of backgrounds including Child Psychotherapy, Adult Psychotherapy and Clinical Psychology as well as including prior qualifications in Health Visiting, Nursing, Midwifery, Social Work and Teaching. All have undergone Infant Observation training, and are trained in the use of video through the (NICE approved) Video Interaction Guidance approach. This mix of backgrounds and approaches gives our work a strength and rigour that forces us to constantly challenge our own preconceptions and viewpoints.

We are part of a growing national movement of people and organisations who are bringing greater focus to the first years of life. Our Executive Director, Adrian Sell is a trustee of PIP-UK a new national charity seeking to support similar services to develop elsewhere. We have backing from Impetus – The Private Equity Foundation where we are one of twenty-five organisations they see as critical social game-changers supporting disadvantaged children to develop to their full potential. We are a member of the Centre for Social Justice Alliance where we are recognised for our effectiveness in tackling the root causes of poverty and disadvantage. We are supporters of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Conception to Age 2 – the first 1001 days

We all instinctively know that the first few years of our life are formative. There is also considerable neuroscientific evidence that has emerged to support this. OXPIP are now at the forefront of developing an evidence base for the positive impact that parent-infant psychotherapy can have. If you want to find out more then please look at our website, get in touch or leave a comment below.

OXPIP: The Oxford Parent Infant Project
Suite J
The Kidlington Centre
T: 01865 371080 or 01865 778034