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Narrative - Applications To Aging

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One of the earliest applications of a narrative approach in gerontology was clinical and focused on the life review (Butler and Lewis). Psychiatrist Robert Butler determined that in old age, individuals were likely sooner or later to take stock of their lives in relation to their impending death. The process of coming to terms with the past in relation to the present was called the life review and was seen to have a positive psychological function. Butler advised professional care-givers and service providers to encourage life reviews—narrative reconstructions of a lifetime of experience—as a way of producing overall meaning at life's end. However, the life review approach is controversial because it focuses on the individual and fails to take account of the circumstances of the reconstructions, which may prove to have negative consequences for the life reviewer (Kenyan and Randall).

Anthropologist Sharon R. Kaufman's study of personal narrative and identity in old age has made a significant contribution to the formulation of an area of research now called narrative gerontology (Kenyon, Clark, and de Vries). Kaufman's book The Ageless Self shows that older people are narratively active in conveying the contours of their lives through stories. The plots and themes are not governed by old age itself for Kaufman's respondents, nor by this generation's major historical experiences, such as having lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Significantly, Kaufman's respondents construct the stories of their lives on separate terms, many of them centered on personal values (but see Ruth and Öberg for contrasting results).

Sociologist Jaber F. Gubrium's study of the life narratives of nursing home residents takes this approach into an institutional setting. Gubrium's research focused on the quality of care and of life in the nursing home; he was interested, in particular, in how the residents themselves communicated these qualities. Rather than asking exclusively about the qualities, he raised questions about them in relation to the residents' life stories. The rationale for this was that residents don't leave a lifetime of experiences behind when they check into nursing homes. Interestingly enough, the qualities of life and of care in the nursing homes studied had strikingly distinct meanings. No particular degree of quality of life or of quality of care seemed to matter as much as what the nursing home experience meant in the context of life as a whole. The "same" quality of care, in other words, had different meanings for residents with contrasting life stories.

There are many other new applications in place in gerontology. Researchers have been studying the way that emotional experience is narratively conveyed across the life course. Others are researching the character of storytelling in therapeutic encounters in old age. Some are revisiting the life review approach in nursing practice and in adult education, as well as examining life stories against a variety of historical events (see Birren et al). Studies combining narrative approaches with more traditional, field-based research also are showing considerable promise. Researchers are examining how characterization, plots, and themes are mediated by the social settings in which they are conveyed, such as in focus groups, formal care organizations, and distinct residential environments (see Rowles and Schoenberg). A new technique known as guided autobiography is extending the study of narrative to include the researchers and interviewers as co-storytellers, as those who elicit life stories are taken to be in narrative collaboration with their subjects (Kenyon). Across the board, the research horizon for narrative studies in aging is vibrant and expanding.



BIRREN, J. E.; KENYON, G. M.; RUTH, J.-E.; SCHROOTS, J. J. F.; and SVENSSON, T., eds. Aging and Biography. New York: Springer, 1996.

BUTLER, R. N., and LEWIS, M. Aging and Mental Health. St. Louis, Mo.: C. V. Mosby Co., 1977.

GUBRIUM, J. F. Speaking of Life: Horizons of Meaning for Nursing Home Residents. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter, 1993.

GUBRIUM, J. F., and HOLSTEIN, J. A. The New Language of Qualitative Method. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

HOLSTEIN, J. A., and GUBRIUM, J. F. The Self We Live By: Narrative Identity in a Postmodern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

HYNES, S. The Soldiers' Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War. New York: Penguin, 1997.

JOSSELSON, R., and LIEBLICH, A. The Narrative Study of Lives. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1993.

KAUFMAN, S. R. The Ageless Self: Sources of Meaning in Late Life. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

KENYON, G. M. "Guided Autobiography." In Qualitative Gerontology. Edited by Graham D. Rowles and Nancy Schoenberg. New York: Springer, 2001.

KENYON, G. M. and RANDALL, W. L. Restorying Our Lives: Personal Growth Through Autobiographical Reflection. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.

KENYON, G. M.; PHILLIP, C.; and DE VRIES, B., eds. Narrative Gerontology: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Springer, 2001.

LINDE, C. Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

MCADAMS, D. P. The Stories We Live By. New York: Guilford Press, 1993.

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PROPP, V. The Morphology of the Folk Tale. (1928). Reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.

RIESSMAN, C. K. Narrative Analysis. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1993.

ROSENWALD, G. C., and OCHBERG, R. L., eds. Storied Lives. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

ROWLES, G. D., and SCHOENBERG, N., eds. Qualitative Gerontology, 2d ed. New York: Springer, 2001.

RUTH, J.-E., and ÖBERG, P. "Ways of Life: Old Age in a Life History Perspective." In Aging and Biography. Edited by James E. Birren, Gary M. Kenyon, Jan-Erik Ruth, Johannes J. F. Schroots, and Torbjorn Svensson. New York: Springer, 1996. Pages 167–186.

SACKS, H. Lectures on Conversation, V. I & II. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1992.

SHAW, C. R. The Jack-Roller: A Delinquent Boy's Own Story. (1930). Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

SILVERMAN, D. Harvey Sacks: Social Science and Conversation Analysis. London: Sage, 1998.

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