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Elderhood: Theory, policy and practice

My name is Jude Parker, and I am an undergraduate student at King’s College London. I currently work as a Gateway Assessor for Citizens Advice Southwark, and I am pursuing a career in the charity and NGO sector.

Recently, I have produced a literature review of the uses of the terms ‘elder’ and ‘elderhood’ in UK policy for the SACCY project. I’d like to introduce the review and detail how it was conducted, and how future research can broaden our understanding of these terms.

Elderhood SAACY

Image of an older man drinking coffee in a cafe while listening to music, from the image library of the Centre for Ageing Better.


Elderhood and Ageing

Before conducting this review, I had very little knowledge of how these terms are used in the Global North, particularly in the context of medicine or gerontology. I began by scoping out popular uses of ‘elderhood’ within biomedical discourse to understand how it could be used in policy. Dr Louis Aronson, an American geriatrician, grounded my understanding of ‘elderhood’ as a stage of life. Aronson discusses elderhood in opposition to the Western societal construct of ageing and its association with decline and obsolescence that is rooted in mechanistic, biological perspective of the human experience. From my further research into the work of gerontologists, such as Jenny Inker and Tracy Gendron, I understood that ‘elderhood’ can be used to describe the holistic, lived experience of later life that acknowledges the developments and adjustments which are natural to the ageing process.

I also wanted to explore ‘elderhood’ as a social identity further: a consistent feature of ‘elderhood’ across the literature was the idea that the chronological ageing process does not shape the identity of elders as much as their psychological response to adopting this new sociocultural identity. The identity of an ‘elder’ that acknowledges both the opportunities and challenges of ageing, not just the physical changes that occur. Subsequently, I could draw comparisons between Western and non-Western conceptions of elderhood. Much of the literature I found on non-Western conceptions of ‘elderhood’ discusses the incompatibility of elderhood with free market capitalism during the colonial era. I gained a sense of how neoliberal cultures have appropriated ‘elderhood’ in line with its understanding of economic productivity. I also understood the intersectionality of elderhood, and how it is used in sociology, biology, gerontology, psychology and policy.

Elderhood SAACY 1

Image of two older women chatting and smilling at a Knit and Natter coffee morning, from the image library of the Centre for Ageing Better.


UK Policy

Finding and identifying consistent uses of the terms ‘elderhood’ and ‘elder’ was difficult. It became clear that elderhood is not an established term in UK policy, and it wasn’t used in the same breath as ‘childhood ‘or ‘adulthood’ when discussing age-specific policies. I found no references to the term ‘elderhood’ in any UK legislation since 2000. Furthermore, any uses of the term ‘elder’ was mostly used as a prefix for either ‘care’ or ‘abuse’. My initial reaction to seeing the term ‘elder abuse’ was to question its consistency with the idea of elderhood, the destigmatisation of ageing, and a holistic understanding of the natural ageing process. However, after reading the various reports on elder abuse, I decided that ‘elder abuse’ acknowledges that ageing necessitates the formation of relations of trust between older people and caregivers, that can make elders susceptible to forms of abuse. It had some relevance to the purpose of my research.

I researched uses of the term ‘elder’ in policy reports on minority groups in the UK. In these policy documents, the word ‘elder’ was used in direct reference to older members of minority communities, evoking similar connotations of ‘elderhood’ as it is used in indigenous and spiritual communities. It was interesting to see how the term ‘elder’ was being used in these instances, particularly as some of these reports would make policy recommendations on relevant issues, such as protecting Bangladeshi elders from racial abuse, for example. I was trying to gain a broad understanding of how ‘elder’ was being used in UK policy documents, and whether there was any consistency across its use. It became clear that there was not a consistent application of ‘elderhood’ across UK policy discourse, which might be a testament to its lack of currency in the UK.

I could also find examples of where the descriptive indicators of elderhood had been used to describe policy directives in the UK. For example, guidance published by the Office for Health and Improvement describes the fundamentals of elderhood without referencing the word itself. So, there were clearly instances where the UK has not followed other countries, such as the US, in integrating ‘elderhood’ into its discussions around ageing, but I wanted to research which models of practice from other countries could be beneficial to the UK.

Overall, I was pleased to see semblance of use in regard to elderhood and UK policy. I thoroughly enjoyed conducting the review because it enabled me to think more broadly about age, and the linguistic devices that are used to describe ageing in policy.


The Sciences of Ageing and the Culture of Youth (SAACY) is a project funded by a UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship. It looks at how we talk and think about ageing and how…

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