Negotiating ‘positive’ aging in the presence of age-related vision loss

by Colleen McGrath
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Over the past two decades, there has been a growing focus on how to support older adults to achieve so-called ‘positive’ aging. Discourses of positive aging have established a vision for ‘aging well’ that counters long-held negative stereotypes (Asquith, 2009); however, concerns have been raised that these discourses are exclusionary, notably in relation to aging persons who experience illness, impairment, and disability. While previous research has explored the meaning of positive aging discourses from the perspective of older adults, the perspectives of older adults aging with a disability have rarely been studied. Positive aging discourses are vital to consider because they influence how individuals and collectives come to think about what ‘aging well’ means and what facilitates ‘aging well’ (Cardona, 2008).

In our recent article (McGrath et al., 2016) we drew on the results from a critical ethnography to outline how positive aging discourses, that are embedded within ageist and disablist assumptions, served to shape and perpetuate the disability experience for ten older adults with age-related vision loss (ARVL). The study was underpinned by the key tenets of critical gerontology (Estes, Biggs & Phillipson, 2003) and disability studies (Ferguson & Nusbaum, 2012). The guiding research questions for this study focused on: a) what are the attributes that older adults with ARVL perceive as being the markers of a ‘good old age’? and; b) how are these markers, and their disabling effects, situated in ageist and disablist social assumptions regarding what it means to ‘age well’?

Findings from this study focused on the meanings older adults ascribed to ‘aging well’ within the context of living with ARVL. The participants’ descriptions of markers of a ‘good old age’ were organized into five main themes including: 1) maintaining independence while negotiating help; 2) responding positively to vision loss; 3) remaining active while managing risk; 4) managing expectations to be compliant, complicit, and cooperative and; 5) striving to maintain efficiency. These findings provide insight into how disability is re-produced among older adults with ARVL and how older adults take on an identity that is consistent with many of the socially embedded norms regarding what it means to ‘age well’. While the first three findings from this study supported and built on findings from previous research (Laliberte Rudman et al., 2010; Moore, 2000; Moore & Miller, 2003) the findings regarding being efficient as well as being compliant, complicit, and cooperative, represent new markers of ‘aging well’ with vision loss.

The study results provide a better understanding of the complex interaction of age and disability. Results from older adults with ARVL deconstruct the normative assumptions ascribed to ‘ageing well’, and demonstrate how everyday negotiations can shape and reshape disability in later life. The study further uncovered some of the tensions older adults negotiate in their attempt to maintain an identity of ‘ageing well’ that is commensurate with broader messages conveyed through positive aging discourses.
This blog has been adapted from the publication: McGrath, C., Laliberte Rudman, D., Polgar, J., Spafford, M., & Trentham, B. (2016). Negotiating ‘positive’ aging in the presence of age-related vision loss (ARVL): The shaping and perpetuation of disability. Journal of Aging Studies, 39, 1-10.

Asquith, N. (2009). Positive ageing, neoliberalism and Australian sociology. The Australian Sociological Association, 45(3), 255-269.

Cardona, B. (2008). ‘Healthy Aging’ policies and anti-aging ideologies and practices: on the exercise of responsibility. Medicine Health Care and Philosophy, 11, 475-483.

Estes, C., Biggs, S., & Phillipson, C. (2003). Social Theory, Social Policy and Aging A Critical Introduction. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.

Ferguson, P. M., & Nusbaum, E. (2012). Disability studies: What is it and what difference does it make? Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 37(2), 70-80.

Laliberte Rudman, D., Huot, S., Klinger, L., Leipert, B., & Spafford, M. (2010). Struggling to maintain occupation while dealing with risk: The experiences of older adults with low vision. Occupation, Participation and Health, 30(2), 87-96.

Moore, L. (2000). Severe visual impairment in older women. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 22(5), 571-595.

Moore, L., & Miller, M. (2003). Older men’s experiences of living with severe visual impairment. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 43(1), 10-18.

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