Why I study older people

Guest blogger: Mary Breheny

Contact: M.R.Breheny@massey.ac.nz

More than ten years ago, I had a freshly minted PhD and was about to launch my research career with a postdoctoral fellowship. My supervisor and I discussed where to next, when she dropped into the conversation: “you will have to do older people, that’s what we are doing now”. I confess, my heart sank. Research on older people was not my idea of an exciting research career.

I did not think researching older people was provocative or challenging. I imagined all the more enticing topics others were doing: alcohol and medications, poverty and inequality and I thought “I don’t want to research older people!”

More than ten years distant from that reaction, I want to tell you why I do research on older age and ageing. And it is not because of population ageing or funding priorities or pragmatics. It is not because I am stuck or narrow or pedantic.

It is because research on older people has it all. It has humour and pathos and poverty and inequalities and discrimination. It incorporates history and social change. All of that which makes us human, is present in research on older age. And from that vantage point, we can see these universal processes anew.

First, History

It is so easy to ignore history in the examination of the here and now, concern with youth and the media and the constant movement of fake news that evaporates within the blink of an eye. Research on and with older people can never tolerate such dislocated immediacy. The present alone cannot provide a strong foundation to understand the future.

Everything which is, has arisen from somewhere. Nothing is ahistorical or vanishes without a trace. Following change over time establishes direction and momentum, teaching us about where we might be heading. Acknowledging history makes our knowledge of the future more nuanced and more grounded.

Ageism – The exclusion we all come to

Even if we have skated through life relatively unhindered by structural disadvantage, unscathed by gendered violence, disabling health conditions, or ordinary bigotry, live long enough and we all experience systematic exclusion of ageism.

It is less likely to play out in abuse hurled on the streets. Instead it plays out in insidious ways, the patronising dismissal of a life of relevance and expertise. Invisibility, fading beneath the notice of those who once sought out your counsel.

Ageism plays out too in the loss of unique-ness. Values and beliefs and carefully reasoned attitudes, reduced into an amorphous shared identity of old-ness. No longer a creature of layers and subtleties, reduced instead to a caricature.

These reductions teach us both about ageism and about how discrimination functions more broadly, how it is put together, and perhaps how it might be dismantled.


Research on older people challenges how we understand equity and equality. When we focus on children and young people, it is tempting to think the goal is to remedy some lack of a level playing field, addressing some unfairness of accident of birth or circumstance. If only we could all start with the same advantages and receive the same resources, then the inequities of the world would not even need to be addressed.

Research with older people teaches us to resist this message. It teaches us that strong communities are not build only on flat ground; they are also built on uneven terrain. Understanding that level playing fields can never be sustained throughout the vagaries of life reinforces that the solution was never levelling the playing field. Instead we learn that how we choose to configure the game shapes who succeeds.


After years of studying older people, I have observed that older age is not the time for self-conscious seriousness. I read the transcripts of interviews with older people and marvel at the ways they play with words, turn a phrase inside-out, and gently mock that which produces them as older people. They know social conventions well enough to flirt with them, to dispense with them.

One message that researching later life repeatedly teaches me – that which we daily strive for is revealed belatedly as so much noise.

To Finish

I would like to give the penultimate words to the late Professor Oliver Sachs, professor of neurology who described old age in this way:

“At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”

And this is my conclusion: Proximity to such perspective is the profound gift of research on older age.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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1 Response to Why I study older people

  1. This is such a wise and eloquent manifesto! I will think about it all day. May I please republish it on my blog next week, with a link to this page?

    Liked by 1 person

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