Open Eye: Applying the biographical approach

It is always something of a shock to recognise that those who are the oldest members of society at the end of the century were the very youngest at the beginning.

Throughout our own lives there have always been people in their 80s and 90s; they always seem to have been there; they always seem to have been old.

Things have to be set in a historical perspective in order to appreciate that many were children when World War I started and young adults when it finished; that they were an important generation in establishing the welfare state.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the School of Health and Social Welfare has sustained a programme of research that has focused on ageing and later life in the UK.

An important feature of this has been an emphasis upon the individual's changing experiences and perspectives: the biographical approach.

As older people, we face changes in circumstances and prospects which we tend to interpret in the context of our lives as a whole.

We compare how we are now with how we have been previously and what appears to be in prospect.

Yet all too often research and policy has viewed later life simply in terms of 'elderly people and their needs', a perspective that ignores experience, expectations and change.

The research undertaken at the Centre for Ageing and Biographical Studies has covered many specific topics: reminiscence in nursing care, ageism and dependency, care at home, methods of assessment, housing, careers, evidence of confusion, family structures and relationships, identity and life stories, health, the management of medication, education and employment.

In addition to undertaking their own research, members of CABS have collaborated with other researchers and agencies in developing new research methods and exploring new issues. Currently, with the Centre for Policy on Ageing, they are organising a series of expert seminars. The most recent, for example, has focused upon the value of literature for the study of ageing.

Much of this work has confirmed the complexity of the biographies of older people. Their lives straddle many different social worlds - housing, health, education, income, family - and their accounts reveal much about how these worlds are inter-connected.

The basic implications for policy and practice in the fields of health and social welfare are clear: work with older people tends to be more successful when based on a biographical approach. CABS is now a recognised centre of excellence in this exciting and challenging field of research.

Further information is available from Antonet Roberts at the School of Health and Social Welfare, Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA.

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