Narrating the Elusive: Stories of Wellbeing in Later Life

Buckley, Laura Jane (2015) Narrating the Elusive: Stories of Wellbeing in Later Life. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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In recent years, there has been significant interest in the concept of wellbeing in the academic literature. Likewise, Government strategies are increasingly being aligned with the promotion of positive mental health, as opposed to merely the treatment of illness. Experiencing wellbeing in later life has, however, been labelled by some as a ‘paradox’, as the conditions of older age are assumed to be negative and thus at odds with those which sustain wellbeing. On the whole, the notion of wellbeing as applied to older adults has been defined by ‘experts’, and the small number of studies that have examined this from the perspective of older adults have often reduced this to the life domains which support or undermine quality of life. Therefore, in order to gain a richer understanding of this topic, the aim of this study was to further explore older adults’ perceptions and experience of wellbeing.
In this qualitative study, a combination of narrative inquiry and photographic methods were used to elicit wellbeing stories from older adults. Thirteen participants aged 56 – 82 years took photographs of the factors they associated with their wellbeing, which they discussed in narrative interviews. Analysis of these data revealed that there were six ‘narrative types’ present in the stories told by participants; namely Continuity, Proactivity, Opportunity, Recovery, Acceptance and Disruption.
These findings were considered in relation to the narrative elements of tone, plot, agency, temporality and pace. Comparisons were made between the six ‘narrative types’ and the ‘narrative of decline’ which is assumed to shape the stories told by older adults. It emerged that, on the whole, the narratives which were present in my study were positive in tone, had plots of stability or progression, displayed high levels of agency in the storytellers, were placed in the present and within a coherent life story, and revealed a busy pace of life. The ‘narrative of decline’ was found to have little influence over the stories which were told. In addition, it seemed that there may be a new ‘wellbeing’ narrative which is more pertinent to those in younger-old age. Thus my findings suggest that wellbeing can be experienced in later life and that the ‘narrative of decline’ should no longer be automatically cited as the one which shapes the stories older adults can tell about their lives.

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