Emerging Critical Perspectives

Reflecting the emergence of critical perspectives in both social gerontology and human geography, research published since the mid 1990s draws much more on social theory, focuses on constructions and representations of aging and challenges accepted social norms about aging. Moving away from treating older people as 'objects' of study, several studies engage with aging and the concept of embodiment, and talk in depth with older people to explore their perceptions of health and aging and their negotiations and changing relationships with spaces and places. Other studies attempt to understand how places reveal social attitudes and values about aging. For example, as highlighted in residential versus community care debate discussed above, retirement homes are recognized to mean something to both individuals and society as a whole but, in turn, feed back into social perceptions of what it is like to be old. On the other hand, commentators have also considered more positive places and activities of healthy aging, what the sociologist Andrew Blaikie refers to as part of new landscapes of later life. Examples here include retirement communities, RVing (campervan ing), and Universities of the Third Age. Geographers and others have identified the commodification of healthy aging and, as part of this, the radical fracturing of traditional spaces of aging and common understanding of them. All this is part of an understanding, noted earlier, that because of changes in health status, life expectancy, services, and greater wealth, older people are able to enjoy more varied and active personal and social lives than previous generations.

Another strand of recent geographical research has focused on the 'cataloging' of older age and places of old age in photography, painting, and the media. Concerned with ageism and stereotyping, these studies articulate who are included, not included, and how they are positioned in such materials and practices. With respect to ageism and terminology, it is also notable that researchers have gradually moved away from using terms such as 'the elderly' and 'elderly people', that might be perceived to categorize and problematize older age, to using such terms as 'older people' which are generally accepted to be less harmful. Commentators have also begun to deconstruct what Blaikie describes as imagined landscapes of aging identity. In this research, geographical metaphors are explored including life's late journeys, paths traveled, autumn years, and the sunsets of our lives.