THE ROLE OF CREATIVITY IN THE LIVES
OF SUCCESSFULLY AGING WOMEN
A QUALITATIVE STUDY
Alice F. Lyons Parker
B. A, Metropolitan State College of Denver, 1989
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Social Science
1996 by Alice F. Lyons Parker
All rights reserved
This thesis for the Master of Social Science
Alice F. Lyons Parker
has been approved
Lyons Parker, Alice F. (M.S.S. Social Science)
The Role of Creativity in the Lives of Successfully Aging Women
Thesis directed by Professor Jana Everett
This thesis developed out of my interest in investigating the personality traits
of women who appear to be successfully negotiating their aging process. This
qualitative, interpretative research project was designed to utilize life narrative
interviews, collected from ten women age sixty and beyond. All are middle class,
' seven women are white, two are Hispanic, and one is African American. After the
interviews were recorded and transcribed, I analyzed the interviews in the context of
identifying common personality traits and characteristics that could be considered
necessary for a successful aging process. As a part of this study, I investigated
creativity in an effort to gain understanding of the role, if any, it plays in the lives of
women who appear to be successful agers. To investigate the developmental process
of the ten women, I utilized a theory developed around a social historical framework
based on the work of L. S. Vygotsky, and Barbara Rogoff.
This study does support the premise that successfully aging women share
common personality traits, and also that creativity plays a pivotal role in the
successful aging of the ten women. This study indicates that social/historical context
exerts great influences on the development of the personality of individuals across
the life course. Continued investigation into this subject could provide needed
indicators for researchers who are involved in investigating differences in individuals
across race/class/ethnicity/gender and sexual preference differences.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
To Frances, with gratitude, admiration, respect and eternal love.
To the ten wonderful women who graciously participated in this project, I
send my heartfelt thanks and deepest appreciation. This study would not have been
possible without your participation. Becoming acquainted with you and listening to
your stories has enriched my life beyond measure. When developing the profiles in
Chapter Three, every effort was made to accurately represent your story and at the
same time, protect your anonymity. My sincere apology for any failure on my part in
The journey toward this thesis began when I initiated my undergraduate work
in 1986. During the past ten years many special people have offered support and
encouragement along the way. In this regard, I send special thanks to Jodi Wetzel, C.
J. White, Annette McElhinney and Eleanor Green.
To Jana Everett, my committee chair, I send great appreciation and gratitude
for the patience, support and academic advice you offered me throughout my graduate
years, and especially during the thesis process.
To Myra Bookman, thanks and appreciation for serving on my committee,
and for your patience, help, academic advice and support in bringing this process to
To Michael Tang, my most sincere thank you, for your willingness to
participate on my committee and lending your expert academic support.
To Colorado and Wyoming Association of Women in Higher Education, I
send my appreciation and gratitude for recognizing my work, and presenting me the
Graduate Research Award.
Throughout this process, family and friends have lent love and support.
Special thanks and recognition to Marilyn Cutler for her help in proof reading, Karin
Johannisson, for helping transcribe interviews, to Kristine Parker for helping with
computer problems and to Ron Parker, who in addition to helping me with the
computer, lent unending love and support throughout this process.
Why a Study on Women Only....................3
Arrangement of the Thesis...................12
2. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE.....................13
Perspectives on Successful Aging............14
Literature on the Life Cycle................22
Women and Aging.............................25
Perspectives on Creativity
and How it Enhances Aging...................29
3. INTERVIEWS, THEMES & FINDINGS................42
Interviews/Profiles of Participants.........42
Living in the Present....................70
Satisfaction with Life...................71
Connectedness with Others................74
The Role of Creativity in the Lives of
These Successfully Aging Women........77
Recommendations for Future Research......85
In this chapter, I discuss the circumstances that led to my developing a research
project on women and aging. Also covered is the central research question of this
project, a rationale supporting this subject as worthy of research, and a description of
the method used to gather and analyze the narratives of the women in my sample.
This project developed as a result of my interest in the areas of women studies
and issues related to women and aging. In 1990, at age 48,1 obtained a Bachelor of
Arts degree in women studies and gerontology. When I chose to pursue a Masters of
Social Science degree, I again focused on womens studies and additionally, adult
development, to continue my study of women across time and space. Having been
almost forty-five when I began my undergraduate studies, I am certain that my
interest in issues of women and aging developed as a result of my personal struggle
with my emerging feminism and also the struggle to define my own aging process.
After successfully negotiating and surviving my mid-life transition, a tumultuous,
albeit growth promoting period of my life, I developed an awareness of the varied
ways women that I knew appeared to manage (or failed to manage) their aging
process. As I focused my inquiry, the following questions emerged: Why is it that
some women appear to maintain throughout their life course a zest and enthusiasm for
life? Are there personality traits that are common among this group? What, if any,
traits or characteristics do these women share? Lastly, what role does a sense of
creativity play in the lives of successful agers? This study attempts to add clarity to
As a consequence of lower mortality rates, longer life expectancies and a
decrease in fertility rates, the aging population has greatly increased (MacQuarrie and
Keddy, 1992). The largest increase in the aging population is taking place in the
eighty-five and older group. The sixty-five to eighty-four age groups will experience
a slight decline after 2030, however, the number of people over eighty-five will
continue to increase until 2050 when it is projected that they will number 15.3 million
or five percent of the total population (Van Brook et al. 1990, p. 4). According to
Caryl Stem (1996), the group of people who live to one hundred and beyond is
growing, numbering more than 52,000, thus, making them the fastest growing age
group in this country and throughout the industrialized world as well. With this
growth in the aging population, there is increasing interest in the social sciences
regarding the factors and traits that are present in an individual who continues to find,
not only purpose, but also joy in living as they grow older. The central question of
the qualitative, interpretative project that I conducted is: In what way does creative
behavior contribute to the lives of women over sixty years of age who appear to be
successfully aging? To gain insight into to this question, I conducted life narrative
interviews of ten women aged sixty and beyond. The narratives were recorded and
transcribed in their entirety, and I then related the narratives to the growing qualitative
academic literature on women and aging.
Why a Study on Women Only?
The early research and writing on aging demonstrates a lack of recognition
regarding the experiences, voices and values of women. Robert Butler (around 1980),
encouraged Betty Friedan (1985, p. 40) to investigate this absence because, the
policies and research on aging in the United States are formulated mostly by men, but
most of the aged are women. This absence has also been the focus of notable social
scientists such as, Neugarten (1968), Belenky et al. (1986), Maddox (1987, cited in
Day, 1991) and Baltes and Baltes (1990). Important differences exist between men
and women as they age, and to conduct worthwhile valuable social science research,
these differences must be taken into account (Neugarten, 1968 and Allen, 1993).
Further, the early writing and research on adult development that established the
experience and competence of men as a baseline against which both men and women
were measured must be challenged with a method that takes into account gender
differences (Belenky, et al. 1986). George Maddox (cited in Day, 1991) in his 1987
presidential address to the Gerontological Society of America, challenged his
colleagues to take into account issues of race, ethnicity and class when conducting
research on aging and Baltes and Baltes (1990) reiterated the concept that gender
issues are clearly of importance in a multitude of ways.
The early studies regarding adult development referred to in the preceding
paragraph (Perry, 1970; Vaillant, 1977; Levinson, 1978; Gould, 1978) focused on the
lives of white men, primarily Harvard students. Additionally, these researchers
considered development in adulthood to cease by age forty-five to fifty (Friedan,
1993), thus negating the experience(s) of the women in my sample. The work of
Loevinger (1976) on ego development and Neugarten (1968) on transcending
polarized sex and age roles indicate that mid-life, not childhood or adolescence
represents a pivotal time of individuation, autonomy, self definition and conscious
An important factor defined by sex difference, is the differential in the life
expectancy between men and women, with women having an advantage of
approximately eight years beyond that of men. Taking into account this present trend,
it is estimated that by 2020 there will be a twelve year difference in the life
expectancy of men and women. This change is most dramatic after age sixty-five,
with the fastest growing group in the U.S. being women over age eighty-five
(Friedan, 1993). Most importantly, womens lives are developed in a different social
setting from that of mens. Therefore, gaining a better understanding of the beliefs
and values of aging women, and acknowledging their experiences will contribute to
more informed policy making decisions (Neugarten, 1985; Day, 1991; Allen, 1993).
To bring closure to this section, I offer information provided by Barbara M. Barer
(1994, reviewed by Peace, 1995). This study lends to our knowledge of the
differences in the way men and women experience aging by considering the lives of
150 individuals, (111 women and 39 men) over 85. Pertinent to my work, are the
findings that indicate that after age eighty five, men are more physically fit and active
and also more economically advantaged. The women in this study, as a result of
developing friendships and support networks throughout their life, enter old age with
a stronger family and friend social support network than do the men.
The sample for this project is composed of ten women that I contacted as a result
of referrals from friends and acquaintances and also women who I knew of, but with
whom I did not have a personal relationship. This sample consists of seven white
women, two Hispanic women and one African American women, who range from
sixty-eight to ninety years. Within this group, five of the women are widows, four
are married and one women never married. Of the nine women who married, all but
one women had children. All of the women are self sufficient, and able to care for
their own needs, and in the case of married women, their husbands needs as well,
which is to say, that they prepare meals, provide house keeping duties, (although
some do have hired help), and perform the role of partner, and in the case of a
husbands disability, caretaker in their marriage. One woman is blind, but with help
from friends, maintains an active, involved life. Six of the participants live in private
homes or apartments, and the remaining four live in a retirement center in privately
owned apartments. The education level of this sample is well above average, and all
of the women have continued to be involved in learning, formal and informal,
throughout their life course.
Each woman, with the exception of one who became ill and could not continue,
was interviewed two times, an initial interview and a follow-up interview at least a
week later. This second interview was conducted to give the interviewee some time
to reflect on our initial visit and to present her with the opportunity to add any
information not included in the first visit.
After a telephone contact to introduce myself and my project to the participant,
and to agree on a date and time for my first visit, I arranged to meet with her in
whatever setting she was most comfortable. In all cases, this was the individuals
home. I began each interview by sharing my educational background with the
participant, and then continued with a description of the study. To initiate the
narrative process, I explained to each women that I was interested in hearing about
her life, therefore, would she please begin with where and when she was bom, who
her parents were, and continue with information regarding significant people in her
childhood, i.e., grandparents, siblings, teachers. This would began the narrative
process, and the lives of the women would thus unfold. Quite often, within the
interview process, a dialogue between the woman and myself would emerge.
Initially, when playing back the interview, I was disconcerted by what I perceived to
be an excess of my voice. However, I noticed information that was offered in our
conversation that would not have emerged without the dialogue between us. Shulamit
Reinharz (1983, cited in MacQuarrie and Keddy, 1992), declares that dialogue
between researcher and respondent is necessary because the mutual sharing of
experiences cultivates a reciprocal, collaborative atmosphere. Brown and Gilligan
(1992) also validate a collaborative, relational method when conducting narrative
interviews. All of the participants demonstrated a genuine openness and willingness
to share their stories, and I perceived an attitude of pleasure that someone was
demonstrating interest in what they had to say. Caroline Bird (1995) also writes of
the willingness and the pleasurable response demonstrated by the respondents in her
study of older single women.
This research project was developed as a qualitative, interpretative case study,
that attempts to describe the social reality of aging through the voices of women. The
following discussion will provide a rationale for selecting this method for a study
regarding women and aging.
First, I turn to Sandra Harding (1991, p. 119), who cites the argument of feminist
standpoint theorists, (Dorothy Smith, 1987; Nancy Hartsock, 1983; Hillary Rose,
1983; Jane Flax, 1983; Alison Jaggar, 1983 and Sandra Harding, 1983,1986.) that
not just opinions, but a cultures best beliefswhat it calls knowledge, are socially
situated. This perspective is credited to Hegel and his insight regarding the
relationship between the master and the slave. Building on Hegels work, Marx,
Engels and Lukacs developed these perceptions into the assertion that, human
activity or material life not only structures, but sets limits on human understanding,
what we do shapes what we know. (Harding 1991, p. 120). Marxian theories address
issues of class, primarily the working class perspective. With the rise of the feminist
movement, feminist theorists drew attention to the need to understand social reality
from the perspective of women, or other oppressed groups. Belenky et al. (1986, p.
3), discuss the absence of womens experience in conceptions of knowledge and truth,
as they developed their framework to conduct their study on how women know what
The esteemed gerontologist, Bernice Neugarten (1985), was one of the first social
scientists to note the significant differences between men and womens aging
experience. In 1985, she wrote of the value of interpretative social science, putting
forth a strong argument for utilizing this method to study the aging process.
According to Neugarten (1985), there is always context involved in the study of the
human world, making it impossible for the researcher to be totally objective or to
have an unrestricted verification process, thus, all we can do is offer interpretations.
The interpretative researcher must proceed with an awareness that aging has multiple
biological, psychological and sociological elements, and that neither the behavior nor
the status of aging persons can be understood otherwise. When undertaking a study
of aging, it is necessary for the researcher(s) to keep in mind change over time, both
change in the individual or change in historical, economic, and political institutions
In closing this section on method, I present a discussion regarding the
appropriateness of using life narratives as a means of conducting research regarding
aging women. This method was used by Kaufmann (1986, p. 20) to gain information
regarding the sixty urban, white middle-class Californians over the age of seventy
who participated in her study. Kaufmann (1986) chose an interpretative, narrative
method to gather information regarding the personal aging experience(s) of her
informants. Kaufmann (1986, p .4) used this method to explore the meaning of
aging to elderly persons, as it emerges in their personal reflections. The work of
Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack (1991, p. 11) asserts that the spontaneity that is
possible during the process of conducting oral history narratives can generate
valuable new knowledge concerning womens experiences of themselves in their
worlds. To gain insight regarding the traits/characteristics of successfully aging
women, Day (1991) too, utilized an interpretative narrative method in her qualitative
study of twenty elderly women. MacQuarrie and Keddy, (1992, p. 21) write of the
failure of traditional methods to validate the experiences and reality of older women.
By ignoring issues of age, gender, class, race and sexual orientation, and the
oppression elderly women share from our youth worshipping society, older women
are rendered invisible. Therefore, according to MacQuarrie and Keddy (1992),
researchers must turn toward methods that are less androcentric and less biased in the
areas of race, class and sexual orientation. According to MacQuarrie and Keddy
(1992), the issue of women and aging needs to be the focus of research that is
designed so the totality of their lived experience will be conveyed.
Additional support of the interpretative method is offered by Reinharz (1983),
cited in MacQuarrie and Keddy, (1992), who declares that loosely structured
interviews have become the primary mechanism used by feminists seeking personal
involvement from their respondents in constructing their life stories across time and
Amy Hill Hearth (1993) spent eighteen months collecting life narratives from
sisters Sarah L. and A. Elizabeth Delaney, both of whom were past one hundred years
old at the time of the interviews. This popular work by Hearth (1993), presents the
reader with a subjective accounting of the life experience(s) of two African
American Women, both whose lives span more than a century.
Arrangement of the Thesis
The balance of this thesis will be arranged in the following manner: Chapter
Two will cover the review of the literature and the theoretical framework, Chapter
Three will focus on the interviews, the major themes reflected in these stories, and the
summary of this study, and Chapter Four will present my conclusions and
recommendations for future research.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
This chapter begins with the review of the literature and concludes with the
theoretical framework. My focus in developing the review of literature is fourfold: to
explore the definition(s) of the term, successful aging; to investigate life stage
development theories and the appropriateness and usefulness in utilizing these
theories when studying the lives of women; to gain insight into the traits and/or
characteristics of older women who appear to be successfully negotiating their aging
process; and to examine the role of creativity in the lives of successful agers. To
access knowledge regarding how scholars have approached these topics, I examined
literature in the following disciplines: anthropology, sociology, psychology,
gerontology, and literature.
When studying the growing aging population, one must take into consideration
that increasing longevity is a global phenomena (Waldrop 1994). According to Lydia
Bronte (1993), there has been a greater increase in average life expectancy at birth
during the twentieth century than there was from ancient Rome to 1990, twenty three
times greater than during any previous century. Clearly this phenomena of increased
longevity is unprecedented in human history, and one whose meaning to humankind
is a field worth of investigation (Bronte, 1993).
When undertaking a study of women and aging in U.S. society, it is necessary to
take into account the times they have lived through. American women who have
reached their seventies and eighties have experienced periods of enormous change
and consequently are a remarkable group of survivors. Systematic inquiry into the
subject of women and aging is just beginning, thus as researchers we are presented
with not only an intellectual challenge, but a research adventure as well (Day, 1990).
For the purpose of clarity, this review will cover the following themes:
perspectives on successful aging; adult development stage theories; perspectives on
women and aging; and lastly, the role of creativity in their lives of successfully aging
Perspectives on Successful Aging
According to Ballets and Ballets (1990), the early studies regarding the term,
successful aging, were conducted as early as forty years ago, and at that time the
term appeared to be a contradiction in terms. Only recently has it been considered a
guiding force and a subject worthy of formal social science research (Day, 1990).
Researchers have tended to address the category of normal aging, i.e., physiological
aging (Rowe and Kahn, 1987). By so doing, they ignore the heterogeneity that exists
among the aging population. Rowe and Kahn (1987), declare that it is possible within
the category of normal aging to make a distinction between usual aging, i.e.,
physiological aging, in which extrinsic factors independently intensify the effects of
aging, and successful aging, when extrinsic factors perform a neutral or positive role.
Thus the losses due to the physical aspects of aging such as osteoporosis,
carbohydrate intolerance and high blood pressure are documented. However, the
mediation and modifiers of these age related losses that can be attained by the affects
of diet, exercise, nutrition and the like are ignored. Investigation of the strategies that
can be employed to mediate the losses due to usual aging would be an aid in
discovering how to move from usual to successful aging. A focus on the biological
aspects of aging tend to limit the overall range of possibilities available to the aging
person: However, by utilizing strategies of selection, optimization and compensation,
it is possible for individuals to successfully enhance their personal aging experience
(Baltes and Baltes, 1990).
To gain first-hand information regarding the traits/characteristics present in
women who appear to be successfully aging, Day (1991), conducted life-narrative
interviews of twenty women. Day (1991), argues that to account for successful aging,
it is necessary for the researcher to draw on both objective behaviors and subjective
attitudes. A primary component of Days (1991) study was to separate and then look
for explanations of the various ways women in their seventies and eighties manage
the day-to-day happenings in their lives. Day (1991), observed that good health,
sufficient money, (according to Day 1991, sufficient money is a subjective
descriptor rather than a government statistic), and involvement with others
characterized the lives of the twenty elderly women that she interviewed. According
to Day (1991), the women who are aging successfully possess a feeling of autonomy,
have a sense of control over their life, possess an attitude of responsibility for making
oneself happy and, are effectively managing the ordinary activities of daily life.
Additionally, one must be vigilant in maintaining fitness, and manifest the capacity to
enjoy life. According to Day (1991), objective components necessary for successful
aging include available community amenities that are easily accessed that contribute
to individual autonomy, i.e.,transportation for shopping, medical appointments, hair
When Cecelia Hurwich (1981, cited in Friedan, 1993), nearing sixty, began
graduate school, she was experiencing anxiety dealing with her own aging. Hurwich
made the decision to do her masters thesis on Vital Women in Their Seventies and
Eighties. Upon completion of ten in-depth interviews, she was surprised to discover
that rather than an emphasis on diet and exercise, a positive attitude, a trait shared by
all ten of the women, had contributed to the vitality in their lives. Nearly all of the
women in Hurwichs study indicated that they considered old age to be the best stage
of life. According to Hurwich (1981, cited in Friedan, 1993), the women
participating in her study have a lifetime of practice adapting to physical, mental and
psychological changes. This work by Hurwich (1981, cited in Friedan, 1993),
indicates that all of the women in her sample possess traits of adaptability, non-
conformity, risk-taking and trust, and they have the ability to live in the present.
Additionally, throughout their life course they appear to have rejected the traditional
female role. Their zest for living remains no matter what their age or health, thus they
demonstrate that the later years can bring increasing creativity, integrity and wisdom.
Hurwich (1991), developed her thesis (1981) into her doctoral dissertation, Vital
Women in Their Eighties and Nineties: A Longitudinal Study (1990). The six
surviving women from the original study, continued this project with Hurwich into an
investigation concerning the next decade of their lives. Findings of this study
(Hurwich, 1990), imply that it is possible for women to successfully maintain vital
involvement with life well into their final years. As in her 1981 study, Hurwichs
(1990, p. 132) doctoral work points to the role of possessing a positive attitude
regarding their lives now and their optimism concerning the future, as being
essential for successfully adapting to the aging process. Hurwich (1993), writes of
her personal self care and its importance in the process of successfully aging. It is
possible for an aging individual to deliberately create the necessary conditions to
maintain health and well being, however, self care requires a lifetime commitment.
Perfect health is not a requirement for successful aging, but one must be open to
change. As components necessary for self care, Hurwich (1993), advocates the
following: attention to nutrition; physical exercise; taking responsibility for getting
regular preventive medical examinations; satisfying work or a passionate interest;
friendships with people of all ages; close emotional bonds with family; and taking
care of ones spiritual needs. In an effort to distinguish cultural differences in
application of self care, Wykle and Haug (1993), present a discussion relating to
current studies addressing this issue. According to Wykle and Haug (1993), analytic
academic literature in this area is extremely limited. However, based on a study of
three groups of 100 each Eastern European, African American and Hispanic heritage,
Wykle and Haug (1993), report that few ethnic differences were discovered. What
was evidenced is that variation in self care appeared to be related to social class
position rather than race/ethnic differences. To validate this finding, Wykle and Haug
(1993), call for a much larger randomly selected sample.
Caroline Bird (1995), writes of single women who use the freedom acquired in
their later years to redefine themselves. Nearing eighty, Bird wrote this book
especially for older women wanting to create a new life path for the remainder of their
lives. Declaring that aging single women face issues and problems that are not
experienced by married women or women in partnerships, Bird set forth to interview
older single (previously married or never married) women to gain information
regarding how the women in her sample made new lives for themselves when they
found themselves to be alone. Findings of Birds study indicate that the women who
prosper most when they are left alone are performing roles of their choosing. The
roles chosen by the women in Birds (1995) study are varied: some became political
activists; others became involved with a charity, sometimes taking on a cause by
themselves, without a formal organization, others found adventure and fulfillment in
the Peace Corps; and some became actresses and/or models, taking advantage of the
demographic shift creating a need for the aging to be represented in the arts and the
media. Additionally, for some of the women in Birds (1995) study, these later years
are the time when creative ability surfaces. According to Bird, those who are not
crippled by failure in early life, will likely be successful agers.
To address the lack of literature addressing aging from a personal perspective,
Carlson (1977), nearing eighty, writes of her own aging process. This work asserts
that even though aging can be accompanied by aches, pains and frustration, there are
some compensations to mediate the negative aspects of growing older. Life can still
be still be interesting, filled with pleasure and enhanced by small triumphs. Carlson
(1977), provides suggestions for strategies that she has observed older individuals
using to compensate for the negative side of aging such as continuing to be active and
interested in life, maintaining a sense of humor, being open to new experiences,
developing a hobby or craft that one finds personally rewarding and that receives
validation from others, being dedicated to lifelong learning, and being involved in
volunteer work. Gail Sheehy (1995), writing of what she deems to be the new stage
of middle life (mid-forties to mid-sixties), indicates that the individuals task during
this time is to revivify their life energy so that they will be able to negotiate the next
passage. This restored energy can then be applied to current challenges and /or life
accidents that may lie in the future. According to Sheehy (1995), successful aging is
a subjective choice combined with a dedication to lifelong learning and a
development of an entirely new set of strategies. She describes the decision to engage
in successful aging as a career choice. Sheehy (1995, p. 420), asserts, lets refer to
successful aging, as saging, the process by which men and women accumulate
wisdom and grow into the cultures saging.
Robert Kahn (cited in Brody, 1996, p. B9), indicates that individuals who have
aged successfully do not possess some extraordinary hereditary exemption that
protects them from the tribulations of life but rather that what differentiates the
successful from the unsuccessful is the ability to come back from hits of various
kinds that for some people have long lasting, even permanent effects.
To conclude this discussion regarding perspectives on successful aging, I turn to
Shirley Smith (1994, pp. 1&3), who quotes gerontologist Joseph Brady, Aging well
doesnt mean you will never have an illness or problem in life, people who are aging
successfully dont dwell on their problems, they focus on what they can do.
To summarize, successful agers use strategies of selection, optimization and
compensation to deal with the biological nature of aging (Ballets & Ballets, 1990);
use the effects of exercise, nutrition and social support to mediate the loss due to the
physical aspect of aging (Rowe and Kahn, 1987); possess good health, sufficient
income, a positive attitude, are involved with others, and effectively manage ordinary
activities of daily life (Day, 1991); are not terminally wounded by failures in early
life, thus enabling them to remain fully engaged in life (Bird, 1995); maintain a
passion for living, while possessing the traits of adaptability, non-conformity, risk-
taking, and trust and have the ability to live in the present (Hurwich, 1982); use
strategies to compensate for the negative side of aging (Bird, 1995); make a conscious
commitment, a career choice, to continue to grow, develop and learn (Sheehy 1995);
have the ability to rebound from events that prove to be disastrous for others (Kahn,
quoted in Brody, 1996); and rather than dwelling on their problems, focus instead on
what they can do (Brady, cited in Smith, p. 1994).
Literature on the Life Cycle
The literature on adult personality development reveals a number of works that
have proposed developmental changes and/or transitions formulated on a
psychological stage model. The following discussion will focus on three of these
models, Erikson (1963, cited in Dorfman, 1994), Peck (1968, cited in Dorfinan,
1994), and Loevinger (1976). According to Eriksons (1963, cited in Dorfman,
1994), each stage presents the individual with a crisis that must be successfully
negotiated so that he/she can then move on to the next stage. If an individual
becomes mired in any of the stages and is unable to complete the tasks associated
with it, they are unable to move to the next age appropriate stage. The final stage, old
age, fifty and beyond, presents the individual with the crisis of integrity versus
despair. On successfully completing this stage, individuals accept their lives as one
that had to be and have a sense of satisfaction with their works and accomplishments,
if the tasks associated with this final stage are not accomplished, the older person
experiences depression and unhappiness resulting in a fear of growing older and a fear
Further development of Eriksons stage model is presented by Peck (1968, cited
in Dorfinan, 1994), who expanded Eriksons model by dividing the final stage,
(number eight) into two stages, middle-age and old age. According to Peck (1968,
cited in Dorfman, 1994), in old age individuals face three challenges: 1) ego
differentiation versus work-role preoccupation, this consists of the individual
switching from an ego identity based on work or vocational roles to one based on one
or more alternatives i.e., hobbies, humanitarian work, artistic endeavors; 2) body
transcendence versus ego preoccupation, at this stage the dilemma is to move beyond
preoccupation with physical ills and comfort to a value system established on
cognitive sources of pleasure; 3) ego transcendence versus ego preoccupation when
the individuals challenge is to be involved with life rather than a preoccupation with
death and dying.
Jane Loevinger (1976), presents a ten stage model, in which the two final stages
are the autonomous stage and the integrated stage. According to Loevinger (1976),
in stage nine, individuals become increasingly aware of their true self, become self-
accepting, and are able to resolve inner conflicts. In stage ten, no longer depending
on external definitions of who they are, individuals are free to investigate their own
individuality. Acceptance of self leads to appreciation of differences in others. This
sense of comfort and security with oneself enables the individual to turn outward and
focus on helping others.
Additional information on adult development is presented by Ryff (1985). Jung
(1933, cited in Ryff, 1985), wrote of self-illumination in old age and Buhler (1935,
cited in Ryff, 1985), formulated basic life tendencies that work toward fulfillment in
life. Additionally, Levinson (1978, cited in Ryff, 1985), Gould (1978, cited in Ryff,
1985), and Vaillant (1977, cited in Ryff, 1985), formulated personality development
stages that individuals experience in the second half of life. According to Ryff
(1985), the preceding theorists focus on personality changes that take place from age
thirty to sixty. These theorists, and also popular works that followed such as the work
of Scarf (1980), and Sheehy (1976-1981), have generated criticism from many
perspectives. Ryff (1985), argues that they all represent stage models, a progression
of change that follows an orderly, sequential pattern, and therefore, they are too
orderly, too rigid, and too restrictive in that they require sequences of change that are
irreversible, hierarchical and universal. They are also faulted for representing a male
experience and a male perspective on development. Many of these studies were
conducted by men on male subjects. Barnett and Baruch (1978, cited in Ryff, 1985),
criticize the work of Erikson (1950-1959), and Levinson (1978), for not representing
the female experience, with their emphasis on chronological age as a key variable and
also on a continued uninterrupted series in family and occupational roles. In contrast,
womens lives, according to Barnett and Baruch (1979, cited in Ryff, 1985), are not
as orderly and tend not to be as tied to chronological age. Gilligan (1979-1982, cited
in Ryff, 1985), alleges that women have been accustomed to viewing the world
through the eyes of men. As a means of addressing the short-comings and the narrow
approach of the stage theories focused on in this discussion, Ryff (1985), calls for the
formulation of a developmental theory that stands between the false ideal of complete
orderliness of stage theories, and the view that there is no underlying development.
Women and Aging
Life for the elderly in this country can be difficult (Day, 1991). Difficulty can be
experienced in the form of ailing health, social isolation, economic hardship or all
three. This is even more true for women than men, because women have a longer life
expectancy, lower earning power and a greater likelihood of living alone. Day
(1991), credits Maslow (1971), for being one of the first researchers to acknowledge
differences between the ways men and women develop.
The following discussion focusing on the differences between men and women as
they age will cover the following areas: the role of homemaker in aging women; the
importance of friendship in the lives of aging women; women and continuity of
values across the life course; and the differential of life expectancy between men and
When conducting a study on women in their seventies and eighties, the role of
homemaker is a variable to be considered. According to Day (1990), women do not
withdraw from homemaking, even in old age. To further investigate how women
over sixty view their roles, Adelman et al. (1993), include race as a factor for their
study of 864 white and black women who are at least sixty years or older. This study
explores how women over sixty who are not in the labor force describe themselves.
Three options for self definitions were presented to the study participants: retired
only; homemakers only; and retired and homemakers. Findings of the Adelman et al.
(1993) study demonstrate that when given a choice beyond either retired or
homemaker, a large proportion of the women considered themselves to be both retired
and a homemaker. Additionally, the preceding findings cast doubt about previous
research where women were given only two options, retired or homemaker, when
asked to describe themselves. Women who called themselves retired only were less
likely to be married, more likely to be black, and more likely to have left their jobs
within ten years of womens traditional retirement age (that is, after age 51) than
those who say they are only homemakers. Laurie Russell Hatch (1991), utilized a
quantitative method, to study the importance of informal support groups and networks
among African American and white women who are beyond sixty years old. In this
study, the sample composed of African American and white women, sixty years and
older and having at least one child nineteen years or older, was drawn from a
National Survey of Families and Households. After examining the effects of support
from family, paid work and religious participation, Hatch (1991), concluded that the
meaning attached to nonrelatives may differ for whites and African Americans. The
results of this study indicate that, especially among older African American women,
greater involvement in religious social activities is associated with greater help from
nonrelatives. White women are more likely than African American women who say
they would seek help of adult children in times of need, while African American
women indicate they would be more likely to call on friends, neighbors, or co-worker.
A search of the literature regarding the role of friendships in the lives of aging
women indicate that indeed, relationships and/or friendships play a paramount role in
the lives of women as they age. According to Hedva Lewitts (1980), these
relationships are important for older women to aid them in maintaining physical and
mental health and continued psychological growth. As women age, they are
increasingly likely to suffer losses of important relationships and roles, thus their
ability to make and maintain friends throughout adulthood aids them in adapting to
the transitions and challenges of aging (Hannsson and Carpenter, 1994). Gender
tends to be viewed as the most significant factor in shaping friendship patterns. Older
women report having more friends than men and additionally, their relationships are
more intimate (Johnson and Troll, 1994). A final word on the role of friendship in the
lives of aging women is offered by Ruth Thone (1992, p. 96), women are sustained by
women, especially as they age. Women live longer than men, thus the need to make
and deepen our relationships now.iJ
In order to provide some empirical validation for the social science assumption
that women experience more continuity of values throughout the life course than do
men Helterline and Nouri (1994), conducted thirty life history interviews of men and
women over the age of sixty-nine. The findings indicate that gender does play a
significant role, the major differences occurring in the area of service to others, caring
for others and connections to others. These values were important to women across
the life course, whereas in men, they were found to be of lesser importance in the
younger ages and to increase in value as the men got older.
It has long been documented that women have longer life expectancies than men.
This differential is increasing and Betty Friedan (1993), addresses the why of this
phenomena. According to Friedan (1993), in the early third of this century womens
life expectancy was increased due to the drop in deaths resulting from childbirth. At
this time, however, the differential in life expectancies is most obvious after the
reproductive years. The various studies that have taken place since 1960 are full of
contradictions and surprises. Friedan (1993), declares that rather than menopause and
the empty nest syndrome being a time of trauma and decline, women often view this
as a time of freedom, liberation and the opportunity for self development and growth.
Friedan (1993), speculates that the change in womens lives since the revival of the
feminist movement has afforded women the opportunity to take advantage of the
skills they have developed coping with the discontinuity and transitions of their lives.
In this work, there is no definitive answer to the initial question as to why women live
longer than men. Friedan (1993, p. 149), speculates that the continual practice in
retirement and disengagement, shift and re-engagementaccount for their greater
flexibility and resilience in age. Clearly, this subject merits further investigation.
Perspectives on Creativity and How it Enhances Aging
This final section of the review of the literature presents a discussion regarding
how creativity can be utilized to aid the process of successful aging. In this thesis, the
common definition of the term creative i.e., willingness to embark in risk taking
and novelty, thus, putting something into the world that was not there before
(Vaillant and Vaillant, 1993, p. 607), is expanded to include utilizing creativity to
mediate life change and the losses due to aging.
This process is described by Neugarten (Hall, interview 1987), as a continually
changing set of adaptations, definitely a creative process. Another view is presented
by Ager et al. (1987), who describe the creative process as representing the highest
degree of emotional health, as the expression of normal people in the act of
actualizing themselves which serves to interrelate the person and his/her world. Ager
et al. (1987), present a review of the literature on the neurophysical foundation that
supports the concept of creative aging and aging well. Three factors emerge as
necessary to assure a creative aging process: the development of an attitude of
exploration; exercise, both physical and mental; and planning, i.e., personal goals.
Aging creatively requires that the individual be well and able to make choices,
subsequently to follow through with the choices, and lastly to assume responsibility
for the choices. This model could be used to describe aging as a developmental
process consisting of increasing complexity and personal enrichment during which
the adaptation process is identified as the key to a continually changing sense of self.
Additional validation of aging as a potentially creative process is offered by
Pruyser (1987). who states that old age differs from previous life stages in age-
specific ways, i.e., in the last stage of life individuals are called upon to mourn the
loss of loved ones who have died. Drawing heavily from the disciplines of
philosophy, psychology, literature and film, Pruyser (1987), argues for a
developmental perspective on aging as a potentially creative process. Psychoanalytic
studies of gifted persons indicate a close psychoanalytic connection between
giftedness and mourning, i.e., creativity and the development of a talent can have the
function of memorializing a lost person or relationship and then finding or making
restitution for that loss in the form of a creative work. The majority of the
psychoanalytic studies on creativity and mourning have been undertaken on the lives
of very gifted people. Pruyser (1987, p. 428), presents a theory that for the ordinary,
not particularly talented person creativity may be more attitudinal than production
oriented. Examples of attitudinal creativity put forth by Pruyser (1987, p. 428),
include teaching, doing charitable work, being an example to others in bearing ones
affliction or meeting ones end, and making gifts to others of handiwork.
According to John S. Dacy (1989), old age presents the aging person with a
unique opportunity to develop special talents(s). This author asserts that there are six
periods throughout the life-time when creativity will peak. For the aging population,
age 60-65 is the time when individuals have the time to pursue creative goals
previously not possible for them because of time constraint. Dacy (1989), contrasts
the psychoanalytic school of thought which argues that the first five years are the
critical years to develop creative abilities and attitudes, with the humanist school of
thought which argues it is possible for persons who have previously been low in
creative ability to improve it in the later stage of life. According to Dacy (1989), this
appears to be true of gifted individuals and also those who become creative in less
visible ways, as in the mentoring of younger people. Dacy (1989, p. 244), writes,
though largely unheralded such guidance and encouragement of younger creators
unquestionably has invaluable benefits for society.
Can creativity and new learning be utilized to teach elderly individuals skills to
foster independence? A study by Goff and Torrance (1991), validates this premise.
In this study, the goal is to teach brainstorming and problem solving skills to older
adults, thereby increasing their independence. Preliminary research results indicate
that the older adults increased their problem solving skills considerably when
compared to the scores of a control group.
Erikson et al. (1986), reflect on old age as the final stage of life and emphasis the
vital involvement necessary at each stage. These researchers conducted two open-
ended interviews of twenty-eight individuals bom around the turn of the century. The
interviews were designed to give the informants the opportunity to talk about their life
experience(s) and also to speak of their personal aging experience. As individuals
age, there is a need to adjust to decreasing stamina. Creativity is often called upon to
mediate this adjustment. For example, a woman who expressed that she was old and
thus unable to be actively involved in the world anymore stated, but I can give my
things to people who will enjoy them (Erikson et al. 1989, p. 176). By giving some
of her possessions to her grandchildren she manages to transcend her current
limitations by remaining involved with people through her belongings, and she
maintains an active sense of the future by giving her possessions to individuals who
will enjoy them long after she is gone. Another example is provided by a ninety-two
year old women who is unable to maintain her previous active life style. She now
collects scraps of yam to make knitted objects for others deemed less fortunate than
herself. Erikson et al. (1989), declare that some people are able to find in old age an
opportunity to develop new kinds of involvement with the world. For many elders,
travel gives them the opportunity to listen to their curiosity and their urge to explore.
This curiosity is also responded to by watching television to keep abreast of world
happenings and by subscribing to newspapers and magazines or by seeking out books
on subjects of current interest. Often in old age, the struggle to adjust to a new
partner takes center stage. Within a new relationship, with or without legal
conformities, elders find themselves called upon to creatively adapt to new ways of
living Erikson et al. (1989), tape recorded the interviews and subsequently,
analyzed them within the context of the social/historical context that the events
described by the interviewee had taken place.
Creativity applied to the concept of self-care can enhance the experience of
aging. Regular exercise, good nutrition, access to both traditional and non-traditional
health care, fulfilling work, a meaningful sense of spirituality and close personal
relationships are components necessary for Hurwichs (1993) personal aging process
and also for the participants in her longitudinal study involving women in their
seventies, eighties, and nineties. At age seventy three, Hurwich is involved in giving
lectures, seminars and work shops on creative aging, late-life potential and vitality in
In a study to investigate the correlation of generativity and creativity in older
women, George Vaillant and Caroline Vaillant (1990), conducted a study of a
cohort of women who had been participants in Lewis Termans (1921) study of
intellectually gifted California children. Forty women (mean age: 77) were
selected from this earlier study, and subsequently, interviewed for two hours. For
the purpose of this study, creativity is defined as putting something in the world
that was not there before (Vaillant and Vaillant, 1990, p. 607). It is important to
note that this study focused on amateur rather than professional creativity.
Findings of this study indicate that the twenty women found to be most creative
had demonstrated a high level of generativity in the past and subsequently, had
adjusted well to aging. There were no differences in intelligence or the mental
health of the two groups of women in this study, however, the women determined
to be creative were perceived to be making a more vigorous adaptation to old
age (Vaillant and Vaillant, 1990, p. 613).
Although it is a popular belief that human creativity peaks in middle adulthood,
and then diminishes and declines with every year that we grow older, recent
research indicates that this philosophy grew out of the negative stereotyping of
older adults that developed near the end of the nineteenth century (Bronte, 1993).
With the intent of breaking down old myths about aging Bronte (1993),
interviewed 150 people ages 65-101 who have continued to work, create and
thrive, regardless of chronological age. As a result of this five-year study, Bronte
(1993), uncovered a remarkable new fact of American life; a stage of healthy
adulthood between the ages of fifty and seventy-five that has grown out of our
To complete this discussion regarding aging and creativity, I present the
following examples of exceptional artistic talent developed in late life. I turn first
to Don Lambert (1994), who writes of the extraordinary work of Elizabeth Layton.
At age sixty-eight, Layton enrolled in a drawing class. After the first lesson, she
drew a self-portrait and during the following six months, she drew obsessively for
ten hours a day. At the end of this period, she realized that the depression that she
had struggled with for thirty years had vanished. Layton continued to draw, and
her work which is best known for her depictions of aging, has been exhibited in
over 150 towns. Julia Tobias, who during her early adult life was best known as a
fashion designer, and after retirement an expert in the fashion business, turned to
writing in her later years. At age ninety four, Tobias returned to memories of her
childhood to write Thunder and Mud: A Pioneer Experience on the Prairie
(Brown, 1996). Two additional examples of women producing novels in their later
years are exemplified by Helen Howen Santmeyer, who at age eighty-eight
culminated a fifty year project when ...And the Ladies of The Club (1882) was
published, and by Harriet Doerr who began writing at the age of sixty-five,
authoring Stones For Ibarra and Consider This Senora (19841993) cited in
Modern Maturity July-Aug., 1996). A final example of late life artistic work is
offered by Grace Jacobean, a successful fashion designer in her younger years
(Modern Maturity, Jan and Feb., 1996). In 1991, having lost her eyesight,
Jacobian enrolled in the Braille Institute. While at the Institute, she discovered an
artistic talent that had been latent until this point in her life. The artistic works that
Jacobian creates emerge from her memory and are manifested in creations of vivid
colors, rich fabrics and sculpting clay. Now into her tenth decade, Jacobian is
becoming a well known folk artist in Southern California.
To close this section on creativity, I present the following perspective by John
A. McLeish (1976). The Ulyssean Adult (McLeish, 1976), is the name attributed
to older adults who epitomize the journey that Ulysses undertook in his later years.
The qualities most characteristic of these adults as seen by McLeish (1976), are a
guiding sense of quest combined with an underlying creativity. He draws the
contrast between the Ulyssean adult who is outgoing, expresses interest in the
world, and is deeply engaged with other peoplewith the conventional image of
the older adult as someone involved in a process of disengagement from society.
While there are undoubtedly those adults who do disengage, it is possible that
some individuals will move in a direction toward life rather than withdraw from it.
To begin the construction of a theoretical framework that takes into account age,
sex, race, class and ethnicity, and the social-historical setting of the individuals in my
study, I turn to L.S. Vygotsky (Crain, 1992), who broke from the developmental
theorists who viewed human psychological development from an either/or
orientationeither inner maturational prompting or outer external forces. Vygotsky
addressed the question, can not a theory assign major roles to both inner and outer
forces? In other words, an integrative theory that combines nature and nurture
when describing how humans develop psychologically. Vygotsky followed the
Marxian school of thought i.e., one can only understand human beings in context of
the social historical environment of the persons under consideration. Thus, he
attempted to create a theory that allowed for the interplay between and nature and
nurture. According to Crain (1992, p. 197), Vygotsky called the various
psychological tools that people use to aid their thinking and behavior signs, and he
argued, that we cannot understand human thinking without examining the signs that
the culture provides. Vygotsky (1930, cited in Crain, 1992), declared that the most
important sign is speech, for when humans use speech they engage in mediated
behavior. This school of thought asserts that humans not only respond to
environmental stimuli; their behavior is mediated by their personal signs, and
additionally, speech facilitates individual thinking. Vygotsky also considered writing
and number systems to be important signs, and he argued that cultural sign systems
have a major impact on cognitive development, because humans need words to
develop thought. According to Crain (1992), many psychologists have called for an
eclectic approach to answer the need to consider a variety of intrinsic and
environmental variables when we study development. Crain (1992), considers
Vygotsky to be a dialectical theorist, who proposed that the many contradictions in
life offer researchers the opportunity to study what happens when opposite forces
According to Michael Cole (1985), Vygotskys effort (in the 1920s) was
directed toward reconstructing psychology in a way that would move away from the
dualism expressed in the psychology of the time. Cole (1985, p. 148), declares that
Vygotsky and his students referred to their approach as a socio-cultural or
sociohistorical theory of psychological processes. Cole (1985, p. 148), credits
Vygotskys work for providing a comprehensive approach to reconciling the study
of culturally organized experience with the study of cognition and cognition
development. According to Cole (1985), a central component of the Vygotsian
approach is, rather than the individual and his/her social environment being
completely separated, the individual and society are conceived as a single, interacting
Vera John-Steiner (1985), cites Vygotsky in her work having to do with the
development of thought and the development of creativity. John-Steiner (1985), also
writes of the significance of the social/historical context. She considers the long
period of human dependency to be a time for the social embeddedness of learning to
take place. According to John-Steiner (1985, p. 206), during this period, dialogues
across generations enable the child the opportunity to absorb their communitys
past. In reaching for their humanity, children make the ways of their kin their own,
thus enabling them, to internalize the values of their society and the knowledge of
their parents and family.
Barbara Rogoff (1990, p. 28), expands Vygotsian social theory, to a theory she
describes as contextual, i.e. ,the roles of the individual and the social melieu, even
when focused on separately are defined in terms that take each other into account.
According to Rogoff (1990), since 1980 there has been widespread recognition that
the cognitive processes may differ according to domains of thinking and the specifics
of the task context. Rogoff (1990), further declares that in order to understand
development, it is essential to understand both underlying cultural and biological
similarities across individuals and groups and also the essential differences between
them. Rogoff quotes Shore (1988, p. 11), each of us lives out our specific nature in a
specific local manifestation... our culture and historical peculiarity is an essential
part of that nature. I consider the preceding statement to be a basic underpinning for
the theoretical framework I am constructing for my study on women and aging.
Rogoff (1990), looks to Leontev (1981), to further strengthen her contextual theory.
The Leontev (1981) view of the relationship between the tools for thinking provided
by the culture and the development of individual thought process asserts that there are
two main interconnected features for human productive activity that are fundamental
to psychology, 1) tool-like instrumental structure, and 2) inclusion in a system of
inter-relations with other people. Tools i.e., language and/or numbering systems,
mediate activity by connecting humans to their world of objects, but also with other
people. Rogoff (1990, p. 28), offers the perspective that,
development involves individual effort or tendencies as well as the
sociocultural context, in which the individual is embedded, and has been since
conception. Biology and culture are not alternate influences, but inseparable
aspects of a system within which individuals develop.
According to Rogoff (1990, p. 28), this approach is consistent with Peppers (1942),
contexualists world hypotheses, which denies that the parts making up the whole are
separable elements, or that the whole is a sort of an added part, like a clamp that holds
together a number of blocks. Rogoff (1990. p. 28), affirms that development
involves both individual effort or tendencies as well as the sociocultural context in
which the individuals embedded and has been since before conception.
Sharon Kaufmann (1986), writes that if we are to improve the quality of life for
the elderly, we must understand what it means to be old, and we gain this insight by
listening to how the elderly describe how they view themselves. As a researcher
Kaufmann (1986, p. 6), states that her goal is to study aging through the expression
of individual humanity, thus, the inquiry that she pursued required the investigation
of individual experiences rather than the investigation of specific research variables.
My theoretical framework to investigate lifelong growth and creativity in the
lives of women who appear to be successfully aging begins with the Vygotskyian
idea of an integrative theory, would be further developed with the work of Cole,
Rogoff, and John-Steiner, i.e., the role of the individual and social setting being
defined in terms that take each other into account. These theories will then be
implemented according to the work of Kaufmann (1986, p. 6), who listened to the
expression of ordinary humanity.
INTERVIEWS, THEMES & FINDINGS
Interviews/Profiles of Participants
In this section, the names of the women have been changed, and the locations
where they live are described in an ambiguous manner. The profiles are arranged
chronologically, starting with the earliest date of birth. When information regarding
ancestral background was offered by the women, I include that information in the
profile, however, I did not specifically ask a question having to do with nationality.
Having said that, I want to make it clear that having some level of race/ethnic
diversity representation was vital for my study.
Im still a girl at heartI have less energy, and I have adapted to that.
Genevieve, the oldest women in the sample, is a tall, slender erect women. She
and her husband live in an apartment in a life care facility located in a small western
Genevieve spoke of a wonderful childhood; a time of growing up on a farm on
the plains with her parents and three siblings. Both her parents were of German
heritage; her father was quite a successful fanner and business man and her mother
was very frugal, involved with the family, and additionally, actively involved in the
community. Genevieve told me that she was a tomboyshe played on the boys
baseball team, and also helped her father a great deal with the farm work. At a very
early age, Genevieve learned to do all kinds of handwork, and throughout her life
course, has continued this creative activity. During the interview, she said, I am
really glad that I learned handwork, because I found out later that it is excellent
therapy, especially, now that I am older, 1 can sit and knit and not have a care in the
world, and its accomplishing something.
Throughout her lifetime, Genevieve has had several careers. Her first job was
teaching in a country school, in which she was the only teacher for grades one
through eight. Genevieve followed that experience by accepting a position to teach in
high school. Combining summer school with teaching, she obtained an
undergraduate degree in mathematics, and subsequently, a masters degree in
mathematics. Unable to find a teaching job after obtaining her graduate degree,
Genevieve became a social worker during the Depression years. Her next work role
was that of secretary to a dean at the university that she attended. In addition to the
secretarial work, she occasionally substituted as a math professor. Genevieve was
married in 1936, her daughter was bom the following year. The early 1940s found
the family in California, at which time, Genevieve became involved in real estate
speculation. At or near the age of fifty, Genevieve began what she describes as, my
adventure in economics. For the next several years, she invested in real estate,
finding this quite profitable, she then began buying second deed mortgages. During
this economic adventure, Genevieve enrolled in college classes to become
knowledgeable in finance and economics, and this prepared her to invest in stocks and
bonds, land, and eventually home construction.
According to Genevieve, you never stop learning. She also said that she had
always been sort of a rebel, and that she has always contended.
I think that I was bom one of the luckiest people in the world because, I was
bom in the family that I wasin the country that I was, and at the time that I
was. I am so glad I lived when I didI had a simple early life, I was taught
frugality and I have seized the opportunities as they came alongI really
believe that I have been most fortunate.
Presently, Genevieve, along with her husband of fifty nine years is actively
involved in the retirement community where they liveshe continues to do her
handwork, has a wide and varied supportive social network, and she continues to
manage their finances.
In closing the second interview, I asked Genevieve is there was a piece of
wisdom that she would like to share with younger generations? She replied, well,
Ive always said that if you follow the Golden Rule, youll probably make out okay.
I think we need to feed our minds."
Elizabeth was bom in a very, very, small town in the midwest. At the
beginning of the interview, Elizabeth said, first I would like to let you know that I
belong to the Mayflower SocietyI have an ancestor who came over on the
Mayflower. She then pointed to a certificate hanging on the wall above her
telephone, indicating that indeed, she is a member of the Mayflower Society.
Elizabeth too, lives in her own apartment in a life care center, located in a small
western city. A small slim woman, Elizabeth stands quite erect. Her hair and
grooming are impeccable, and her apartment is orderly and welcoming and features
several paintings that Elizabeth painted. Elizabeth is quite an accomplished artist,
having sold many of her paintings.
For the past decade, Elizabeth has been totally blind. As I listened to Elizabeths
life story, it quickly became apparent that she reinvented herself over and over again.
These reinventions most often appeared as a response to changes in her life
Elizabeth described her parents as hard working and lovingshe attributes her
artistic talent to-her mother who, was always very creative. Married at eighteen,
she moved to a large mid-westem city with her husband. Having studied piano as a
young girl, she continued her studies at the music institute in the city.
Over the next several years, Elizabeth continued to educate herself, both formally
and informally. Wanting to remain at home to care for her children, and at the same
time, add to the family income, Elizabeth enrolled in a beautician course, and
subsequently, opened a beauty shop in her home. During the next several years, she
took on the following endeavors: dressmaking classes to further the skills she had
been taught as a young girl; a position as secretary in a college athletic department; a
ceramics class at a local college; joined (along with her husband) a Great Books
discussion group; enrolled in painting classes at the art institute; participated in
church and community organizations; and planned and designed their vacation and
retirement home. Elizabeths telling of these happenings and events was punctuated
with, and of course, I enjoyed that very much, or of course, I learned a great deal,
or and so, I was able to make quite a bit of money. Elizabeth is a wonderful
example of a life long learner. Now that she no longer has vision, she remains active
in the retirement community where she lives, writes, using a manual typewriter,
listens to books and music on tape, and has a friend who reads books to her. At the
time of my last visit, the book currently being read to her was The Rise and Decline
of the Roman Empire, because according to Elizabeth, thats the kind of reading I
enjoy I like hearing about ancient civilizations because I can then think about them
and compare them to our present society.
Family, its the most important thing in life.
It was a gray, rainy Spring day when I first visited Maggie. As I rang the door
bell and waited for the door to open, Maggie came driving around the comer and up
the drive way. She apologized for being late for our appointment, and explained to
me that she had been at the shopping center purchasing Easter gifts for her family.
Maggie is a tall, gracious women with a ready smile and a warm, welcoming
Maggie was bom in 1911 in a small town in the central United States. She
indicated that she is of Irish/German heritage, the middle of five children and she said
that she remembers a wonderful childhood. Some of Maggies earliest memories are
of a special Easter Sunday tradition that her mother and father undertook every year
for the children. According to Maggie, the family was prosperous, her father was in
real estate, and Maggie remembers a lovely home that her father had built for the
family. When she was five years old, the family moved further west, to an area
described by Maggie as crude countryunbroken land. This move, according to
Maggie, was a pivotal point not only for her, but all of the family, as they left their
home with electricity and running water for homesteading conditions. In this area
too, her father established a real estate business, and subsequently, it is where Maggie
completed her education through high school.
Maggie describes herself during her school years as I enjoyed people a lot, and I
loved sports. After high school graduation, Maggie went first to a teaching college
close to home, and then to a university in another state. When I asked her if it was
unusual for women of her generation to have gone to college, she replied, no, we just
expected that we would to go to college. After graduation, Maggie taught music,
and according to her, I had a wonderful time teachingI just loved itI used to put
on elaborate operettas and things like that.
After her marriage, and during the time her four children were reaching school
age, Maggie stayed at home, and then after they were all in school, she returned to
teaching elementary school until her retirement. Education has played an important
role in Maggies life, her husband was also an educator, her children all graduated
from the same university as she and her husband, and some of her grandchildren are
now carrying on the same tradition. Throughout our visit, Maggie often referred to
the many wonderful friends that she and her husband made, and since her husbands
death, Maggie has maintained these relationships.
Currently, Maggie is involved in many activities, she belong to a bowling league,
bridge club, is an active volunteer, an avid reader, and a loyal fan of her college alma
mater football team. When I visited her for the second interview, she was planning a
trip to visit her sister who lives in Washington, D.C.
When I posed the questions, can you tell me what is the best part of this time
of your life? she laughed and said, well theres not muchold age is not a lot of
fun. However, Maggie, considers herself to have had a charmed lifea blessed
life, and she indicated that her family continues to provide her with the most
satisfaction, its the most important thing in life.
Barbara n 911)
I think Ifollowed my Grandmother, in that Ive always thought my role in life
was to serve others."
Barbara owns her apartment in the same life care center as Genevieve and
Elizabeth. Barbara never married, and she told me that is one of the reasons she
volunteered for this study. According to Barbara, I thought that since I never
married, my experience would lend variety to your research.
When I entered the door, Barbara was sitting in her living room, knitting. Like
the other women in my sample who live in the life care retirement center, Barbaras
apartment was arranged in a comfortable, welcoming manner. When she moved to
this apartment, she brought some lovely antiques form her former home, lending an
elegant air to her surroundings. At the present time, arthritis is hampering her
mobility, and limiting her energy. Barbara is a warm, pleasant women, and after
explaining the interview process to her, we began.
Barbara, was bom in a large midwestem city in 1911. She indicated that she is of
Norwegian background. When she was six years old, her father died, the victim of an
influenza epidemic. As a consequence of her fathers death, the family moved in with
her maternal grandparents. Barbaras mother went to work to provide for Barbara and
her brother, twenty-two months younger than she. This began what Barbara refereed
to as a responsible life. She helped her grandmother with housework, and helped
care for her brother. She enjoyed school and always did well in school, graduating
from high school eighth out of a class of 400. Although Barbara had been offered a
scholarship for college, she was unable to accept it. However, she did attend one year
at a municipal college, majoring in math and science, hoping to become a teacher in
those disciplines. According to Barbara, that plan did not work out. So she began
working in the bookkeeping and accounting field, and at the same time taking night
classes in that area. Barbara spent the majority of her working life as an accountant.
When she was fifty years old, she accepted a position with a large accounting firm,
thus being the first women accountant ever being hired by that firm, and in Barbaras
words, they put me on probation for a month, to see if I would work out. Barbara
continued, they hired many women accountants after that, I was with them for nine
Barbara indicated that she has always been involved in many activitiesshe has
traveled extensively, belonged to various clubs, played golf and tennis, and loved to
ice skate. It is important to note that all through her life, Barbara generously gave of
her time and money to family members, and she said, I was always glad that I was
able to helpI think I followed my Grandmother, in that I have always felt my role in
life was to serve others.
Since moving to her present home, Barbara has taken advantage of various
classes being offered in the community, and volunteered at a hospice and also at a
hospital. Now, she said, most of my volunteer work is knitting for the hospital
auxiliary. However, at this present time, she is still a participating member of her
retirement communitys finance committee, and because of my accounting
experience, I have been able to help them out. As Barbara spoke of her life, she
frequently mentioned relationships that have endured across time and space. At one
point, she indicated that she is still in touch with two women, who were in her eighth
grade class, and so although her family of origin now consists of two cousins, a
nephew and four grand nieces, none of whom live close by, Barbara remains
connected to people that she has known for many years. Barbara describes herself as,
a survivor, a flexible person who has never been afraid to take on anything that
needed doing. She said, I have had a good life, a responsible life, I have been able
to provide for myself and help out many othersand have fun along the way.
I'm sure that I am denying something, but I think that my parents were almost
Sarah recently sold her home in the suburbs of a medium size western city, and
has moved to an apartment in the city. Her new home is sunny and delightful, and it
was apparent to me that this is a women who has a wide range of intereststhere are
many books and paintings, and reminders of the extensive traveling that she and her
late husband enjoyed so muchaccording to Sarah, mostly to Mexico.
Sarah said, I moved here so that when I am no longer driving, I will be close to
public transportation. She is pleased with her new homeher apartment is located
high enough that she looks out on the tree topsin response to the location, Sarah
said, I live in a tree house, I just love it.
We began our conversation with the usual autobiographical information. Sarah
was bom in a small town located in the central United States. She indicated that she
thinks it was a wonderful place to grow up, although I only lived there for ten years,
I do think it would have been somewhat narrowing to have grown up in that small of
town. When Sarah was ten years old, the family moved to a larger southern town of
about 26,000, and this is where Sarah lived from age ten until she finished high
school. She described herself in high school as a goody-goody, as one who was
active in school activities, and played tennis a lot.
In addition to her parents, Sarahs family consisted of a younger brother. Sarah
said that she had a wonderful childhood, and additionally, Im sure that I am denying
something, but I think my parents were almost perfect. Sarahs father was a
bridge and paving contractor and her mother was a homemaker after her marriage at
age thirty. Prior to her parents marriage Sarahs mother worked as a waitress, a
domestic, a seamstress and also, on her own, homesteaded in South Dakota. Sarah
described her mother as a remarkable feminist, and her father as a very secure
Sarahs college years were dedicated to becoming a social worker, and she spoke
with fondness of the years she spent working in the field. At mid life, she returned to
school and obtained a MSW degree.
Sarahs first husband was also a social worker. He died after twelve years of
marriage leaving Sarah with three children. Sarah married a second time, and had
two more children, however, that marriage ended in divorce. According to Sarah,
we were married for six yearsit turned out not to be a good marriage, but you cant
regret things you have done in your life, because they are a part of your life, and if
you regret them, you are denying who you are. Speaking of her five children, Sarah
said, I dont know what I would do without them, I feel very, very close to them
theyre terrific! Sarah married for the third time, and she and her husband had a
wonderful twenty two years together until his death two years ago. Since that time,
Sarah told me that she has experienced depression for the first time.
Throughout her life, Sarah has traveled extensively, currently she is active in
many different groups, and has a wide and varied social network. She is involved
with a dream group, participates in church activities, is involved in co-counseling and
keeps in touch with friends, many of whom she has known for years.
If I die tomorrow, I have no regrets, I have none, I have done everything I ever
wanted to do."
Clara answered the door to the apartment that she, her husband, and an adult
daughter share. The apartment is in a lovely high-rise building in the center of a
medium size western city. Clara, of African American descent, is a gentle, warm
After the recorder was plugged in and we were comfortably situated, Clara began
her story. Beginning our conversation, Clara said, I think as I tell you about my life,
you will see that throughout my life, just the right person(s) appeared at the right
time, to help me achieve my goals. Clara continued, I was bom in 1917, the fifth of
fifteen children. She described herself when a child, as a believer of fairy tales, one
who was certain that, yu could will things to come true. Thus, according to Clara,
she had three wishes that were goals for her at quite a young age. She described them
in the following manner:
OneI wanted to go to college; two, I dreamed of going to far away places
that cropped up in our geography, or in movies, and three, I wanted to teach
school because it represented security, and upward mobility and, additionally,
responsibility, acceptability and respectability.
Clara was bom in a medium size southern city. Her father was a janitor and also
a minister and her mother was in charge of the children and the home. Clara
described her father as warm and loving, someone who always talked about the
Bible and told us what we could do for ourselves, and her mother as a strict
disciplinarian, but we knew we were wanted and loved. According to Clara, her
parents were married just ten years after emancipation, so they would have had to be
As Clara proceeded to tell her story, it was punctuated with examples of the
right person coming into her life at the right time. This phenomenon began in
elementary school when teachers, neighbors and friends helped by donations of time,
clothing, and cash, at one point covering the cost of Claras cap, gown, and
announcements for high school graduation. Although Clara wanted to go to college,
it appeared that it was not possible for her to so, however, through the effort of one of
her former high school teachers, a way was found for Clara to continue her education.
During college, Clara worked at many part time jobs, and her mother faithfully sent
the necessary fifteen dollars a month. Clara, did indeed become a teacher, and later
she completed a masters degree. She married, and had two children, a son and a
After moving to the west, it was necessary for Clara to return to her hometown to
obtain a teaching job and experience, as the school board in the western city would
not hire African American teachers. During this time, in addition to teaching, she
also completed a masters degree. Eventually, she was able to rejoin her family in the
west, and acquire a teaching position in that city. Clara taught school until the time of
In response to Claras wish to travel to the far comers of the world, she has
traveled world wide. Throughout the years, she has been active in many
organizations, and the recipient of various awards. Her husband is now blind, and
Clara is the primary caretaker. However, she remains actively involved in various
organizations and activities.
While referring once again to the various people who aided her in attaining her
goals, Clara said, just think about these incidentsto have somebody special in
your life. If I die tomorrow, I have no regrets, I have noneIve done everything that
I wanted to do.
Ginnv f 1919^
I have never been happier, I have never been more content. "
Ginny, too lives in the life care retirement community. Her apartment is situated
in a location that allows her a spectacular view, and is decorated in a style that
demonstrates Ginnys love of the art and the people of the southwest.
In response to my knock on the door, I was greeted by Ginny, a slender woman
with dark hair and a dazzling smile. She beckoned me in, and as soon as we were
both situated, we began the interview. Ginny was bom in an eastern state, the oldest
of two children, her brother is fifteen months younger that she. According to Ginny,
she was very close to her father, and always felt his love, however, throughout her
life, she struggled to gain her mothers acceptance and approval. The lack of
validation and acceptance from her mother resulted in what Ginny describes as her
becoming a lifelong over achiever. An aunt (her mothers sister), lived close to the
family, and so according to Ginny, whenever anything would go wrong, I would go
to Aunt Millie and she would make everything okay.
Ginny indicated that her childhood was normal, with many friends, and activities.
Upon graduating from high school at sixteen, Ginnys goal was to become a nurse.
Being younger than the required eighteen years to be accepted into the nursing
programs in her area, she made the decision to move a thousand miles away from
home to attend a five-year nursing program at a state university in the midwest. The
time during college was a wonderful time for Ginny, although it was marred by the
death of her father shortly before her graduation.
Ginny married, and the family eventually moved to a small western city where
they lived until retirement, at which time they relocated to a smaller town in the same
state. During her working years, Ginny did not work continuously, however she
worked in nursing at different periods, including a position as a school nurse, and
then later as a director of a nursing home. This last position was described by Ginny
as very satisfyingI really liked working with old people. Throughout her life
course Ginny has been involved in missionary work, church work, volunteer work,
she both knits and sews, is an avid reader, and throughout her life she has seized
opportunities to continue learning. In addition to Elderhostel, she has participated,
and continues to participate in college classes and classes and lectures at a senior
center. Since moving to the retirement center, Ginny, along with Genevieve (the first
woman to be profiled in this section), organized a craft club for the residents of the
facility. Members meet regularly to work on their projects. As a result of this
organizational effort, the craft club held its first Holiday Bazaar.
Shortly before her mothers unexpected death, Ginny was able to spend a month
with her mother, and she indicated that when she left her mother, she felt that they
had taken care of everything that time... I just praise the Lord that we had that time
When we talked about the decision to move to a retirement community after the
death of her husband, Ginny said, I was readyI was tired of the responsibility of
the house, I was tired of eating alone, and I was lonely... I have never been happier,
I have never been more content. She further indicated that in the life care facility she
values the opportunity to socialize and be active in the community, while at the same
time, she values the privacy of her apartment.
You know, I was just blessed all the way around.
Rosemary and her husband live in a retirement complex in a mid-sized western
city. As soon as I got off the elevator, I was greeted by Rosemary, a small, lively
energetic woman with a warm smile and engaging manner. She led the way to her
apartment which is light, sunny, and presents she and her husband with a panoramic
view of the city.
After the preliminary explanation regarding my study, we began the interview.
According to Rosemary, my sister and I are the only children in the family, my
parents were from an old Hispanic, colonial family in the southwest. Rosemary
described her growing up years as a time of being surrounded by love, security, and
having lots of warm fuzzies. In addition to her parents, Rosemarys maternal
grandmother lived with the family, thus, according to Rosemary:
I had three parents, Mother, Father and Granny, all three working hard, I just
knew they were working for us, my sister and I... I knew we were poor, but
since everyone was working we had moneywe all had what we needed. We
lived in a small, very pleasant community, and so I remember just happy
School was important to Rosemary, and her goal was to become a teacher.
Rosemary excelled in her studies, and thus was awarded a scholarship at a private
school in another state, and according to her, I worked hard, I made it, and I went
back to my home state and taught school. During this time, Rosemary married, and
after a short time, she and her husband returned to the city where she had completed
her undergraduate work. Enrolling in the same school, Rosemary completed a
masters degree in library science, thus opening the door for employment with the
local school district, first as a librarian, then as a supervisor in human relations. At
the time of her retirement, she was a principal. According to Rosemary, I had lots of
breaksevery five years I had a different experience. You know, I was just blessed
all the way around. Throughout our conversation, Rosemary declared that her
coming to age experience was not the ordinary experience of a young Latino women
of her time. In response to my query regarding what she thought brought about these
different experiences, she replied;
It was a combination of things, we lived in an integrated community, my
father and mother were both interested and involved in our education, we were
a small family, the encouragement from my teachers played an important role,
and also, we were just lucky.
Music and dance play an important role in Rosemarys life, and when her term on
the national board of an organization ends, she plans to devote more time to playing
the piano. Being faced with boredom will not be an issue for Rosemary, when I asked
what her future plans were, she replied, I love to cook, Im experimenting with low
fat recipes, I enjoy fancy work and handwork, I enjoy quilting, I like to read, I like
music, so I have lots of things I can doI love being with friends, and playing cards
and games of all kinds. Rosemary sees in the near future an opportunity to be a
community volunteer and too, a time to pursue her interest in family history.
Its interesting, the more we live, the more adaptable to change we must
become, we learn to take things as they come.
As I drove to Paulas home, I reflected on the number of years, (well over
twenty) that I have known of Paula and been aware of her active participation as a
volunteer in many organizations and agencies. Paula is the consummate volunteera
Paula is a small, quite elegant woman. She possess a beautiful smile and
Paula, of Hispanic heritage, was bom January 11,1926, in a southwestern state,
however, shortly thereafter, the family moved to an adjoining state. Paulas early life
was marred by tragedy. At the age of three, her mother died, leaving Paula and her
eleven month old brother motherless. She has very few memories of her mother, and
does not remember who, in addition to her father, provided care for she and her
brother after her mothers death. According to Paula,
My father worked in the coal mines, and for a period of years, my brother, my
father and I were the only people in the house. It was a very happy time in my
lifemy father was a very good cook, and he taught me to cook very well, we
were very, very happy.
When Paula was eleven years old, this happy period was brought to a tragic,
abrupt halt when her father was killed in a mining accident. The next few years were
a time of great trauma for Paula. She and her brother were sent to live with a paternal
half-sister and family. In this setting, Paula, was the victim of intense child abuse.
After the court system became involved with the abuse issues, Paula and her brother
were allowed to live with their maternal half-sisters. This period, according to Paula,
was a time of immense happinesswe were very, very poor, but rich in love.
One of Paulas teachers played the role of mentor and special person in her life.
According to Paula, he was absolutely wonderful, and to this day I really believe that
he is responsible for a lot of my caring for the welfare of othershe was
exceptionally good to me.
Following high school, Paula enrolled in a junior college with the intent of
becoming a linguist. However, the advisors at the college discouraged Paula from
following her dream, and subsequently she dropped out of college. In the following
period, Paula worked at various jobs, married and at age twenty, her daughter was
bom. Beginning with the time Paulas daughter started to school, and continuing to
the present, she has been an activist and volunteer, donating as much time and effort
to her endeavors as if she were a full time employee. The focus of her time and
energy has been comprehensive. The following examples are but a few of the issues
in which Paula has been a major player: in the area of housing, she served as a
commissioner for the Urban Renewal Authority for thirteen years; she has done
extensive work in the field of education; and was on the board of a major health
insurance company for twenty-nine years. Based on the wide range of experiences
that Paula has first hand knowledge of, she is of the opinion that what is basic to
individuals striving for a better life is education, and education is directly affected by
the health, (or lack of health) that each person possess. Throughout this time of
donating her time and energy, Paula declared that the focus of her efforts have been
children, because in her words, they are the forgotten members of our society, we
treat them like chattel. According to Paula, I think that what kept me going, was
that statistically, I should have been a statistic, and I really thank God that I was not.
As I went along in different volunteer jobs, I saw that I could make a difference
would make a difference.
When our conversation turned to family relationships, Paulas marriage of fifty
years, and her daughters growing up years she said, its interesting, the more we
live... the more adaptable to change we must become.. .we have to leam to take
things as they come.
I went to twenty nine schools by the time I was in fourth grade.
The drive to Kates home took me up into the mountains. Kate and her husband
are in the process of building a new home located in a beautiful mountain meadow.
At the time of our first interview, Kate was confined to crutches, and awaiting her
second knee replacement surgery. Kate is a small, energetic women with a bright
smile, and an adventurous spirit. We began the interview process with Kate telling
me that she was bom in the central U.S. in 1927. According to Kate, we were the
most ordinary sort of middle class familymy father was a life insurance agent, and
my mother a homemaker. In 1927 we had a very comfortable life, we lived in a nice
house in a nice neighborhood. However, in 1929, this comfortable life came to a
crashing demise with the onset of the Great Depression. As financial disaster
devastated the family, Kates father plunged into (in Kates words), a total nervous
breakdown of sorts. In the early 1930s, Kates father purchased a strip photo
machine (like those seen in dime stores), attached it to a house trailer and the family
headed toward the west coast in search of a better life. Along the way, they stopped
in little towns and set up their photo business. This, began a four year journey for the
family, a time when Kate would attend twenty-nine school by the time she was in
fourth grade. Later, when the family was living on the west coast they, along with the
picture machine would travel with a carnival during the summer months. This life
style ended with the advent of W.W.II. During this period employment was up, thus
Kates father became employed, enabling the family to settle in the west coast area
where Kate continued her education up through two years of college. She terminated
her college efforts when she married at nineteen, and assumed the responsibility of
supporting she and her husband while he finished his degree, and subsequently joined
the Air Force.
The first twenty years of Kates marriage, she performed the role of a military
officers wife, her life thus revolving around her husbands military assignments.
According to Kate, military life was enriching and enjoyable, many long term
friendships were made, and the family benefited from the exposure to different life
styles and cultures during this time. She indicated that she never felt tied to any home
or place, but then, in her words, in the military, you take your home and community
with you. During this time four children were bom. Following her husbands
military retirement, the family returned to the west coast for a short time and then
relocated to a small city in the midwest for a period ten years. In this city, Kate had a
job that she described as, the only one I have ever had that was fulfilling to mea
job with a lot of responsibility, and more, as I grew into ita ten year job that meant
a lot to me in which I developed skills I had never thought about.
Throughout the interview, Kate spoke of events that illustrated her dedication to
lifelong learning. During the time of her employment in the midwest, she participated
in many university classes, and since she and her husband relocated to the mountains
in 1980, she has taken many classes at a community college, participated in
archeology digs, and taken art and painting classes.
In response to my inquiry regarding a piece of wisdom that she would like to
pass to succeeding generations, Kate replied, the only thing that comes to mind is
something my Grandmother said to me, if you have your choice between cleaning
house and going on a picnic, choose the picnichousework will always be there, but
not everyday is nice enough for a picnic.
In this section I write of the themes that emerged in the narratives provided by
the participants in this study. It is important to note that all older women are not
alike, indeed there is great diversity among this age group. However, central to my
research, is identifying common traits manifested in the lives of women who appear
to be successfully aging. Although many themes were evident in the transcribed
interviews, for the purpose of this study, I have focused on the following six themes
that appear to be most common among the women I interviewed: 1) living in the
present; 2) satisfaction with life; 3) a positive attitude; 4) connectedness with others;
5) dedication to lifelong learning; and 6) a sense of autonomy. These six themes are
also dominant in the literature that I reviewed, and as I present each theme, I refer to
literature that supports my findings.
When discussing the narratives that I collected from the ten women in my study,
the following terms are used interchangeably to refer to the interviews; conversation,
interviews, narratives and visit.
Living in the Present
All of the women in this study live in the present. They demonstrate zest and
enthusiasm for the daily happenings of their lives. They are fully engaged in day to
day living, and they all cite examples of joy and pleasure that they experience at this
present time of their life. Ginny indicated that since she moved to her apartment, that
she has never been happier or more content. Barbara spoke of the pleasure she
experiences as a result of no longer having to rise in the morning at a specific time,
and Sarah told of the delight she experiences in looking out on the tree tops from her
bedroom window. Living in the present is also demonstrated when individuals make
the decision to modify their residence to comply with their changing needs and
values. This method of mediating the change(s) that come with growing older, is
demonstrated by many of the women that I interviewed. These women spoke of the
necessity of letting go of possessionsof making the decision to retain only the
things that were most loved by them. Rosemary spoke of paring down possessions
she and her husband had accumulated when they made the decision to move to an
apartment in the retirement center. Often, when going through the process of paring
down their belongings, individuals asked their children and grandchildren and also
friends if they would like to have any particular item(s). According to Erikson et al.
(1986), by giving their possessions to others to enjoy, individuals are able to live on
in the lives of others, long after they themselves are gone.
Satisfaction with Life
All of the women express a sense of satisfaction with the life as lived up to and
including the present. Every women, at some point in the interview indicated how
fortunate they were, how blessed their life has been, or even how good fortune just
happened to occur in their life. Clara who spoke of the special people who came into
her life at just the right time and place, presents an example of satisfaction with life,
if I should die tomorrow, I have no regrets, I have none Ive done everything I ever
wanted to do.
Jane Loevinger (1976), presents a ten stage model of adult development in which
the final stages, (nine and ten) are the autonomous stage and the integrated stage.
Loevinger (1976), indicates that in stage nine, individuals gain increased awareness of
their true selves, become self-accepting and able to resolve inner conflicts. In stage
ten, having accepted themselves, individuals are now able to appreciate difference in
others, enabling them to turn outward and focus on the needs of others. Stages nine
and ten of Loevingers (1976) theory appear to take into account the women in this
All of the women in this study demonstrate a sense of positive attitude
concerning their lives, past and present. According to Day (1991), a positive attitude
is a trait manifested by the successful agers in her study. Hurwich (1980-1991), also
found a positive attitude to be a trait shared by the women in her studies. Positivism
as described by the Day (1991) study and the Hurwich (1990) study is not denial of
past hurt or sorrow, or a denial of present obstacles in ones life, but rather that when
taking these sources of pain into account, individuals are able to access them
realistically and manage them in a constructive rather than a negative way. Bird
(1995), suggests that individuals who are not terminally wounded by negative factors
in early life are likely to be successful agers.
When Sarah, spoke of relocating so she would have public transit available when
she is no longer driving, she demonstrates a constructive approach to remaining
engaged in her many activities. Genevieve indicated that she has learned to adapt to
her declining energy, thus enabling her to maintain involvement with her many
interests, and Elizabeth talked of the pleasure that she derives as a result of the books
being read to her.
The women that I interviewed presented many examples of involvement with
learning throughout the life course. They all enjoyed school, and did well in school,
and they have continued to be involved in learning, formal and informal, throughout
their life. Clara indicated that a future goal of hers is to resume the Ph.D. program
that she was Unable to complete some years ago. Kate talked of her hope of resuming
study in her many areas of interest following her upcoming surgery and the necessary
recovery time. Most of the women in this sample indicated that they enjoy reading,
some spoke of public television as a source of information, and almost all have
traveled extensively. By continuing to be interested in learning, they remain involved
with the world. Sheehy (1995), describes successful aging as a subjective choice,
combined with a dedication to lifelong learning and a development of an entirely new
set of strategies. Further support of this finding is offered by Hurwich (1990), and
Erikson et al. (1986).
Connectedness With Others
This theme appeared in all the narratives that I collected. It could also be
described as having a strong support network of friends and family. All of the
women that I interviewed spoke of family members that they are closely connected to.
Additionally, some spoke of friends who were regarded as family. Maggie declared
that family is the most important thing in life. Some of the women talked of
friendships that have been maintained over a period of many years, two of the women
spoke of contact they maintain with friends from their elementary school days.
Another facet of friendship, was described by many of the women when they talked of
friendships with individuals of all ages. All of the women mentioned relationships
that have in the past, and continue in the present, to enrich and enhance their lives.
Lewwits (1989), and Thone (1992), write of the importance of friends as women age.
Lewwits (1989), asserts that these friendships aid older women in maintaining
continued physical and mental health and aid psychological growth. Thone (1992),
declares that women are sustained by their friendships with other women, especially
in their later years, thus it important to invest time and energy in building these
relationships throughout the lifetime.
Most of the ten women that I interviewed, demonstrated a sense of autonomy,
that of being in charge of their lives. This trait was manifest in various ways; by
moving to a smaller, easier to maintain residence, by making decisions based on their
wants and needs, and most certainly, autonomy was demonstrated by the women who
had the financial means to live the independent life they chose. Two of the women in
this study who live in the life care facility indicated that they prefer to prepare their
own meals rather that eat in the communitys dining room. Days (1991) work
indicates that autonomy was vital for the successfully aging women in her study. For
the women in Days (1991) study, not having to depend on children or relatives for
housing or financial support, or not having the responsibility for the support of adult
children or other family members was a necessary component that contributed to their
sense of autonomy. It is important to note that Day (1991), considered adequate
financial means a subjective descriptor to be defined by each women, rather than a
Barbara Myerhoff, (1978), writes of the autonomy that is so important to the
elderly Jews she studied. Although the participants in Myerhoff s study were in
actuality quite dependent on the broader community for support of their community
center, it was important to them to maintain a sense of control over their existence.
Most importantly, they did not want to be dependent in any way on their children.
Although the women in my study experience aging under a different set of
circumstances than those in Myerhoff s study, the concept is the same. A sense of
autonomy enables these elderly women to manifest a level of control over their own
life, and to be actively involved in their own well being.
In the social sciences, there is currently a trend to move from the rigid positivist
method of isolating variables to the interpretative method of integrating variables. As
I developed the section on themes it appeared to me that rather than the six themes
occurring in a linear, hierarchical manner, they are fluid and interconnected, with each
one affecting the other in what I would describe as a circular representation.
The Role of Creativity in the Lives of These Successfully Aging Women
This discussion is presented in response to the second part of my research
question, that of the role of creativity in the lives of successfully aging women.
The aging process is described by Neugarten (Hall, interview, 1987), as a
continually changing set of adaptations, by all means, a creative process. It appears
that the women I interviewed utilize creativity in many of the ways they have chosen
to adapt to or mediate the aging process. One woman spoke of having less energy,
however, she further indicated that she has adapted to the decline in energy by
making sure that she paces herself throughout the day. In this case, it appears that by
adopting a creative strategy i.e., pacing herself, creativity plays the role of mediating
loss due to aging. Rowe and Kahn (1987) declare that a focus on strategies of
adaptation and mediation can enable individuals to move from usual to successful
aging. Erikson et al. (1986), indicate that during aging, individuals often call upon
creativity as a means of adapting to the losses due to getting older. Several of the ten
women in my study, have modified their living arrangements to accommodate their
changing needs, and some of the women have modified their participation in :
volunteer activities. Barbara spoke of no longer being able to be as active in
volunteer work with a hospital auxiliary as she had previously been. At this present
time, she describes her work for the hospital as mostly knitting for the hospital
Ager et al. (1987), describe the creative process as representing the highest
degree of emotional health, as the expression of normal people in the process of
actualizing themselves, which serves to interrelate the person and his/her world.
When Paula spoke of her life as a professional volunteer, she clearly demonstrated
creativity in the various methods she utilized to address the social issues that she has
dedicated her life to. According to Ager et al. (1987), three factors are necessary to
assure a creative aging process; the development of an attitude of exploration,
physical and mental exercise, and planning. The women that I interviewed all
demonstrate an attitude of exploration, they are all mentally involved, and some of
them spoke of physical exercise that they perform, with walking and swimming being
the exercise of choice. Further validation of aging as a creative process is offered by
Pruyser (1987). The theory developed by Pruyser (1987, p. 428), indicates that for
the ordinary, not particularly talented person, creativity may be more attitudinal than
production oriented. According to Pruyser (1987), examples of attitudinal creativity
include teaching, engaging in charitable work and sharing with others the products of
creative endeavor, i.e., handwork, woodworking, writing. Some of the women I
interviewed indicated that they are volunteers on a regular basis; too, it is quite
common among themselves and their friends to share the products of their creative
Dacy (1989), argues that old age presents the aging person with the opportunity
to develop creativity in a unique manner, that of providing a mentor for younger
creators. Dacy (1989), declares that although this aspect of creativity generally
receives little recognition, it provides society with invaluable benefits.
It is necessary in this discussion, to address the resultant products of creative
endeavors undertaken by the women in this study. Elizabeth (who is blind), spoke of
her success at painting. While a student at the art institute, she often was singled out
for recognition and praise for her work. Although, she lost her sight ten years ago,
she described in great detail, the paintings displayed in her living room. Also, she
pointed out examples of her work with ceramics. No longer able to paint, she turned
to writing, and at the present time, Elizabeth is writing her auto-biography. As
Elizabeth told her story, it appeared that creativity has been utilized throughout her
life course and that during the aging process it has been an important component of
her successful aging process. Many of the participants in this study indicated lifelong
interest and participation in handwork of all descriptions. Genevieve spoke of the
calming effect that knitting provides her, with the added benefit of accomplishing
something in the process and Rosemary talked of her involvement with music and
dance. Needlework of all kinds, music, cooking, sewing, painting, writing, and
utilizing creativity to mediate the change and loss due to the aging process, or utilized
to remain connected with others, all were present in the narratives that the participants
in the study shared with me.
Within the discussion regarding emergent themes in the narratives told to me by
the participants in this study, I present examples of utilizing developmental stage
theories to increase understanding of the psychological development of the women in
this study. These theories, however, do not take into account differences appearing in
individuals due to race, class and ethnicity. They also fail to take into account the
social historical experience of the women. In an effort to lend balance to this study I
utilized the theoretical framework described in Chapter Two, allowing me to factor in
the social/historical context experienced by the women. Clearly, the social historical
experience of the ten women in this study is a significant factor to consider in an
attempt to gain understanding regarding their development throughout their life
course. It is significant for reasons having to do with race/class and ethnicity.
Although nearly all of the white women indicated that they were bom into relatively
well to do middle class families, the experience of the women of color was quite
different. African Americans were only one or two generations away from slavery,
and the Hispanic women were bom into a social/historical setting that devalued,
demeaned and oppressed the Hispanic culture. It is interesting to note that although
the economic conditions were radically different between the white women and the
women of color, other factors in their families were similar, i.e., parental love and
support, emphasis and support in regard to education, religious values, and supportive
social networks of friends. This type (contextual) analysis indicates to me that using
a stage theory when attempting to understand personality development offers the
researcher only a part of the picture, however, when additional factors, such as social
class, race, and ethnicity are included in the study, a more comprehensive profile
emerges. This expanded profile that is available to researchers could provide
important information to public policy makers who are involved in creating
appropriate policies, polices that are developed taking into account the diversity that
exists in the aging population.
The dominant themes that emerged in the narratives relayed to me by the ten
women in this study suggest that all ten women could be described as successfully
aging. As the ten women told their life stories it appeared to me that the traits and
characteristics that contributed to their successfully aging process, had been present
throughout their life course.
Although satisfaction with life is a common theme in the stories of the
participants in this study, it is important to note that this satisfaction does not imply
that their lives were free of adversity. All of the women described times of struggle,
sorrow, and loss. For example, Elizabeth described the time following the death of
her husband as a very difficult time for me. Sarah and Maggie described periods of
depression and devastation following the death of their husbands. Paula indicated
that although she had enjoyed a very good life, she has experienced a great deal of
physical illness. Rosemary, Clara and Paula spoke of the racism that is a part of their
lives, and others in the study discussed the sexism that they have experienced. Ginny
talked of her pain resulting from never gaining her mothers acceptance, and Paula
described a period of her childhood in which she experienced extreme physical and
emotional abuse. The deaths of parents, siblings, and spouses were topics discussed
by all ten women. All of the women described periods of adjustment to changing life
circumstance, what Bateson (1991), refers to as the discontinuities that women are
often faced with across the life course.
Along with the dominant themes discussed in Chapter Three, underlying themes
emerged. Anderson and Jack (1991, p. 11), describe these less obvious themes as
muted channels. Some of the women spoke of the choices they made as a result of
the perceived role of women at the time. One woman indicated that she did not
pursue doctoral work because her husband did not have a doctorate at that time, and
she felt it would be inappropriate for her to surpass his educational level, and another
woman spoke regretfully of dropping out of college to work so that her husband could
complete his education.
Clearly the women in this study matured at a time when it was not considered
appropriate for women to speak of personal pain and sorrow, but rather to focus their
energy and concern on others. During the narratives, none of the women were self
effacing when describing their accomplishments. While the down playing of the dark
side of life experience may present an overly romanticized picture of the past, it may
also reflect the attitudes of acceptance found by researchers in the penultimate stage
of life (Loevinger, 1976). Certainly, listening to the women describe their subjective
experience of aging presents the field of gerontology with first person accounts of the
experiencewhat Kaufmann (1986), described as hearing about growing old from
someone who is experiencing it. Additionally, this study, indicates that creativity has
enhanced the lives of the ten women throughout the life course.
This study regarding aging is timely, in that by focusing only on older women, it
highlights differences between older women and older men and older women and
younger women. By utilizing the Vygotskian framework, differing experiences due
to race, class and ethnicity were highlighted in the analysis.
In an attempt to discover why women live longer than men, Friedan (1993),
suggests that perhaps the constant readjusting to the discontinuities that women
experience throughout their life course, the necessity to reinvent themselves over and
over again, enable women to approach life with a more flexible attitude. Perhaps this
flexibility (according to Frieden 1993), could be one reason for women entering their
later years better prepared than men to take on the challenges that come with growing
The nature of qualitative research is to point to reasons rather than determine
causes. This study suggest certain indicators in an effort to determine the traits and
characteristics that are present in women who appear to be successfully aging.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this study is that it allows a glimpse into the
lives of truly remarkable women. The women in this study graciously provide
interesting models for women of all ages to investigate in reference to the kind of
women they hope to become as they age.
Paradoxical as it may seem, to believe in youth is to look backward; to look
forward we must believe in age. (Dorothy Parker, cited in Neylon, 1990).
Recommendations for Future Research
Future studies in the area of women and successful aging need to move in the
direction of a more diverse sample. The sample in this study would have been
strengthened by including women of color in a more representative manner, and by
taking into account sexual orientation. Within every group, class issues are a vital
component to take into account, and future research could focus on economically
deprived elderly in an effort to hear how they describe their lives across time and
space. The women in this study represent an age difference of twenty one years, a
generation between the oldest and the youngest. I suggest that future research focus
on respondents that are closer together in age.
All of the women in this study spoke of a satisfactory childhood experience.
Most of the participants described their childhood as wonderful and their parents as
loving. In the cases where a parent was absent, these losses were described as
being mediated by the presence of another family member. Future research
investigating the role of a satisfactory childhood experience in lives of successfully
aging persons could provide social science researchers with valuable information.
Further research into all aspects of aging are needed as our society prepares for a
new century, when the aging population will be an increasingly larger percent of this
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