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Identity construction in the very old: A qualitative narrative study

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Rachel Stocker, Dr Siân Russell, Dr Lucy Robinson, Professor Barbara Hanratty, Professor Dame Louise Robinson, Professor Joy Adamson



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


People are living longer internationally, with a growing number experiencing very old age (≥95 years). Physical, psychological and social changes can challenge one’s sense of self and disrupt existing identities. However, experiences of the very old in society are seldom researched and how they construct identity and negotiate a sense of self is little understood. Our study focuses on participants aged >95 years to understand how identity is conceptualised to negotiate a continued place in society. Qualitative interviews with 23 people were thematically analysed, underpinned by Positioning Theory. Five themes were generated: A contented life; reframing independence; familial positioning; appearance and physical wellbeing; reframing ill health. Participants saw themselves as largely content and, despite their world becoming smaller, found pleasure in small routines. Perceptions of self were reframed to maintain autonomy within narrow parameters. Past relationships and experiences/events were drawn on to make sense of ongoing ways of living. There were tensions around feelings of loss of autonomy and independence, with some valuing these over issues such as safety. This sometimes conflicted with views of others and small acts of resistance and subversion were acted out to maintain some sense of control. However, participants minimised progressive ill health. Findings provide insight into how the very old may utilise identity to negotiate, acquiesce, resist and challenge the world around them.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Anderson A, Stocker R, Russell S, Robinson L, Hanratty B, Robinson L, Adamson J

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: PLOS One

Year: 2022

Volume: 17

Issue: 12

Online publication date: 15/12/2022

Acceptance date: 30/11/2022

Date deposited: 19/12/2022

ISSN (electronic): 1932-6203

Publisher: Public Library of Science


DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0279098


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Funder referenceFunder name
PB-PG-1217-20025National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)