Really listening to older women

A new report, launched on International Women’s Day, challenges common assumptions about the life experiences of the current cohort of older women and the way care and support services are designed.

By Keryn Curtis

A new report commissioned by not for profit aged services provider, Benetas and undertaken by researchers from Deakin University, suggests that greater time and careful listening is required to understand the real lived experiences of older women and better respond to their needs as they age. 

The research project, entitled, ‘Women at Work — the voices of older women’ sought to compare older women’s experiences in paid and unpaid employment and how this impacts on their ageing experience.  It involved in-depth interviews with 25 women aged between 66 and 92, all living independently in the eastern and south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, except for two in residential care. 

Researcher and co-author of the report, Associate Professor Grazyna Zajdow said the project grew from a concept that certain  life experiences might influence the experience of ‘good ageing’. In particular, it started with the hypothesis that older women – for whom community expectations had usually dictated that a woman’s place was in the home looking after children – may be envious of younger women and the opportunities they enjoy today, compared to their own experiences.

“Did older women, whose children and grandchildren had different opportunities, feel resentment toward younger generations? It became clear that they didn’t,” said Prof Zajdow.

“But the lived experience of their working lives became the focus,” she said.  “An interesting observation came up in our background research relating to women’s involvement in labour in general; and that was that the only reliable statistics about women’s work were census figures from the time.  

“But when you dug down and asked the women about the work they had done, you found a different picture. We realised that if you are trying to understand, say paid employment among women in the 1950s, by relying on data from a general census every five years, usually completed by the husband, then you are not going to get a very clear picture,” she said.

According to the report, while many women initially considered that their work lives had been short, greater questioning elicited long-forgotten memories of paid employment, albeit usually in the form of infrequent or short-term jobs.

“It would seem that more research of this type would be very useful in giving this group of women a greater voice. Many of the women did not feel they had led interesting lives until they began talking and relating their experiences.

“Despite the cultural norm that married women should not work unless they were disadvantaged, most of the women in fact worked all of their adult lives. Indeed many continued well beyond the retirement age for women of 60, some working well past the age of 70. Others worked, whether through desire or necessity, even while sick or disabled. Despite somewhat fragmented working lives, they liked work and the benefits of extra money, the contribution to the household economy they were able to make and spending time with workmates. Indeed quite a few of the women continued doing community work as volunteers.”  From the report

Prof Zajdow said this research project highlighted that unless researchers go out and ask the detailed questions, we would never have an accurate picture by relying on statistics. 

“We buy into this myth that women didn’t work.  But without doubt, these are women who have more agency than previously thought.”

Change of practice

Research and development manager for Benetas, Alan Gruner, said the organisation commissioned the research in order to better understand the experiences of older women.

“The aim was to try to find out a bit more about what people think about these issues and how these views and perceptions might influence the way they experience ageing and the way we might respond better to their needs,” says Mr Gruner.

“We really wanted to hear the voice of older people, because so much of the information we have is quantitative.

“This one was very intensive.  Researchers had about an hour with each woman – to let the person really reflect deeply and talk about themselves,” he said.

Mr Gruner said one of the key findings for Benetas, was the importance of probing deeply when doing assessments of people.  

“In terms of our work, we have changed the way we assess people in referrals. We’ve found out that most people who said that they weren’t employed, had actually worked but they hadn’t seen that the work they were doing counted as work.

“It can mean a changing in the viewpoint they have of themselves.  It’s important to people to feel that they have contributed and still are contributing as they age ,” said Mr Gruner.

“So we have changed our assessment process so there is more of an in-depth interview; a conversation where we can let people open up and talk about themselves.  And we can find out what really interests them and explore opportunities to get them contributing again.”  

Above: Benetas CEO, Sandra Hills and Ambassador for Ageing, Noeline Brown.

The report, ‘Women at Work – the voices of older women‘ was officially lanched by Ambassador for Ageing, Noeline Brown, last week on Thursday 7 March at an event held at Australian Centre for Moving Images (ACMI) at Melbourne’s Federation Square. Deakin University researchers Grazyna Zajdow and Marilyn Poole and a selection of the women from the project, joined Reverend Canon Dr Colleen O’Reilly, Vicar of St George’s Malvern, and Sandra Hills, CEO Benetas, for the event.

Above: L-R Assoc professor Grayzna Zajdow and Marilyn Poole at the event.
Below: Some of the women who were interviewed as part of the research project.

Tags: alan-gruner, benetas, deakin-university, grayzna-zaidow, older-women, report, women-at-work,

4 thoughts on “Really listening to older women

  1. An excellent piece of research which confirms the many personal life stories we gather in aged care.
    I am particularly interested in the experiences of single women, who never married, their working lives, sometimes for family businesses or as housekeeper for a wage. Many Women also had war service which provided an opportunity to gain skills and prompted ongoing work.

  2. RE: The report, ‘Women at Work – the voices of older women’

    Attention: Ambassador for Ageing, Noeline Brown,Deakin University researchers Grazyna Zajdow and Marilyn Poole,Reverend Canon Dr Colleen O’Reilly, Vicar of St George’s Malvern, and Sandra Hills, CEO Benetas,

    With all due respect, to have limited the focus group to 25 women aged between 66 and 92, all living independently in the eastern and south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, except for two in residential care is a very poor approach. This tiny target group, from a defined socio-economic group would limit the accuracy, comprehensiveness & validity of data to interrogate for the study.
    The women of Melbourne sincerely hope a broader range study will be done in the near future to ensure the voice of all women is represented.

    Yours sincerely,
    Aged female worker
    Susan Rosenfeld

  3. I am heartened to read of this research. I am a registered nurse approaching my 69th birthday and work full time in the acute care sector. I also care for my 99 yr old mother who lives with me and try to assist with my 3 grandchildren. I am also attemptiong to have a relationship with a wonderful patient man. I am planning to retire after the age of 70 yrs – Jan 2015 – but may take a part time research job after that if I can find a suitable one because there are topics in Aged Care nursing (and that is not only the NH/H sector – bigger issues exist in acute care) that are definitiely not being investigated. I always grab every opportunity I find to dispell the myth of the burden of an ageing society as I see the older generation continung to give far more than they take. The younger generations are actually lucky to have so much support from the upper end of the generation!

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