The field of narrative gerontology examines how the aging experience is influenced by broader cultural stories, specifically those regarding growing older. Narrative gerontologists argue that, at least in the English-speaking world, the dominant narrative about aging is that of decline, that is to say, the overall story that is repeatedly told about growing older focuses on physical deterioration and loss. These researchers assert that most of us, then, come to understand our own aging through this story of decline.
However, narrative gerontologists also identify ways that individuals and subgroups develop “counter-stories” of aging, or alternate accounts of aging, that tell other stories of aging. An article in the current Journals of Gerontology presents some counter-stories of aging from the sports world that defy the master narrative of aging as decline.
A total of 13 British older adults involved in natural bodybuilding (bodybuilding that is done without the supplementary use of substances like anabolic steroids and human growth hormone) were interviewed. The researchers asked the participants questions designed to elicit stories of their experiences with bodybuilding, aging, and physical change.
In their analysis of the interviews, the authors identified three main types of counter-narratives of aging. They defined them as:
- Occasional and monadic resistance. Individuals who, when referring to aging, sometimes employed stories of decline yet occasionally challenged this narrative when describing their own lives—usually by identifying themselves as unusual and different from other older adults. These individuals tended to assert that other older adults were declining, but that they themselves stood out as unique due to their participation in bodybuilding. Their stories recounted how they became stronger and healthier as older adults, and thus, they tended to distance themselves from other older adults, especially those who applied the larger narrative of aging as decline. Six participants told these types of narratives.
- Inconsistent resistance. Individuals who, similar to the monadic resistance responders, contrasted themselves with other, “declining” older adults, yet talked about bodybuilding as a way to ward off decline. This response was labeled “inconsistent” because, while responders told stories of themselves as individuals who were resisting decline, the stories maintained that aging is primarily about decline. Four participants told stories of this type.
- Regular and dyadic resistance. These individuals criticized the story of decline as a narrative that discouraged older adults from activities like bodybuilding. They specifically saw themselves as resisting this, and presented themselves as an example to other older adults to resist the narrative of decline. Three individuals told stories of this type.
Each type of these aging narratives presented a more positive identity of aging than that told by the decline narrative. These stories served as a way for the participants to construct an identity of an active, healthy, older bodybuilder. The authors argue that counter-stories of aging, particularly those depicting regular and dyadic resistance, can serve as examples for other older adults who want to understand aging as more than a story of decline.
Source: Phoenix, C. and Smith, B. (2011). “Telling a (Good?) Counterstory of Aging: Natural Bodybuilding Meets the Narrative of Decline.” The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 66(5).