There’s so much ageism in the world.
– Melissa Batchelor (10:04 – 10:06)
Do you feel like you are in the driver’s seat of your own life? With COVID-19, many of us may not feel like we are. These same feelings can happen to you as you age, but there are ways to help older adults get back to feeling like they are in the driver’s seat of their own lives.
In this episode, we invited Cindy Cox- Roman, a market researcher, gerontologist, and the founder of WIT Consulting to talk about “personal agency”. Her professional experience made her aware of how marginalized older people are in society and when working on her Master’s degree in Gerontology, she became interested in the concept of “personal agency” – and particularly in older women.
Part One of Older Women and Personal Agency
But what is personal agency?
We understand that this is not a common term used every day, and some of you are a bit confused right now.
Personal agency is a term used in academics by sociologists. It refers to the idea of having a hand in the direction that your life takes. Most of us refer to it as having self-determination and being self-sufficient. It’s synonymous with being in the driver seat of your own life. But what makes a person lose that sense of personal agency in the first place? How can we help people live the best moments of their older adult life?
We must adjust how we help someone maintain their agency. – Melissa Batchelor (22:53 – 22:56)
Who are we referring to when we talk about “older women”?
When we say older women, we typically mean women who are 60 years old and older, but the term could be any woman who is 50 years old and older. Older women aren’t a homogenous group because each generation is different – and individuals within a generation are different depending on their life experience.
Women born before 1928 (Greatest Generation); born 1928-1945 (Silent Generation); born 1946-1964 (Baby Boomers); and born 1965-1980 (Generation X) will all have had very different life experiences that shape their sense of personal agency over a lifetime.
Part Two of Older Women and Personal Agency
Personal agency, even at an old age, is essential because, without it, we can’t realize our dreams. Without personal agency, we don’t have feelings of self-efficiency, self-control, and self-confidence.
Ideally, you gain a sense of agency as a child. But you need to learn how to use your agency, practice it, and hold onto it until our last breath.
According to Cindy’s independent research, this agency tends to peak when women and men are in their 50s. Specifically, for women, you will notice a steady decline after that age bracket.
The next question is, why?
There are several factors. We may experience health and financial issues. For example, if you fell broke your leg, and you can’t get to the store or take care of your daily needs. If this happens to you in your 20’s, it doesn’t feel like the end of the world, you know you will get better. If you are in your 80’s, this broken leg can make you feel that you lost control of your life.
Financial issues, such as living on a fixed income, can hinder you from doing the things that you would like to do, such as traveling or visiting family and friends who live far away.
Age discrimination in the workplace is also a significant factor. It’s harder to find a new job when you are in your 50s. In fact, 76% of adults aged 45 and older have reported their age as a problem in finding a new job; 50% of older workers report being prematurely pushed out of longtime jobs ,and 90% report never earning as much again. Experiencing age discrimination around employment diminishes your sense of being in the driver’s seat.
But let’s be clear that losing your sense of personal agency doesn’t happen to everyone. Some older people still have personal agency despite these health and financial challenges that most of us face when we age. These differences in perspective seem to depend on the environment you were raised in as a child and the life experiences a person has had.
What’s more interesting to look at are the social and cultural aspects of why we lose agency. You see, many women who were in the late 1950’s or earlier were not typically socialized to have agency. They were raised to believe that they should get married, have children, and that a man should be the head of the household. They think that it is wrong to ask for much, and it is a taboo to have a strong opinion.
There is also a significant gender difference with agency. Men in our culture are socialized to have agency; it’s almost their birthright. They are expected to be in the driver’s seat and to make decisions. Although the same things can happen to men when they get older; society tells them to retire or they are pushed out of the workplace.
You need to have agency in any situation.
– Cindy Cox-Roman (06:34 – 06:38)
As we age, we all need to understand that you need to develop a roadmap and think about the things you want to do in the future. Instead of focusing on retirement as an endpoint and withdrawing from work, older adults should learn about the concept of preferment. You are entering a new phase of life and should develop strategies to do what you want, when you want, and where you want.
If you have a parent that is 60 and older, you can also help by valuing your parents’ autonomy. Agency may also mean that your parents can confidently say YES or NO. However, you may need to consider their overall health conditions. If they have a cognitive impairment, you will have to adjust your ways of helping them manage their life while maintaining their sense of agency for as long as possible.
I earned my Bachelor of Science in Nursing (‘96) and Master of Science in Nursing (‘00) as a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) School of Nursing (SON). I truly enjoy working with the complex medical needs of older adults.
I worked full-time for five years as FNP in geriatric primary care across many long-term care settings (skilled nursing homes, assisted living, home and office visits) then transitioned into academic nursing in 2005, joining the faculty at UNCW SON as a lecturer. I obtained my PhD in Nursing and a post-Master’s Certificate in Nursing Education from the Medical University of South Carolina College of Nursing (’11) and then joined the faculty at Duke University School of Nursing as an Assistant Professor.
My family moved to northern Virginia in 2015 and led to me joining the faculty at George Washington University (GW) School of Nursing in 2018 as a (tenured) Associate Professor where I am also the Director of the GW Center for Aging, Health and Humanities.
Find out more about her work at HERE.
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