'You learn to live with all the things that are wrong with you': gender and the experience of multiple chronic conditions in later life

Ageing Soc. 2013 Feb 1;33(2):342-360. doi: 10.1017/S0144686X11001243.

Abstract

This article examines how older adults experience the physical and social realities of having multiple chronic conditions in later life. Drawing on data from in-depth interviews with 16 men and 19 women aged 73+ who had between three and 14 chronic conditions, we address the following research questions: (a) What is it like to have multiple chronic conditions in later life? (b) How do older men and women 'learn to live' with the physical and social realities of multiple morbidities? (c) How are older adults' experiences of illness influenced by age and gender norms? Our participants experienced their physical symptoms and the concomitant limitations to their activities to be a source of personal disruption. However, they normalised their illnesses and made social comparisons in order to achieve a sense of biographical flow in distinctly gendered ways. Forthright in their frustration over their loss of autonomy and physicality but resigned and stoic, the men's stories reflected masculine norms of control, invulnerability, physical prowess, self-reliance and toughness. The women were dismayed by their bodies' altered appearances and concerned about how their illnesses might affect their significant others, thereby responding to feminine norms of selflessness, sensitivity to others and nurturance. We discuss the findings in relation to the competing concepts of biographical disruption and biographical flow, as well as successful ageing discourses.

Keywords: ageing; biographical flow; chronic conditions; gender; health.