Women aging today are dif ferent from those who approached their final de cades in the late 1900s. Born prior to 1945, those women represented the traditional woman whose life was steeped in the roles of wife, moth er, and social obligations; a woman for whom the word feminist rang a warning gong. Women were expect ed to be pliant, under a man’s rule, certainly not someone who was in dependent and inwardly reflective. Women of this era were marginalized. They did not view themselves as separate from what they saw in the eyes of others, even in literature (Apter, 1995).
Women have value in childbearing and motherhood, but past this, culture holds there is no plot, no story to be told that intrigues (Apter, 1995). Women aging today are different from the traditional stereotype. Women who are currently in their 50s and older grew to womanhood through the feminist revolution, seeing women excel outside the home. Women aging now are innovative, creative, independent individuals. Or are they?
Women are told that 60 is the new 40, and to thrive in this new era they need only to look young and act young. The media is replete with advertisements extolling the benefits of youth; perfection is only a nip and tuck away. They can whisk away wrinkles with myriad lotions and potions and simply adhere to the diet du jour to ensure youthful aging. Youth is revered; to be old is to be cast aside. Yet, the voices and actions of older adults decry this assertion. Being old does not inevitably equate with being senile, tired, sickly, and frail (Hurd, 1999). On the contrary, aging may be viewed as a potential time of reappraisal of the self (Biggs, 2004). The ability to integrate one’s past, present, and fu ture is a developmental task of aging (Moore, Metcalf, & Schow, 2006) Giving meaning to life changes al lows people to make sense of how they function in their world. Delgado (2005) equated meaning with aspects of spirituality. The quest for meaning becomes the stories of life As McAdams (1993) so eloquently declared, “If you want to know me, you must know my story for my story defines who I am” (p. 11).
The philosophical orientation was hermeneutic phenomenology as informed by van Manen (1990). Hermeneutic phenomenology aims to uncover the meaning of the lived experience of what it is to be fully human. Munhall (2008) linked this interpretation to a holistic view of people in a world indissolubly related in cultural, social, and historical contexts. To explore what it is like to live as a woman, it is also important to “understand the pressures of the meaning structures that have come to restrict, widen, or question the nature and ground of womanhood” (van Manen, 1990, p. 12). Epistemologically, meaning is made through an interpretive process between investigator and participant as together they explore the experience of aging (Laverty, 2003).
The setting for this investigation was within the geographical boundaries of the Houston-Galveston, Texas metropolitan area, the fourth largest metropolitan area in the United States. Women ages 55 to 64 comprise 10.85% of the Houston-Galveston metropolitan female population, which is comparable with the overall United States data of 10.6% (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005).
Participants were sought who were in late-midlife (ages 55 to 65), who were willing to talk about their experience and who were diverse enough from one another (i.e., age, ethnicity, educational level) to enhance the fullness of their stories of the lived experience of aging. A purposive sample of 15 women in late-midlife was chosen to participate, attempting to emulate the demographic percentages of ethnicity in the region (Caucasian 57.03%, African American 17.27%, Hispanic 17.11%, and Other 8.02%; Texas State Data Center, 2007), as well as other diverse characteristics (i.e., age, educational level, background).
A qualitative investigative design incorporating reflective journaling, collage making, and photo elicitation interview (PEI) was used for this investigation. A minimum of three interactions took place with each woman (i.e., initial interview, collage-meaning making/PEI, follow-up interview). Each segment of the investigation data collection procedures included the following.
Initial Interview. At the initial interview, each participant was introduced to the investigation protocol, signed the Internal Review Board-approved informed consent, and received her journal; cameras were also offered. The demographic and interview questions were introduced to each participant in writing. Rather than conducting an in-depth interview at this initial meeting, time was allowed for each participant to reflect and journal her responses. The initial interview occurred at a time and place convenient for both the principal investigator (PI; C.M.W.) and the participant. This initial interview lasted approximately 30 minutes and was not audio recorded.
Reflective Journaling. Each woman was encouraged to journal her responses to the demographic and interview questions and to reflect on her writings. Through musing, each woman was encouraged to visualize images that her reflection on aging brought to mind. She then took photographs depicting those images using her own camera or a digital camera that was offered to each par ticipant. Photographic processing was provided by the researcher at the participant’s request. Time for these activities varied for each participant, but the entire process for each wom an occurred within 3 weeks.
Collage. From the photographs and other materials of the woman’s choice, each participant constructed a collage to form a more comprehensive/complete image of her reflections. Each woman was asked to revisit her images and journal her final reflections.
Photo Elicitation Interview (PEI). At this interview, the PI and the participant together explored the collage and the reflective journal using the PEI procedure outlined by Harper (2002). The demographic information was gathered, and the semi-structured investigation questions were explored. The collage was analyzed in depth to uncover meanings of aging to the participant. This interview was audio recorded and transcribed verbatim.
Follow-Up Interview. A concluding interview was conducted as data were analyzed with each participant to verify interpretations of the data. A final set of questions concerning the experience of collage making were also explored. The journal and the collages were revisited to clarify that the interpretations were in line with the participant’s lived experiences.
Using an interpretive phenomenological approach of hermeneutical discovery, the PI uncovered the meaning of the lived experience of aging for this cohort of late-midlife women. The investigator used an open coding inductive analysis using the framework of van Manen (1990) to analyze the PEI transcriptions for themes and to view the collages to capture the essence of the themes. Each transcript was read line by line while listening to the audio recording to discern voice intonations and patterns, then transcripts were reread, with the investigator circling key words and phrases the woman espoused in her story. The transcripts were finally laid side by side to reflect on each woman’s response, gazing at each transcript to discern similarities and differences. Themes were organized across the women’s stories, with the investigator pausing again to reflect on the narratives and themes, seeking congruency.
Through reflection, this cohort of late-midlife women explored the meaning of aging in their lives. Myerhoff (1980) characterized human beings as natural storytellers, stating that life as lived through our culture, our relationships, our “selves” is the story. A person’s story or narrative gives meaning to lived experiences. The stories of the 15 women in this study, as expressed in word and picture, became the data for this investigation. As a means of answering the investigation questions (i.e., What are the ways late-midlife women experience the changes of aging? and How do late-midlife women perceive aging in relation to their life?), the transcripts were viewed holistically as a naturalistic inquiry (van Manen, 1990), rather than as a set of discrete questions.
Hermeneutic phenomenological human science focuses on four areas to interpret the lived experience: (a) lived space (spaciality), (b) lived body (corporality), (c) lived time (temporality), and lived human relation (relationality) (van Manen, 1990). The findings of this investigation were explored using this framework.
Lived Space (Spaciality)
Spaciality refers to the past and current experiences of living, including where a person lives and what events occur within the lived experience (i.e., where you were born, where you grew up, experiences of living, ethnicity and its influence on your lived experiences) (van Manen, 1990). The information gathered answers the question: Who are you? The photographic collages depicted the visual response to this question.
Participants in this investigation were a very diverse group of women. In asking each woman who she was, a composite portrait appeared to depict the late-midlife woman. The woman described in this article is a holistic view of 15 women ages 55 to 64.
This woman was born between 1944 and 1953. Her birthplace was widespread from the Western (n = 2) to the Midwestern (n = 1) to the Eastern (n = 4) United States, and even Texas (n = 5); she also hailed from India (n = 1), the West Indies (n = 1), and Mexico (n = 1). She grew up and lived in various places in the United States and the world before settling in Texas. One woman was born in Houston and lived all of her life within the same 5-mile radius.
Education was important, yet formal education varied from high school (n = 3), to an associate’s degree (n = 2), to some college, less than 3 years in a university setting (n = 2), to college equivalent in the British system (n = 2), to a master’s degree (n = 2), to a PhD (n = 4). Along with education, occupational experiences varied widely, and occupations changed over time as the woman aged. Retirement looms on the horizon for 4 women, while the rest of the women plan to continue working for several years. Employment experiences included administrative assistant, boat builder, waitress, bartender-club manager, armed guard, retail staff, florist, RN, university faculty, priest, and stay-at-home mom. One woman lived in a commune.
While work was an important part of life for this woman, she also pursued outside interests. Reading, gardening, and needle arts formed the basis of interests for this woman. Other activities included fishing, traveling, and solving crossword puzzles with the family.
When queried about ethnicity, a picture emerged of the diversity apparent in Texas and the United States. This woman was White (n = 9, 60%), Black (n = 2, 13%), Hispanic (n = 2, 13%), Asian (n = 1, 6%), and biracial (n = 1, 6%). Of the women who were Black, one was born in the United States and stated her ethnicity as African American; the other, born in Barbados, stated she is not African American but West Indian. Of the women who were Hispanic, one was born in Texas and stated her ethnicity as Latina; the other, born in Mexico, stated her ethnicity as Mexican, but maybe Mexican American since she currently lives in Texas. The Asian woman was from India and claimed her ethnicity was influenced by her life growing up in Mumbai. The biracial woman was White and Native American and commented that each influenced how she viewed herself in the world.
Spirituality and religion played an important role, especially as the woman aged. The spread of religious preferences included Christian (Catholic, n = 5; Protestant, n = 6), nondenominational (n = 2), Hindu (n = 1), and Jewish (n = 1). Each woman expressed that a growth in her inner spirituality was more important at this time of her life than belonging to a particular religious preference.
Relationships also defined this woman. The characteristics of the relationships changed over time; however, family remained the focus throughout this life transition. This woman was either currently married (n = 10) or divorced (n = 5); 3 women had been married/divorced more than once. Of the women who were currently married and never divorced (n = 7), the average length of the marriages was 36 years (range = 29 to 44 years). The length of the current marriage for the women who were married and previously divorced (n = 3) was 10 years each. The remaining women (n = 5) were not currently in significant relationships. All of the women voiced that their children, and in some cases grandchildren, were central figures in their relationships.
The defining life stage for this woman was menopause. One woman was still in the perimenopausal stage (age 56). Hysterectomy defined menopause for 6 women at a mean age of 42 (range = 26 to 50). Menstrual disorders precipitated the hysterectomy for 3 women; the others experienced either ovarian tumors (n = 1) or cancer (n = 2). Seven women experienced natural menopause (average age 53).
Lived Body (Corporality)
van Manen (1990) defined corporality as bodily presence—how people present themselves to the world. When a person is in the world, the person presents a portrait to the world that is visible. The first theme uncovered from the conversations was Invisibility. Invisibility, not readily noticed or detected, was a concept prevalent within this cohort of women. The women expressed that others disregarded their presence:
- It’s like—people look at you differently. It’s just not the same. You’re not treated the same by the whole outside world…. I even walk through doors where guys in their 40s almost knock me down and just close the door in my face.
- One thing I don’t like about [growing older] is that I don’t think anybody listens to me. I really don’t.
One woman did describe aging as one of enhanced respect:
At the parking garage, at my doctor’s office, they have a little attendant that sits there by the thing you stick that paper in. And when he sees me, he always hops up and does it for me. But I’ve noticed that he doesn’t do that for anybody that’s not white-headed, “Oh, you can do it yourself.”
Invisibility was absent from the collages; the women depicted who they saw themselves to be, not as what they perceived other people see. A prevailing comment by the women, whether they perceived themselves to be invisible or not, was: “I think maybe [life is] better now. I know I like myself much more. I’m somewhat embarrassed to think of how self-important and self-centered I have been at times in my life.”
Lived Time (Temporality)
Temporality is lived time as opposed to clock time (van Manen, 1990). This woman is conflicted about bodily changes. Her inner self and her external/physical self do not correspond. What emerged from the stories was not so much that the physical body was changing—wrinkles, grey hair, physical deformities—but the external physical changes were more of a surprise because the reflective inner being (van Manen, 1990) was relatively unchanged. The idea of a dichotomy between the internal and external self was evidenced in the stories of each woman. She recognized her external/physical self. She commented she was not able to physically do the activities she used to take for granted:
I can’t do some of the things I used to do. I remember—I used to do cartwheels all the time, and one day I got this brilliant idea at one of my grandchildren’s birthday parties that I was going to do a cartwheel. (laughing) And I found out that I can’t do cartwheels anymore.
She further noted that her external self was changing—grey hair, wrinkles, dry skin, body weight—and she experienced episodes of forgetfulness:
- Wrinkles—I am getting more. There was an old woman in a home I used to visit. She told me about her deep wrinkles and how that made her old. I am surprised when I see those wrinkles now on me and I realize I am getting older.
- The forgetfulness. Sometimes there are things you know what to do and you forget. You go to do something and you don’t know what you were going to do.
Yet, her internal self does not recognize her external self:
This is a big thing with getting older, is I don’t feel old…. I sometimes—it’s just so funny, to walk by a window or a mirror. Every once in awhile, in that split second, I catch my reflection, and I think, who in the hell’s that old lady? Yeah, who is that? Oh, my god, that’s me.
The conflict between external self and internal self led to a second theme, one of Conflicted Self. Although the external self was in flux, the internal self remained relatively unchanged: “I feel no different as a person than when I was 20. But, I look in the mirror and don’t recognize the person who looks back at me.”
Metaphorically, the conflicted self was portrayed most commonly by a tree: Although the external tree may be old and twisted, the internal tree still contained life. The tree represented how the outer body was viewed by others (corporality), while the view of the self, as still full of life, unchanged over time (temporality), was depicted by the flow of life within the tree. No matter what appeared on the outside, the inside remained full of life:
A tree, a big, old, kind of gnarly [one], but I want one with lot of branches and lots of leaves. It looks to be solid and old, and…still standing…and filled with life on the inside. You know there is still life in that old tree.
Inner self-concept was also an important aspect of temporality. This woman experienced a turning point expressed in the theme of freedom, freedom to explore who she was today, freedom to understand her inner self.
- If I summed it up in a word, it would be freedom. You know, freedom from a lot of things that I worried about before or had to deal with before. That would be it in a word, freedom. Freeing.
- I think one of the biggest [freedoms] for me was able to say no. I have a hell of a time saying no, and yet it’s important for my well-being. At one point in time, I couldn’t have done that or I would have felt guilty. And now, I weigh the pros and cons about what does it mean to me. What is it going to take for me to do this? And if it’s more than I’m willing to handle or more than I’m willing to want to put into it, it’s not done. I can say no.
Birds and nature in the collages symbolized freedom. The freedom to do more and to be more of the person she was in her reality, rather than the person she had always been for others (daughter, spouse, mother, colleague):
A pelican flying. It’s not a very good picture but that’s a pelican flying. Well, he’s just kind of soaring around and going where he wants and doing what he wants to do and not harming anybody else and just having a good time. That’s (laughing)…for me too. That’s what I hope to be doing.
Lived Human Relation (Relationality)
Relationality refers to the interactions a person has with others within the interpersonal space they share (van Manen, 1990). Relationships were very important to the late-midlife woman. Relationships included family, friends, and colleagues. When queried about individuals important to her, family and friends were paramount:
Moving from being primarily a parent to being a grandparent is a lot of fun. Your roles and responsibilities are different. I have fun getting down on the floor and being goofy and silly with my grandkids and feeling like I’m 3 again. So that’s fun.
Apart from significant relationships, the women were asked about their friends. The late-midlife woman valued her relationship with friends as much or more than her relationship with her immediate family. Relationships with this woman tended to last a lifetime. Women spoke of friends from childhood, from college, colleagues from work, and close family relations (e.g., siblings, cousins).
When asked if the woman had someone she could confide in (tell anything to), a wide variety of people emerged, including family members, especially current husbands; the women chose several people with whom they felt comfortable enough to share anything, including friends (childhood and adulthood) and pets. Each woman focused on relational aspects of her life:
- [Gazing at her collage] These two penguins. These two penguins are strolling…. They’re hand in hand. They’re talking to each other. They’re glimpsing into the future. What is it going to hold for us?
- Someone looked at [my collage]. He was looking at it, and he said, “I really love this.” He said, “There are so many people on it, but they’re all interacting with other people.”… I thought it was kind of random when I was doing it. I wasn’t conscious of it. But actually, even in doing that, things center around like kinds of things, and everything touches everything else, so there’s always that interconnection [with the people in my life]. And the story flows from one side to another. It says, “My life is a story I’m still creating.”
Jung (1933) deemed that the second half of life should be devoted to making meaning of the self, uncovering the self that lies beneath and beyond the body (being) that previously was culturally and externally visible to the world. van Manen (1998) proposed that as we go through our ordinary living we do so in a mode of “self-forgetfulness.” We are not conscious of our being. It is when we are brought to a conscious state of our body (being) that we become aware. Raising this to a conscious level allows appreciation and a sense of wonder for the holistic nature of the self (body, mind, and spirit) in harmony with the rhythms and cycles of nature (Thomason, 2006). Using a hermeneutical phenomenological approach, this investigation of the lived experience of aging in late-midlife women uncovered four themes (Invisibility, Conflicted Self, Freedom, and Relationality).
Invisibility is a part of ageism. The belief that people cease to be individuals by virtue of having lived a specific number of years, ageism attacks the inner self, eroding away confidence and self-acceptance. Cruikshank (2009) commented that as women grow older, they cease to exist in the world; they become invisible to others. Younger people look past and through women as they age, “as if by denying our existence they will magically avoid growing old” (Rosenthal, 1991, p. 6). Women experience the effects of ageism through loss of power within society. As their reproductive capacity declines, their value as a person also declines (Macdonald & Rich, 2001). An issue occurs when women internalize the stereotypes of ageism. In doing so, women give up the core strength necessary to adapt to the next passage of life. This inability to successfully integrate the identity and development of growing older may lead to depression, isolation, and anxiety (Letvak, 2002).
Kaufman (1986) described this in relation to meaning making in late life. Reporting on Martha (age 70), Kaufman quoted, “I just saw some slides of myself and was taken quite aback. That couldn’t be me. That’s a nice looking woman, but it couldn’t possibly be me. Even though I look at myself in the mirror all the time, I don’t see myself as old” (p. 8). Gullette (2004) named this age identity. Each of us has an age identity composed of our multiple life stories. As Mukherjee (1993) wrote in her novel The Holder of the World, we are a collection of “the thousand most relevant facts, the thousand things that make me, me, you, you…. To construct a kind of personality genome” (p. 6).
Age identity is not stagnant, but develops over time. The conflicted self is also not stagnant. It reflects change over time. As the external body changes, women may be caught off guard when seeing reflected images of their body-self. This occurs because they are experiencing a growth in their inner self. They are not the exact same person they were as a child, or even as a young adult, they are maturing, developing (Gullette, 2004). Jung (1933) claimed this inner journey as an essential component to aging. When a person focuses inward, consciously or unconsciously, the external self becomes out of focus. This is not a form of denial. A woman does not deny that her external body is changing; her focus turns inward. As people delve into their inner being, they recognize an evolution toward life’s totality (Thomason, 2006). The acknowledgement of the inner self is a first step toward knowing the true Self. The true Self (in Jungian terms) is a natural blending of the outer being (corporality) and the inner self (temporality) that leads to self-transcendence and an acceptance of the finiteness of life (Jung, 1933; Thomason, 2006; van Manen, 1990).
Freedom comes from inner connectedness. As a woman becomes more aware of her inner self, she discovers an ability to transcend beyond the bounds of cultural expectations. Hvas (2006) described this freedom as a breaking away from prior responsibilities. Women no longer bound by raising children and reproductive responsibilities felt freer to express their own mind and dealt with others with increased tolerance (Arnold, 2005; Hvas, 2006). They found themselves to be better listeners and better able to solve conflicts. Arnold (2005) proposed that this breaking away to discover the inner self is like a phoenix rising from the ashes of obligation to better acknowledge its holistic self, to acknowledge the “who I am.”
Connectedness is an important developmental component in women’s lives. Gilligan (1982) wrote about the importance of women finding their own voice in describing their “self.” Connectedness to others through relationships—family, friends, and colleagues—becomes an important part of discerning meaning in life. Ulrich (1996) discussed this concept of relational self as a primarily important aspect of women’s development; women organize and make meaning of their lives in the context of important relationships. Each woman in this study talked about her family, friends, and colleagues. Relationships have the potential to strengthen as women become less dependent on stereotyped cultural roles and responses and move willingly toward renegotiation of relationships in authentic ways (Arnold, 2005). Women may feel the need to move toward a redefinition of their inner self, as separate from their children, career needs, and even their spouse. This new direction allows for a strengthening of core relationships (Arnold, 2005).
Conclusion and Recommendations
In her transition from being outwardly focused toward others (family, friends, and colleagues) to an awareness of her inner self, the late-midlife woman goes through a process of self-transcendence. Self-transcendence is defined as the capacity to reach out beyond oneself and discover or make meaning of experience through broadened perspectives and behavior (Coward, 1996). Incorporated in this concept are triggers or turning points: events that may be transformative, self-renewing, and signal change in a person’s life course (King et al., 2003). Within this change is the development of self-knowledge (Levenson, Jennings, Aldwin, & Shiraishi, 2005). As women share stories of being transformed by aging, they bear witness to the benefits of living post-reproductively. What future implications for research arise? More research is needed to engage women in a wide variety of settings worldwide to elucidate individual differences in women’s interpretations of self-transcendence through aging. In addition, as more women achieve retirement age, a next step may be to investigate the meaning of readiness for retirement, not financially, but as a life transition.
Composite of Today's Late-Midlife Woman, as Found in This Investigation
This late-midlife woman is 58 years old (age range = 55 to 64). Caucasian, she reflects the ethnic makeup of women in the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the United States (Caucasian, 57.03%; African American, 17.27%; Hispanic, 17.11%; Other 8.02%; Texas Data Center, 2007). The Houston-Galveston metropolitan area is demographically representative of the population of the United States as a whole for late-midlife women (10.85% versus 10.6%; U.S. Census Bureau, 2005).
She professes to be of Judeo-Christian persuasion, yet she comments that her inner spirituality is more important at this time in her life than her religious preference. Her level of education is an associate’s degree; the national average education for this population is a high school degree with some college (51.67%). In line with national statistics, the marital status of this woman reflects one of divorce (47%); she is also a mother and grandmother (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008).
As a member of the Baby Boomer generation, she represents the first generation in which a majority of women work outside the home in gainful employment. In this investigation, all but one woman was gainfully employed. Employment opportunities varied widely from nanny to university professor; the majority (80%) were engaged in mid-level occupations (retail, secretarial/administrative support, health care), which is above the national average (52%; U.S. Census Bureau, 2008).