Studying Older Lives Over Time
Written by: Peter G. Coleman
Despite the increasing popularity of reading biographies psychology, as an academic discipline, remains surprisingly uninterested in analysing the course and direction of individual lives. Although longitudinal analysis is highly valued its products are normally limited to statistical generalisations about changes observed over time within a particular sample or population as a whole. The findings represented in graph form often give a misleading impression not only of gradual change with age but also of uniformity in the sample. By contrast individual trajectories of both cognitive and emotional characteristics show huge variation in rate and degree of change. This is particularly true of the latter part of the life-span.
When I began to specialise in the psychological study of ageing in the later 1960s there was still an active tradition of studying individual lives over time. There was also the beginnings of the realisation that examining influences on variation in outcomes was of more value that charting general patterns of change with age. Interest by some personality psychologists in particular in applying psychological theory to the explanation of the course of individual lives – ‘psychobiography’ – was also increasing through to a highpoint in the 1980s. However the continued growth of ever more sophisticated methods of statistical analysis made possible by modern computing has helped ensure the continued hegemony of large number research. This has proved to be to the detriment of funding for intense case study of individuals over time, although in principle these two approaches to psychological understanding should not be in competition.
During my career I have tried to seize opportunities to conduct in depth studies on individuals as part of larger survey longitudinal research. A substantial example of what such investigations can achieve is provided in our recent book (‘Self and meaning in the lives of older people: case studies over 20 years’). The origin of the study on which this book is based was a multidisciplinary one and two year follow-up of some 340 people living in Southampton over the age of 65 years, the first data collection for which took place in 1977-78. I was involved in the design and choice of the psychological measures used in this research project. Opportunities were taken to carry out further follow-up interviews and ten years on I took over direction of further investigation of the surviving members of the sample.
We were successful in securing four successive research grants from the Economic and Social Research Council. Each of these projects had its own particular objectives for investigation, but in all of our research proposals we were also able to include a budget for some limited individual case analysis. As a result over time we were able to compose psychological case studies on forty of our sample members focusing on their perceived sources of self and meaning often over periods as long as twenty years and more and usually lasting until shortly before their deaths. It was of particular value that Maureen Robinson who had been an interviewer on the study at its outset in 1977 remained an interviewer and analyst at all subsequent interview points. Christine Ivani-Chalian was also an interviewer and analyst throughout the last ten years of the study.
Now that the results of the work are published we can look back at what our methods have been able to achieve and the potential they indicate for future similar studies. Naturally there are some limitations to the analysis mainly as a result of long intervals between observations of which there were eight to ten in total. But in most of the cases analysed we have been able to come to definite conclusions about the sources of self and meaning in that particular individual’s life. These case studies also show how the person adapted to the major losses of later life, especially bereavement and ill health, and were able to access resources to help them cope within their family and other relationships as well as from belonging to a local community such as a church. In most cases we were able to corroborate these conclusions by asking for the participants’ comments on the accounts we provided to them.
Our work demonstrates how it is possible to gain the trust of participants so as to carry out such an intense study over many years. Because much of the interviews were recorded we have been able to use many of the participants’ own words in describing their lives. At the end of the book we have drawn some general conclusions about this sample of British older people born in the early part of the 20th century, but we have continued to stress that our principal aim was not to generalise but to provide detailed accounts of individual older lives in all their uniqueness of circumstances, characteristics and happenings. Only by first achieving understanding at the level of the individual life is it justifiable to make comparisons between lives and to draw possible lessons for the future.