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The voices of older women in a disadvantaged community: issues of health and social capital

Sixsmith, Judith and Boneham, Margaret (2006) The voices of older women in a disadvantaged community: issues of health and social capital. Social science and medicine, 62 (2). pp. 269-279. ISSN 0277-9536

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Abstract

The voices of older women are rarely heard in debates about the health of disadvantaged groups. Despite growing interest in health in old age, the health experiences of older women as gendered social beings have yet to be fully explored. Their potential to contribute positively to family and community health is seldom acknowledged. The aim of this article is to present findings from a qualitative British Health Development Agency funded project on the relationship between social capital, health and gender, focusing on the health and social networks of older women in a socially disadvantaged community in the north of England. Seventy-seven community members were interviewed, of these 19 were older women aged 55–78 years. Their accounts of ill health in the context of ageing were analysed to explore the intricate ways in which social capital was created, maintained and linked to health. Findings suggest that social constructions of motherhood and caring underpinned responsibility for their own and others’ health. Their experiences of dealing with health matters, together with frequent health talk, gave the women confidence as lay health experts, enabling them to contest medical advice. Drawing on personal experiences of trust and reciprocity, they recognised the importance of social networking in alleviating the problems of loneliness and isolation. At stressful times in their lives they were able to draw on existing support networks and, in spite of occasional personal conflicts, some benefited from the empowering and health-enhancing role of formal and informal participation in community life. These findings indicate that older women can operate autonomously in health matters and can substantially influence the development of healthy communities, although this can sometimes be at a personal cost.

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