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‘Death talk’, ‘loss talk’ and identification in the process of ageing

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2014

School of Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University, Birmingham, UK.
Department of Government, University of Essex, Colchester, UK.
Address for correspondence: Karen West, School of Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University, Aston Triangle, Birmingham B4 7ET, UK. E-mail:


In this paper, we examine the injunction issued by the prominent politician, broadcaster and older people's advocate, Baroness Joan Bakewell, to engage in ‘death talk’. We see positive ethical potential in this injunction, insofar as it serves as a call to confront more directly the prospects of death and dying, thereby releasing creative energies with which to change our outlook on life and ageing more generally. However, when set against a culture that valorises choice, independence and control, the positive ethical potential of such injunctions is invariably thwarted. We illustrate this with reference to one of Bakewell's interventions in a debate on scientific innovation and population ageing. In examining the context of her intervention, we affirm her intuition about its positive ethical potential, but we also point to an ambivalence that accompanies the formulation of the injunction – one that ultimately blunts the force and significance of her intuition. We suggest that Gilleard and Higgs' idea of the third age/fourth age dialectic, combined with the psycho-analytic concepts of fantasy and mourning, allow us to express this intuition better. In particular, we argue that the expression ‘loss talk’ (rather than ‘death talk’) better captures the ethical negotiations that should ultimately underpin the transformation processes associated with ageing, and that our theoretical contextualisation of her remarks can help us see this more clearly. In this view, deteriorations in our physical and mental capacities are best understood as involving changes in how we see ourselves, i.e. in our identifications, and so what is at stake are losses of identity and the conditions under which we can engage in new processes of identification.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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