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‘Old but not that old’: Finnish community-dwelling people aged 90+ negotiating their autonomy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 June 2015

School of Health Sciences and Gerontology Research Center, University of Tampere, Finland.
School of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Tampere, Finland.
School of Health Sciences and Gerontology Research Center, University of Tampere, Finland.
School of Health Sciences and Gerontology Research Center, University of Tampere, Finland.
Address for correspondence: Jari Pirhonen, School of Health Sciences, 33014University of Tampere, Finland E-mail:


Autonomy is a pervasive concept in Western lifestyles today. However, people in the fourth age are assumed not to be autonomous but dependent on other people. The data of this study consisted of interviews with Finnish community-dwelling 90–91-year-old people. The study aim was to examine how these people see their own autonomy in their everyday lives. The analysis was based on membership categorisation analysis. Our respondents considered their autonomy through three distinct themes. Functional ability was considered in terms of being physically capable of managing daily tasks. Independence in decision making was based on material and financial self-sufficiency and on the respondents' supposition that they were capable of making decisions due to an absence of memory disorders. Additionally, autonomy was considered as contesting norms of age-appropriateness. Among respondents, chronological age seemed to have been replaced by functional and cognitive ability as a definer of categorisations; age-others became ability-others. Our study revealed that the perceptions of autonomy also included gendered features as they were linked with differing gendered ideals, roles and life domains of women and men. The results highlight the internal diversity among the oldest old and challenge the third/fourth age division. Instead, they suggest the existence of a certain ‘grey area’ within old age, and urge an analysis on the subtle meaning making involved in older people's constructions of age-categorisations.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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