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1“The fourth age represents a specific life experience associated with advanced age and disability, which may or may not occur during a lifecourse.” [1] Although it has received substantial scholarly attention in the past two decades [Gilleard and Higgs, 2010; Grenier, 2006; Grenier et al., 2017; Higgs and Gilleard, 2015; Lloyd et al., 2014] the field of social gerontology has not established a clear, commonly accepted definition of the fourth age.

2A definition proposed by Gilleard and Higgs describes the fourth age as the period when individuals are seen as no longer being able to manage their everyday life, “when they become third persons in others’ age-based discourse, within others’ rules” [Gilleard and Higgs, 2010: 122], which in turn results in a process of “othering”—i.e., of becoming the other, who is discursively associated with alienation, vulnerability (associated with frailty), and a state of abjection [Higgs and Gilleard, 2014]. Othering simultaneously becomes part of a person’s identity, not only in terms of self-perception, but also as a dynamic relationship between self-perception and how one is seen by others, as well as the approach of institutions and practices that are anchored within wider cultural frames. The sense of identity of fourth-agers is described as being continually renegotiated in an extended dialectic process between the body and the self [Nicholson et al., 2012: 1429], leading to a radical form of othering that increasingly separates the older adults and infirm from the rest of humanity [van Dyk, 2016]. In a similar way, young-old persons are not typically characterized as being close to midlife or “normal” retired adults. Instead, they are represented as others who possess valuable special skills and potential capabilities that distinguish them from adults in midlife [Denninger et al., 2014: 103-104 in van Dyk, 2016: 3].

3Gilleard and Higgs approach the fourth age metaphorically as a social imaginary because it represents a collectively imagined, terminal life destination [Higgs and Gilleard, 2015: 14]. Like other researchers [Higgs and Jones, 2009; Lloyd et al., 2014], they consider loss of agency, competence, and self-control to be the core features of the fourth age. They maintain that the fourth age “can be understood by examining not the experience itself but its impact on the discourses that surround and orientate themselves to it” [Gilleard and Higgs, 2010: 121]. This conviction—i.e. it is impossible to alter the course of the fourth age, or to view it through the prism of individual experience—is a consequence of Gilleard and Higgs’ quite narrow definition of the fourth age. First, they associated fourth age with high levels of dementia or restricted mobility. Second, they used a kind of metaphorical, discourse-oriented definition of the fourth age. Gilleard and Higgs [2010; 2013; Higgs and Gilleard, 2015] equate the fourth age with what Julia Lawton [2002] and others call liminality, i.e., with social death, employing a cosmological analogy of “the position of objects that have strayed too close to the ‘event horizon’” of the black hole from which “there appears little chance of return and restitution of the embodied self that existed before the threshold was crossed” [Higgs and Gilleard, 2014: 14].

4On the contrary, we argue for less restricted definition of fourth age. A certain level of disability in old age does not per se imply social death, although it can impose a range of limitations and everyday challenges that can include the maintenance of an individual sense of identity. Indeed, to view the agency of these individuals as limited to independent physical action that requires force [Dannefer, 1999] precludes the possibility of awareness and the experience of interdependence [Baars and Phillipson, 2014], which are clearly not limited to the fourth age but apply to the entire human life cycle. Independence and self-sufficiency have been considered as ideals for human existence since the dawn of modernity, and a state of dependency consequently presents a substantial challenge for an individual’s sense of identity. The fear of becoming dependent or dying is thus a key element in the framework of the fourth age.

5Gilleard and Higgs [2010; 2013] argue that institutions also play a new, essential role in the fourth age. Indeed, the fourth age can be defined by dependence on care institutions, whether this involves residence, frequent hospitalization, increased care by professional caregivers, or financial support from social benefits. It is these institutions that manage the present-day lives of the fourth age population as well as its reproduction, while also contributing to the othering of the older persons who depend on them.

6Although in recent decades, empirical evidence of how societies manage the third age has been the source of controversy, the fourth age remains an under-researched area. Indeed, current understanding of this life experience is more theoretical than empirical, although some studies have assessed the incidence of phenomena such as dementia and physical disability. This neglect can be explained by the conceptual difficulty of investigating the fourth age using data regarding the actual experience of the population of older adults due to methodological difficulties with classical, verbally oriented sociological data collection techniques [Sedláková and Souralová, 2017]. Instead of focusing on older individuals identified as having reached the state of so-called social death, the present study adopted a definition of the fourth age that considers fourth agers as older individuals who depend on help in their everyday lives [Petrová Kafková and Sedláková, 2017]. Indeed, it is possible that the fourth age population contains many older adults who remain active and who are involved in negotiating their relationships with the outside world and their sense of identity. This degree of agency is clearly variable, but this can be said of every individual, regardless of age [Bourdieu, 1984], as can fluctuations in individuals’ self-perceptions in terms of identity. Other studies have investigated the individual experiences of individuals ageing with disabilities. José Manuel de São José et al. [2016], for example, conducted a review of qualitative studies on this topic. Although individual researchers define their target groups differently from people with disabilities or frailties to those needing care, their definitions are encompassed by our position on the fourth age. While Gilleard and Higgs [2010] and others speak about pseudo-choices during the fourth age and emphasize a sharply reduced importance of the social self among fourth-agers, we prefer to adopt an emic perspective that seeks to understand the meaning of activity and personal identity as it is actually presented by individuals whose physical and cognitive capacities are declining. We address such questions as how our participants experience various transitions to the fourth age and how they perceive changes in their everyday lives related to their personal identities, as revealed in the qualitative interviews.

7The first section presents an overview of recent empirical studies and their conceptual contribution to the theme of transitions in very old age. Next, we discuss the methodological background of our study, which was conducted in the Czech Republic. Third, we present and interpret four major transitions to the fourth age as revealed by the analysis of repeated in-depth interviews with our 10 research participants.

Identity in the fourth age: maintaining self amidst frailty and care

8Identity is an important dimension in managing and negotiating the later phases of life [Grenier, 2006]. It has been one of the central themes of the cultural turn, in which identities are seen as more individualistic, embodied, and consumption-based and reflexivity and self-fashioning are central features [Twigg and Martin, 2015]. Identity is constantly negotiated and renegotiated through interaction with others [Holme, 2013]. As cultural sociologists have argued, ageing persons are increasingly expected to fashion rewarding identities through lifestyle and self-reflexive practices [Katz, 2005: 145]. Retirement fitness assumed by the bearers of new ageing identities comes with a moral edict to live risk-aversion and self-caring lives [Katz, 2005: 146]. The third age “is an indeterminate identity zone in which the tension between agency and structure can be observed anew in a society that remains largely hostile to the emergence of genuinely meaningful and empowering older identities” [ibid.: 158].

9Identity and sense of self may work as protection from “becoming” frail [Grenier, 2006]. Through narrative interviews on frailty with twelve older women in Montréal, Grenier identified conflicts and emotions arising from impairment, disability, and decline. Older women “reject the implication of ‘being’ frail, but do not deny moments of ‘feeling’ frail […] the label, its meaning, and its inherent challenge to the self and identity” [ibid.: 304-305]. Frailty represents a “totalising identity” in which “a partial identity such as illness comes to represent the whole. [… Their] responses are directly related to the meaning of frailty offered within discourses on biomedical decline” [ibid.: 304] and cultural ascriptions of dependency, and death. Similarly, Nicholson et al. [2012: 1429] refer to a continually negotiated sense of identity through a prolonged dialectic between body and self. Dementia thus presents a specific challenge for identity as its neuro-degenerative nature directly threatens independence. Tolhurst and Weicht [2017] explored how men adopt particular strategies to preserve their personhood and to prove “that they remained ‘the same person’ despite the impacts of dementia.”

10Jolanski [2008] approached agency as a discursive and interactional phenomenon by analyzing four group discussions about health issues with 20 older residents of a single city, Tampere, who ranged in age from 71 to 86. She focused on how participants talked about themselves and others as old people and about their potential and chances to be actors in health and other domains. Her objective was to determine whether they constructed “being old” as an agentic position and to identify the meanings that they assigned to agency as revealed by their narratives. Pirhonen et al. [2016] found that their oldest participants negotiated their sense of autonomy relative to what they personally perceived and what was commonly expected of their age category, functional ability, and self-mastery. Pirhonen and colleagues conducted 45 life-story interviews with older individuals of 90 or 91 residing in a community, focusing on how they reported negotiating the boundaries of autonomy, how they categorized autonomy and autonomous people, and the qualities that they attach to these categories. They were particularly attentive to the sections in which interviewees talked about their own or their peers’ ability, inability, and desire to participate in certain activities. In terms of autonomy-related personal identity, they conclude that “frail age peers replaced the ‘older,’ as a point of comparison. This functional distinction was constructed between people who can take care of themselves and ‘others’ who have lost their autonomy because of ageing. Age-others became ability-others” [Pirhonen et al., 2016: 1639]. Their interviewees were located within what Pirhonen’s team termed a “grey” zone between third and fourth age, somehow “blind spots” within age categories that their informants “seem unable to recognize” [ibid.: 1641].

11Crossing the line into “old age” was also a theme in Heikkinen’s research [2004], which was based on the oral narratives of 20 senior citizens in a town in Finland all born the same year. They were first interviewed at the age of 80 and follow-up interviews were conducted every five years. The author then analyzed the contrasts and changes in participants’ narratives between individual interviews. As their perspectives changed, they tended to cease criticizing society or other people. At the age of 80, they dissociated themselves from their bodies, from their symptoms and old age, whereas the “key inherent characteristic of ‘bodiliness’ later seemed to be that of existence or being” [Heikkinen, 2004: 579]. The body thus comes to occupy a central position as health declines, a tendency that can be observed not only with relatively fit people in their 90s, but also those perceived as terminally ill. Whitaker [2010], after seven months of ethnographic fieldwork in a nursing home ward in Stockholm combined with numerous informal conversations with residents, staff and visiting family members concludes that “the body is the central entity through which the residents experience daily life” [ibid.: 98]. Through pain, the caring process, and diminished physical and cognitive functions, “the body constitutes the existential nucleus of their being” [ibid.].

12Frailty is often conceived of as another important moment of transition from the third to the fourth age. These unsteady attempts to maintain identity despite frailty are a “bi-polar” feature of the Western cultural response to aging [Cole, 1992], vacillating between agelessness (the third age) and abject bodily decline leading to death (the fourth age). This transition is also associated with the fear of losing dignity, whose preservation is negotiated in a similarly comprehensive manner as an individual’s identity [de São José et al., 2016; Lloyd et al., 2014; Nicholson et al., 2012: 1432]. This effort to preserve one’s dignity reveals that frailty in later life represents a state of imbalance characterized by a loss of both physical and psychosocial connections, although the older people continue to strive to remain anchored by developing and sustaining connections to their physical environment, routines and social network. The goal of maintaining an autonomous and competent identity is nevertheless rarely connected to older individuals’ self-definition as “frail”; as Pirhonen et al. [2016] noted, older people tended to refer to a decline or functional limitations without employing the term frailty.

13Self-perception, its transformation, and its relation to bodiliness appear to be the key features of advanced age associated with a significant loss of physical capacity, i.e. the fourth age. The continuity of self is often supported by preservation of the original identity, which leads to a dual perception of the self-body, as we will show later. The body, its transformation, and its perception are also essential for the transition to the fourth age and the transformation of self-perception associated with it, as our interviews with fourth-agers revealed.


14This article is based on data collected as part of a mixed-method research project based in the Czech Republic. For the specific purposes of this paper, the unstructured qualitative interviews with ten fourth-age individuals (2 males and 8 females) and field notes by four core research team members were analyzed to explore how participants remembered and narrated their transitions to the fourth age and how they expressed their self-perceptions related to age and within the specific context of repeated interviews. In-depth interviews were supplemented by semi-structured interviews with a primary carer of each participant and with representatives of assisted living institution in which some participants resided. A total of 28 formal and recorded interviews were conducted in 2015 and 2016, out of which one was a focus group with institutional staff members, three with carers, and 24 with our ten senior citizen participants. The sample is dominated by seven individuals whose daily lives are significantly influenced by the institutional context of a nursing home while three participants stayed put with frequent interventions of care-providing institutions in their homes. Interviewee ages ranged from 80 to 90 years, except for one participant aged 67 and another 99. Interview length varied from 40 minutes to 2 hours. Some interviews were supplemented by other techniques, such as drawing lifelines, maintaining a diary of everyday activities, and photo documentation of participants’ rooms and objects to which they referred.

15Describing transitions allows us to examine the principal aspects of the fourth age as they relate to other life stages and experiences. On the one hand, using this particular way of framing change enabled us to focus on differences between other periods and the present context, although this also involved interplay between meaning frameworks. The participants regarded their present lives as different from earlier periods in their lives. In most cases, we acknowledged this perception, and when we did not, we also arrived at an interesting conclusion, particularly with regard to identity. We looked at how participants present their past selves as identical or, on the contrary, diametrically different from their current experience with who they are (for themselves, their close relatives, for society in general, or for a specific institution), who they wish to be, how they would like to see themselves, and how they would like to be seen and approached by the others.

16A similar approach to the concept of the transition has been offered for example by Paul Kingston, who was dealing with the consequences of a fall for the identity of the older people [Kingston, 2000]. His work is based on two theoretical frameworks directly linked to the grounded theory approach: the theory of status passage [Glaser and Strauss, 1971], and the theory of preferred identities [Charmaz, 1987], which emphasize the significance of how an individual understands a particular situation. In the case of the fall as addressed by Kingston, this includes, for example, whether it is perceived as an inevitable part of ageing and as a major milestone or accident that can be overcome. How an individual perceives a fall thus influences how they approach rehabilitation and how they perceive themselves as a person after an accidental fall “may perhaps consider a return to normal self as inevitable, while individuals who believe that the fall is the first hint of functional decline, may unnecessarily consider a salvaged self the only realistic possibility” [Kingston, 2000: 220].

17The following text thus presents four dominant forms of transition to the fourth age, analytically structured not only as different accounts of events, but are categorized on the basis of how narrators interpret the course of the transition and how the actors themselves refer to this transition and in what ways, through the construction of the transition story within an interview, they create an image of their own identity, i.e., themselves in relation to these events and other actors and their everydayness. Importantly, these primary narratives are not hermetic and can be intertwined, or may belong to one speaker as well, although each participant usually emphasizes the particular interpretation of their current situation.

A break with the past

18The notion of the fourth age as a black hole or as a horizon from which there is no return creates particularly strong metaphors [Higgs and Gilleard, 2014]. Some of our participants narrated their pasts with particular emphasis on a strong breaking point after which everyday life would never be the same, a narrative threshold into what is in theory labeled as a fourth age. Other participants, on the other hand, tended to provide insights about life changes that took a more continuous and permeable flow. Substantive transformations were presented in two major ways, either as a change caused by circumstances that were external to the person or that happened to him or her against his or her will, or a change that resulted from their own decision in the context of a given set of circumstances. Both interpretations influenced how individuals positioned themselves within the interview, including how they framed the possibilities and limitations in terms of remaining active agents and the degree to which they distanced themselves from an image of their current selves that they presented in their story. The narrative framing of the fourth age as a sharp-edged change was heard particularly strongly in stories of those whose triggering events included rather abrupt health issues, such as stroke or coronary thrombosis, or falls leading to immobilizing injuries [2] [Vidovićová, 2012].

19Unsurprisingly, this more sudden type of transition was most easily recognizable in interviews and was usually kept alive in the memory, although the amount of detail in narrating related circumstances varied significantly. This was true of Mr. Martin (67 years), whose wife Gabriela systematically took part in his interviews. They both told a long and coherent story about the central turning point: Martin’s fall in the street, followed by brain surgery and intensive rehabilitation. The couple revealed a strong focus on the future and above all on their partnership that could be labeled shared subjectivity. Because Martin’s capacity to express himself verbally was limited, Gabriela helped him complete his sentences, suggested words, speaking both with him and for him and imposing limits when she felt that he was not exhibiting proper self-restraint or motivation. She seemed to be the primary source of his activity and support for his agency, including the use of the plural when she spoke about daily tasks that “they” have not yet managed to learn: “We haven’t managed the mobile phone yet, as we still don’t remember that pin or something.” It was evident that her care was critical in maintaining and improving Martin’s condition. The fact that they their narrative was constructed around a clear boundary—a fall and subsequent surgery—gave it an element of struggle; rather than a gradual decline, Martin had experienced a sudden deterioration that placed them in a completely new life situation and obliged them to rethink their day-to-day practices, including basic communications:


— Interviewer: So, your job is to act as a kind of interpreter.
— Gabriela: Maybe, well, a kind of company.
— Interviewer: So that the communication is more fluent.
— Gabriela: A kind of company and a supervisor that he does what he should do [laughs].
The interviewer asks Martin: “And did you want to go there or did you have to make an effort?” Gabriela answers on his behalf: “I told him to go there, so he did”.

21In discussing the fourth age, some researchers choose terms such as perseverance or persistence to evoke “participants’ engagement in a continuous reflexive process between mind and body,” who were “conscious that decline was inevitable but they had not given up on the exercise of will and self-determination” [Lloyd et al., 2014: 16].

22Locating a particular time point in a life narrative reveals the variety of consequences that flow from specific losses. There could have been more falls, and from a different perspective, the change could have been gradual, with each successive fracture resulting in additional loss of strength, but Martin’s story centered on a fall followed by hospitalization. The narrative of Viktorie (82) contains two turning points, one the death of her husband, and the second an operation followed by a period of hospitalization, the paralysis of her lower limbs, and her relocation to a retirement home. The significant feature of this narrative is the fact that these events are both interpreted as resulting from external circumstances. In this case, the external locus of control [Lachman, 1986] allows the narrator to maintain their self-perception by distancing him- or herself from the events leading to the transition to the relative dependence. Ms. Viktorie accepts basic personal care such as bathing, partially dressing, and changing bags with excretions. It is not her body and herself that caused the decline—her narrative is actively related to the past through sadness. As Viktorie wrote in her research diary, “It is not true that time heals. Time heals nothing, it just passes by. Memories of the past, whether they are sad or beautiful, still physically hurt me” (Viktorie, 82). Her memories are part of her personality, and she does not oppose them.

23Disability and the associated need for daily care is thus presented as an unexpected consequence of a sudden incident, even, as this excerpt from an interview with Ms. Sofie (70) reveals, it is among many events. While in the case of Viktorie, her partner’s death was more an emotional change before the actual loss of competences, events occurred in the opposite order in Sofie’s case, and it was only the death of her partner that meant the transition to the fourth age and an emphasis of dependence and declining health. She and her husband were living independently in a remote village, but daily routines became increasingly complicated due to declining health. They remained self-sufficient, however, due to mutual support and community and family support. Sofie’s husband’s death marked a clear turning point in her everyday life and her narrative:


— Interviewer: And how did it limit you, so the knees did not allow you to cook or do any other common activity that you…
— Sofie: Well, things got really hard at that time, as I arrived here, as my husband died, I had to move here […] Well, he used to walk on crutches, as he had had that surgery, he had had a hip fracture and […] it would had already healed, and then he died […] it was such a terrible blow.

25Sofie and Martin’s narratives show the importance of the interdependence in coping with the transition, i.e., the mutual dependence that is essential for understanding the experience of the fourth age [Baars and Phillipson, 2014]. What is essential in terms of their self-perception is the externality of events, which Viktorie’s case also clearly demonstrates. In terms of identity theory, this approach to an important event allows the construction of the “restored self” [Kingston, 2000: 219], i.e., the self that resembles an individual’s self-perception prior to a particular event.

26Simply put, Viktorie refers to painful memories, but it is still she who remembers, and it is also she, Viktorie, who actively constructs her own self-image. She plays keyboards and tells her favorite anecdotes, including her story of “a failed surgery” that “caused” the current situation. According to her carers, it took Viktorie several months to “reconcile” herself to the new situation and to being institutionalized, being assigned to a wheelchair, and entrusting her personal care to third parties. Despite her rehabilitation, her condition was unlikely to improve significantly, and—in her case— the transition to the fourth age is framed as irreversible. It may be potentially paralyzing, but on the other hand, it is also liberating because she was freed of the necessity of striving, from the moral appeal of activity, or from the “heroic model” of personality [Lloyd et al., 2014: 18]. What also helped her maintain a positive self-image was self-definition as compared to others. Distanciation is a classic means of strengthening self-perception, at both individual and group levels [Lamont and Molnár, 2002]. Viktorie has a counterpoint in her narrative, Ms. Jana, who represents a senior who she does not resemble and whom she does not want to become. Jana definitely represents “the other” for Viktorie: “She is just knitting all the time, she goes to the room to listen to music with others, she’s knitting, we were asked by the carer to discuss something, so I said, ‘Ms. Jana, say something, you are a former teacher,’ she was just knitting…” For Viktorie, Jana represents a loss of sociability, of former self, and immersion in an inner world that is beyond the common possibilities of inter-subjectivity. Jana, according to her own narrative, represents a different transition to the fourth age—the one of the loss.

Substantive loss

27In a study of how older women narrate transition and loss, Grenier observed specific language, including time-based statements, “rhetorical devices” filled with particular meaning in the context of old age and gender referring to “‘possible’ or ‘ideal’ selves,” that her participants used to distinguish between their present and past lives, divided by a break [Grenier, 2008: 204]. Such devices, which may facilitate distantiation, are more notable elements of narratives centered on a breaking point, as participants interpret their present and past as a function of a specific moment or event that changed everything. Whereas in a story in which decline is more gradual and ongoing, it seems more difficult to distance oneself from the unwanted or negatively perceived state of frailty, incapacity, or the need for assistance, or to tell the narrative through the eyes of an active agent. For example, in the course of our meetings in her room in the nursing home, Ms. Jana (81) repeatedly states, “This is not normal…” Parkinson’s disease also tended to be represented as something external that was happening to her body, but her narrative was not centered on a specific break point or distanciation but instead on the contrast between her current circumstances and previous condition, with no well-defined turning point (although her history of falls may have been a factor). She relates to the definition of “normalcy” and to the varieties of the concept of “must” through which she constructs her “ideal self,” which is diametrically opposed to her current one.


— Carer: Ms. Jana knits this sort of manual work.
— Jana: I have to do something.
— Interviewer: Well, someone… someone wants to.
— Jana: Well, but lying on the bed and doing nothing, it is not normal. […] I don’t know, but… What have I done that I need to loll around in bed forever, and that I have to sit like that? […] When I want something, so either I have to call someone, it is such an embarrassment to always bother someone, they too also have a bellyful of that, right. Well, I’m lying all the time. Unfortunately. (Jana, 81).

29This is not her as she would like to be seen, as she would like to act and present herself to others—the narrative of “I must” is a narrative of activity but also of resistance—not accepting means on the one hand that she continues to try to keep her body as fit as possible, on the other hand, it means living in a state of loss, in a state of continuous non-acceptance of the state of things and perpetual negation. She tells the interviewer that she used to be an active person and constructs the image of two different selves—the one she used to be and the one she is, but which is not “really” her. While the narrative of break described above enabled older people to maintain or restore their identities, the narrative of loss makes this more difficult by putting such emphasis on an ideal, past self that cannot be sustained and accepting the care or feeling entitled to it.

30Loss does not necessarily have to be related to identity, however. Ms. Dana (89) frames her story primarily as loss, and her narrative is full of references to activities that she “cannot do anymore” and “does not do anymore.” At the same time, she maintains a certain degree of self-perception resistance as a way of distancing herself from the outside world, i.e., against the institutions that frame her everyday life, including the organizational aspects of residential care or television, for instance. She has difficulty understanding the spoken word, because “they [TV broadcasters] won’t open their mouths, they mumble something under their breath and you can’t understand them.” In this respect, resistance can also be observed in her interactions with the carer, who was present at the interview:


— Dana: They were also young, but I don’t know now, it is now, it’s another world in short. It’s another world now.
— Carer: And we have to adapt.
— Dana: Well… for us, it’s hard to adapt in the old age.

32While the carer uses the term “we have to,” Dana does not accept her definition—she is the one that remains the same, and it is the world around us that changes. She does not have to adapt, however, because her old age releases her from this requirement: The entire world is external to me, but it does not reduce my “value,” I do not have to adapt—the world is elsewhere, but I am still myself. The outside world still remains a point of reference, but it is remote, both in time and through shared structures of relevance. Sharing them actually means adapting to them and transforming them actively, which is something that Ms. Dana no longer does.

The alienated body

33In terms of personal identity, people narratively distinguished not only the past and present, or possibly ideal self, but also the distinction between the self and the body. The body is part of our personality, but at the same time, it is external to us—it is entity that defies control and possesses its own agency, which intensively shapes the everydayness and self-perception. As such, the body is also distinguished in the narratives of the transition into the fourth age. On the basis of a phenomenological longitudinal study, Heikkinen [2004] describes the transition to a very advanced age through the concept of bodiliness: “no longer did they seem troubled by personal anxieties and concerns, and they hardly mentioned their illnesses or pains. The key inherent characteristic of bodiliness seemed to be that of existence or being” [ibid.: 579]. Although Heikkinen sees his participants as concentrating solely on their very existence, because they have “reached an understanding of their being, or more precisely their authentic existence” [ibid.: 580], our participants’ stories, regardless of age, are somewhat different. One of the most significant elements of fourth-age narratives refer to the distinction between feeling frail and being frail [Grenier, 2006] and to what Nicholson aptly summarizes as “the label of frailty is [that] actively resisted as elders distinguish between the body one is (self-identity) and the body one has as a physical, vulnerable, and objectified social identity” [Nicholson et al., 2012: 1427].

34The distanciation between one’s self and one’s body is again strongly manifested in the language. For instance, when Dana (89) says “I am no longer able to,” the reasoning behind this inability is not related to the “self” but to the body and its individual parts: For example when she says, “my knees won’t work” or that she can no longer sew because “my hands will no longer work” or “my sight is no longer what I would need” and “I can’t thread the needle with my fingers any longer.” This is not she, it is these body parts that do not allow her to live as she previously lived.

35The body thus becomes the measure of all things, at the same time allowing us to live and remain fundamentally connected with existence, as described by Heikkinen, but also its principal burden. Jaroslava (99) expressed these parallel functions well: “I just can’t lift the body. I can’t lift it literally, as owing to that old age, I have become so weak that I simply can’t.” The body becomes the cornerstone of her days, the basic measure, as shown by the transposition of daily activities into the steps in the following narrative by Ms. Jaroslava. Having a body is a challenging task—it is “work”:


I am on my own to do this every day, and it is very hard work for me, it’s very difficult. I’m always tired in the evening, whether the carer is here or not. […] First of all, she’s never here when I get up, of course, you know how much effort it takes, when I get up at 7 am, before I come to the kitchen, it takes me at least an hour, I must go to the bathroom, I must have a wash, I must come back to the bedroom, I must dress myself and it all gives me a terrible job. Then I pull out the blinds in the bedroom, then I come here to pull the blinds out and go to the kitchen and then I make my breakfast myself. I make tea and it all means making steps here. The tea doesn’t make itself. I must come, take the kettle, and then when the water boils, I must come again and make the tea… pour it in the mug. In the meantime, I must cut or make something and then I can have breakfast. And then I have a rest. (Jaroslava, 99).

37Steps appear to represent a precious value that takes her strength, a resource that needs to be efficiently spent. Once again, the phrase “must do something” appears in the sense of distanciation: When Jaroslava describes her everyday routines in minute detail, it is these individual components that constitute her meaningful time—taking care of the body takes time [Horgas et al., 1998] and routinization makes this work easier to handle, reconciling with the state of imbalance [Nicholson et al., 2012]. Like Ms. Jana, Jaroslava considers independence to be a central topic in the context of providing care. Whereas Jana’s narrative implies independence as the absence of care or as “not disturbing” the carers in the facility, Jaroslava is among those who have arranged for home care. [3] Despite the fact that both Jana and Jaroslava pay for care and services provided to professional carers, for Ms. Jana, it is the institutional context and the negative perception of “placement” that do not allow her, among other things, to construct her position as a care recipient from perspective that preserves agency. Rather than its loss, Ms. Jaroslava perceives the ability to arrange for home care as relational autonomy, described by Perkins: “Rather than conceiving of autonomy as freedom from constraint, a relational perspective views it in terms of identification, a process whereby individuals’ sense of self is developed and (re)confirmed in context to daily interactions and experiences” [Perkins et al., 2012: 215]. Jaroslava perceives the ability to manage assistance as independence and as a way to receive personal care without disrupting a positive self-perception as a self-determined person who is exercising agency despite her frail condition. Her identity is thus formed “through engaging in relationships with others” [Lloyd et al., 2014: 5]. However, like the “dependent but autonomous” participants in Pirhonen’s study [2016: 1640], she suggests the limits of this self-determination as limits of volitional capacity and psychological freshness within a declining body.

Agency in disengagement

38Unlike the construction of the transition into the fourth age as a sudden change brought about by external circumstances, the narrative of a gradual internal change invokes a specific outcome at a particular point in time. This point is interpreted as a volitional decision in the narratives; in terms of the identity, it is important that narrators position themselves as active agents in the process of senescence, thus establishing an internal locus of control [Lachman, 1986]. In some respects, this overlaps with the classical disengagement theory [Achenbaum and Bengston, 1994], but it is a narrative told at the level of personal life rather than at the level of a theoretical concept claiming to be of general validity. It is not a matter of releasing oneself from ordinary structures of work or public life, but of deciding to participate in far fewer activities, which is often associated with not leaving the apartment and the gradual reduction of social contact. Participants sometimes interpret this as a gradual departure and as a preparation for death, both of themselves and their surroundings. Ms. Beata (86), who lived in a rented flat with family support and a regular basic visit by a carer, described her transition as a process of continuous change, not as an injury or misfortune, but as a slowly emerging feeling that she no longer wanted to be as active as she had been and no longer cared to leave her apartment:


If that thought crosses somebody’s mind, that she should go somewhere, then she must, because then all of a sudden, I don’t know how, because I had money to go to America, and suddenly—no. And before, I mean, I was desperate to go, and now suddenly, the cravings were gone, well, what can we do, anything at all. Well, I go on. And I like to be in the world.

40Heikkinen summarizes this approach to the world as follows: “Outwardly, their circle of life had become smaller, their needs had lessened but at the same time more condensed” [Heikkinen, 2004: 580]. Ms. Beata’s world has been effectively reduced to the size of her apartment, although listening to the radio and watching television, reading, and visits of her close relatives enable her to cross this boundary daily. She does not allow the outside world to disrupt her tranquility or her concentration on her existence. She also discusses her relationship with the great-grandchildren, whom she “watches” during their visits so that they “don’t get used to” her and miss her when she passes away. Her desires have left her, and she has let them go, with a hint of nostalgia but without any expression of grief. This description of events also enables her to remain who she was, i.e., the person who decides for herself, which in a certain sense, allows her to maintain her identity through a gradual and fundamental change of her everydayness. Her self cannot actually be described as a restored self, as in Viktorie’s case, as there is no major external breaking point in the narrative (from an interpretative point of view, i.e., from the external observer’s perspective, it was a fall in the home environment, coupled with a fear of falling when leaving the house).

41Mr. Hugo (87) also situated the beginning of advanced age—which we call the fourth age—when he described the end of his employment at the university when he retired. He interpreted the event as an important internal transformation rather than a result of external pressure that did not entail any substantial limitation but a loss of satisfaction:


— Hugo: Well, I didn’t feel like that, I just didn’t feel that, let’s have a look. In some schools, you can teach longer, but not too long, there wasn´t lack of students or something, I just didn´t enjoy it there anymore […] Like this. Internally. […] No, no. I no longer enjoyed that, I knew too much about it […] and I simply no longer enjoyed it. [4]

43Hugo used an expressive term, “cutting off,” to characterize his active release from his duties. Apart from the most important decision to end his active employment, his narrative contains a gradual reduction of social contact that was confirmed during a complementary interview with his daughter. However, the gradual nature and his awareness of this release also allow for an orientation towards the future, although it may sound like a contradiction from an outside perspective. Hugo says that he lives his life “to the full,” but he fills the everydayness with modified content. His narrative is a story of active disengagement that allows him to remain active and to formulate a life story in a way that protects his dignity and the integrity of his identity in the context of the interview.


44In an article focusing on linking postcolonial studies and ageing studies, van Dyk states that the so-called young-old are “praised for their [ongoing] ‘sameness’ in terms of midlife norms, while the oldest-old are excluded from humanity by radical ‘othering’” [van Dyk, 2016: 110]. We have focused on understanding the perspectives of individuals who in many ways represent these “others.” Othering and distanciation are common features of anchoring social and individual identities, an insight that our participants confirmed. The principal narratives of the transition to the fourth age (which is operationalized in research as a theoretical concept and is not present in the reflections of participants) have been centered on the lines between rupture and fluency, external influence and internalization, the past, present, and ideal self, and the self and the body as an entity that is both internal and external to self.

45The locus of control [Lachman, 1986] represented an important element, i.e., whether events that led to the physical or psychological deterioration and the need for care tended to be experienced more as external or internal and whether individuals identified with these events. However, the external locus of control does not mean the standard control of others over their lives and conditions, but instead the perception of events such as an injury, illness, or frailty as something with which participants do not identify their personalities and that can be actively opposed, because such an approach does not infringe upon integrity. It is a narrative means of defending identity that Grenier [2006] has described as the difference between feeling and identification, between being and feeling, but also between self and others, less “skillful,” capable, or sociable older people, between those “dependent but autonomous” and “dependent and no longer autonomous” [Pirhonen, 2016].

46While some scholars define the fourth age as a period during which individuals achieve a true focus on being and cease to fundamentally define themselves or be critical [Heikkinen, 2004], even people at a very advanced age—the fourth age—continued to express themselves critically during repeated in-depth interviews. Their critical self-expression referred to certain events of public life, and in terms of identity, to comparing themselves with other people who bore traits allowing them to see themselves in a better perspective [Hasmanová Marhánková, 2011]. Similarly, as Hasmanová Marhánková shows in the case of women in the third age, the technologies of self that are “embedded in the imperative of necessity to move or do something” [ibid.: 28] were expressed by some of our participants as internalized self-control in such statements as “I must.” With respect to the limitations that accompany advanced age: this “I must” contrasts with “I want.” Through the internalization of this duty to act in the context of the impossibility of fulfilling this ideal, the resulting effect on individual self-perception is somewhat negative, while narrative distanciation from the norm of activity allows the protection of positive self-perception, such as agency in disengagement, interpreting the gradual reduction of activities, relationships, or even motion as an internal decision. In this context, it is the concept of care that plays an important role. As de São José et al. [2016] concluded, one of the most important conditions for care to be positively evaluated by older care recipients is reciprocity. Constructing reciprocity in the context of frailty and the decline that characterizes the fourth age is an extremely difficult achievement, particularly in the context of residential or institutionalized care.

47For this reason, reciprocity is easier to establish for individuals like Viktorie who can “conduce” the interaction with the carers with their charming personalities, funny stories, and other positively evaluated personal attributes. We also noted a substantial difference between the need to “call for help” in the residential care (in Jana’s case) and the more equal relationship constructed as a “normal” relation between a customer (the care recipient, in this case Jaroslava) and the person being paid for the work (a professional provider for a home-based care). This supports de São José’s conclusion about the relational dimension of care: “Receiving social care per se does not automatically imply a negative or a positive experience. Rather, it is the concrete form of social care provision, primarily the attitudes and behavior of the carers, which determine whether the care is experienced as positive or negative” [de São José et al., 2016: 9]. However, the relational dimension also means that the self-perception of the care recipient plays an important role, which is strongly embedded in internalized meanings of autonomy and independency, as well as in a personal relation to one’s own needs and strategies.

48There is an expanding population of older people for whom it is increasingly difficult to participate in narratively conducted research for several reasons including memory loss and difficulties expressing themselves verbally. This population was underrepresented among our participants, but the case of Martin and his wife revealed an interesting example of shared subjectivity based on life-long shared experiences that culminated in a gender-imbalanced relationship in which the wife became the primary carer. She became responsible not only for daily home routines and her husband’s personal care, but even for completing his sentences. Her presence in the interview seemed to be highly motivating for Martin, however—what might resemble disciplining care can be also interpreted as interdependency [Baars and Phillipson, 2014]. Her presence made an otherwise timid Martin talkative, increasing the likelihood that he expressed his thoughts and was understood.

49The fourth age represents a constantly renegotiated theoretical concept with problematic empirical applications [Gilleard and Higgs, 2010]. On the one hand, its use emphasizes a binarism in which there is often fluency and permeability in terms of personal experience: “The process-related, more fluid character of age as a marker of difference is far more apparent in personal experiences of aging, but that it does not figure in cultural representations and images of old age that are organized in stereotypical binary ways” [van Dyk, 2016: 9]. Although we did not necessarily avoid this binary vision of the fourth age in our research, our goal was to highlight the diversity of experience that this concept encompasses in everyday life, including a wide range of possible identities formed in the context of the loss of power and the acceptance of care revealed during in-depth interviews. ■


  • [1]
    9 This research project was supported by the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic as part of a project entitled “Fourth Age: Identity of Disability in the Time of Active Ageing” (GA15-03156S).
  • [2]
    10 In this form of the narrative, the breaking point of the transition into the fourth age is meant both figuratively and literally—the fall represents a major source of fear in older age that can trigger major change in everyday practices and result in the need of care by others and medical intervention [Bailey et al., 2014].
  • [3]
    11 In the Czech social system of relatively flattened pensions and the possibility of housing and care allowances, key factors include family support, the ability to assert one’s own solution at the decisive moment (especially in the institutional context), the relation to property (home ownership versus rented housing). Socio-economic factors [see, for example, Lux and Sunega, 2014], albeit crucial for life in the old age, are beyond the scope of this paper.
  • [4]
    12 In his narrative, releasing is also clearly associated with ageing and internalised ageism: “when an old person interferes with the young […] that means a lack of taste.”

Self-perception during the Transition to the Fourth Age in the Czech Republic

As the overall population ages, a growing number of people reach what has been called fourth age, a period of life that combines advanced age with a certain level of disability and a need for personal assistance. Although some researchers associate the fourth age with “social death” and invoke methodological difficulties in conducting research with this population, this essay offers an alternative interpretation based on the oral narratives of a group of fourth-age participants. Indeed, we found that their reflections concerning this transitional period demonstrated differing degrees of agency and provide insights into the ways in which the older people form and negotiate their self-perceptions and sense of identity.


  • Fourth age
  • Self-perception
  • Identity
  • Disengagement
  • Agency

Geschichten von Übergängen in das vierte Alter aus Tschechien: Fokus auf Selbstwahrnehmung

Eine alternde Bevölkerung bedeutet auch eine zunehmende Anzahl von Menschen im sogenannten vierten Alter: Erfahrung, die hohes Lebensalter mit einem gewissen Grad an Behinderung und Pflegebedarf kombiniert. Während einige Autoren das vierte Alter mit sozialem Tod identifizieren und von der Unmöglichkeit einer empirischen Forschung sprechen, präsentiert unser Papier eine Interpretation von Erzählungen älterer Menschen über die Veränderungen in ihrer Alltäglichkeit in Bezug auf den Übergang in diesen Zeitabschnitt und zeigt dabei, wie seine Interpretation mit ihrer Selbstwahrnehmung und Identität verbunden ist.


  • Viertes Alter
  • Selbstwahrnehmung
  • Identität
  • Handlungsfähigkeit
  • Disengagement

Historias de transiciones en la cuarta edad de la Republica Checa : Enfoque sobre la percepción de sí mismo

El envejecimiento de la población significa también un número creciente de personas en la llamada « cuarta edad »: la experiencia combinando la vejez con un cierto grado de incapacidad y la necesidad de ser atendido. Mientras que ciertos autores identifican la « cuarta edad » con la muerte social, al hablar de la imposibilidad de investigación empírica, nuestro artículo presenta una interpretación de los relatos de personas mayores sobre los cambios en su vida cotidiana con relación a la transición hacia este periodo, demostrando como dicha interpretación está ligada a la percepción de sí mismo y a su identidad.

Palabras claves

  • Cuarta edad
  • Identidad
  • Vida cotidiana
  • Desvinculación
  • Agency


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Lucie Galčanová
Masaryk University, Faculty of Social Studies, Office for Population Studies
Marcela Petrová Kafková
Masaryk University, Faculty of Social Studies, Office for Population Studies
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 11/09/2018
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