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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

Research Postgraduates

Publication details for Professor Rebecca Gowland

Gowland, R. L. (2016). Growing Old: Biographies of Care and Disability in Later Life. In New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Tilley, Lorna, Schrenk, Alicia & Martin, Debra Cham: Springer. 237-251.

Author(s) from Durham


The elderly are the most neglected demographic in archaeology and have also been overlooked in studies of disability and care in the past. This is in part because impairment and frailty have been regarded as normalised facets of later life. This chapter adopts a life course approach to care in the past in order to better understand the perceptions and potential impact of disability for older individuals and their caregiver(s). This is a theory-led chapter, which draws primarily upon the disability studies and sociological literature situated within present-day contexts. There is a tendency within the palaeopathological literature to consider an impairment as a fixed biological state with uniform social implications, rather than one predicated upon the interaction between the individual’s identity, biography and disease process. A life course approach facilitates an understanding of the fluidity and intersectionality between disability and identity throughout life’s unfolding. It also enables an examination of the shifting power dynamics between the carer and the care recipient. The act of intensive caregiving represents a ‘biographical challenge’ for the carer as well as the impaired, and can profoundly impact upon his or her identity. The carer is largely invisible within the archaeological record, but may become visible through poor care provision or abuse. It is worthwhile considering the potential for relationships of care to become abusive as well as nurturing, as the carer is drawn into the world of the disabled.