"I'm Helpless, but I'm not Completely Helpless": Agency, Identity Work, and Resilience Among Low-Income Elderly
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In order to better serve a growing elderly population in the United States, it is important to understand the influence of resilience––or one’s ability to bounce back from negative experiences––on seniors’ sense of wellness. While existing research documents the importance of social interaction to seniors’ resilience development, several key gaps remain: First, research on seniors does not often sample from vulnerable elderly populations, such as seniors of color and seniors living in poverty, who are arguably in the greatest need of resilience to buffer them from negative experiences. Second, there has not been much theoretical development regarding the content of social interaction most likely to facilitate resilience development among the elderly; in particular, little attention has been paid to the role of identity negotiation in seniors’ resilience development. The present research seeks to fill these gaps using in-depth, qualitative interviews with at-risk seniors enrolled in a local Meals on Wheels program. My research was guided by two key questions: (1) What are the most salient challenges seniors typically face?, and (2) In what ways does social interaction promote resilience development in the face of these challenges? I find that seniors commonly face severe limitations to their autonomy as a result of health and other age-related decline. I find that seniors cope with these challenges by engaging in forms of socially facilitated identity work that help them promote a more agentive sense of self. This sense of agency, I argue, is a key mechanism by which social interaction fosters resilience among seniors. I argue that practitioners should consider social interaction as a key site of identity work when developing programs and policies to foster senior wellness, and I encourage future researchers to further explore the relationship between identity work and resilience among seniors.