Making Meaning in (and of) Old Age: The Value of Lifelong Literacy

Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk


 This article, based on an ethnographic study of aging among women, reports on the benefits of literacy across the lifespan. Using methods based on phenomenological human science, I selected four participants in their eighties and nineties from a small town in Western Massachusetts whom I regarded as exemplars of positive aging. The importance of reading and writing over a lifetime emerged as a central theme in helping to explain how these women coped with the challenges of aging. In the participants’ elder years, literate activities were particularly significant as a way of constructing meaning. With illustrations drawn from the women’s literacy experiences over the better part of a century, I focus on the importance of early literacy development, the key role of literacy sponsors, the self-sponsored nature of memorable literacy experiences, and the differing ways in which the women used reading and writing in their adult years. All four expressed alienation from computers and modern communication technology. Despite this limitation, however, literate activities remained central into old age, helping them to make meaning of their lives, a crucial developmental task in old age. For the women in this study, active, lifelong literacy was a key factor in their continued vitality and involvement in the elder years.


aging; aging well; literacy; lifespan; life course; life history; meaning

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