Bouncing Back: Resilience and Its Limits in Late-Age Composing


  • Louise Wetherbee Phelps Old Dominion University



aging literacy, late-age composing, resilience, lifespan writing, ecological lens, visualization


This essay is one of a series on my mother’s late-age composing, studying a writing project she started at age 70 and worked on for more than 25 years. Her intention was to integrate extensive reading, personal experience, and cultural observations to explain changes in parenting (and, by extension, education and enculturation of the next generation) from her childhood in the 1920s through the 2000s.When she died at 97, she left behind a 75-page draft, but was unable to complete her plans for revisions and an ending. I focus here on identifying the multiple factors in the ecology of her aging literacy that interacted to interrupt, slow down, and ultimately prevent her from finishing the essay. By studying her artifacts and documenting stresses on her literacy system (defined as body/mind/environment), I constructed timelines for her aging literacy and composing, expressed in visualizations. These demonstrate a pattern of persistence and resilience, “bouncing back” from setbacks, but at progressively lower levels until she reaches the limits of her literacy system in late old age.


Adam, Barbara. Time and Social Theory. Temple UP, 1990.

Agronin, Marc E. How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old. De Capo Press, 2011.

Alexis, Cydney. “The Material Culture of Writing: Objects, Habitats, and Identities in Practice.” Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things, edited by Scot Barnett and Casey Boyle, U of Alabama P, 2016, pp. 83¬–95.

Aronson, Louise. Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life. Bloomsbury, 2019.

Baltes, Paul B. “On the Incomplete Architecture of Human Ontogeny: Selection, Optimization, and Compensation as Foundation of Developmental Theory.” American Psychologist, vol. 52, no. 4, April 1997, pp. 366–80,

Bazerman, Charles. “Lifespan Longitudinal Studies of Writing Development: A Heuristic for an Impossible Dream.” The Lifespan Development of Writing, by Charles Bazerman, Arthur N. Applebee, Virginia W. Berninger, Deborah Brandt, Steve Graham, Jill V. Jeffery, Paul Kei Matsuda, Sandra Murphy, Deborah Wells Rowe, Mary Schleppegrell, and Kristen Campbell Wilcox, NCTE, 2018, pp. 326–65.

Bazerman, Charles, Steve Graham, Arthur N. Applebee, Paul Kei Matsuda, Virginia W. Berninger, Sandra Murphy, Deborah Brandt, Deborah Wells Rowe, and Mary Schleppegrell. “Taking the Long View on Writing Development.” Research on the Teaching of English, vol. 51, no. 3, Feb. 2017, pp. 351–60. Project Muse,

Bazerman, Charles, Arthur N. Applebee, Virginia W. Berninger, Deborah Brandt, Steve Graham, Jill V. Jeffery, Paul Kei Matsuda, Sandra Murphy, Deborah Wells Rowe, Mary Schleppegrell, and Kristen Campbell Wilcox. The Lifespan Development of Writing. NCTE, 2018.

Bjorklund, Barbara R. The Journey of Adulthood. 7th ed., Prentice Hall, 2011.

Bowen, Lauren M. “Age Identity and Literacy.” Enculturation, no. 31, 8 June 2020,

---. [Bowen, Lauren Marshall]. “Beyond Repair: Literacy, Technology, and a Curriculum of Aging.” College English, vol. 74, no. 5, May 2012, pp. 437–57. JStor,

---. “Composing a Further Life: Introduction to the Special Issue.” Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, Nov. 2018, pp. vi–xxvi,

---. “Literacy Tours and Material Matters: Principles for Studying the Literate Lives of Older Adults.” Approaches to Lifespan Writing Research; Generating an Actionable Coherence, edited by Ryan J. Dippre and Talinn Phillips, WAC Clearing House / UP of Colorado, 2020, pp. 111–25.

Brandt, Deborah. “Accumulating Literacy: Writing and Learning to Write in the Twentieth Century.” College English, vol. 57, no. 6, Oct. 1995, pp. 649–68,

---. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge UP, 2001.

---. “Writing Development and Life-Course Development: The Case of Working Adults.” The Lifespan Development of Writing, by Charles Bazerman, Arthur N. Applebee, Virginia W. Berninger, Deborah Brandt, Steve Graham, Jill V. Jeffery, Paul Kei Matsuda, Sandra Murphy, Deborah Wells Rowe, Mary Schleppegrell, and Kristen Campbell Wilcox. NCTE, 2018, pp. 244–71.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Harvard UP, 1979.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie, and Pamela A. Morris. “The Bioecological Model of Human Development.” Theoretical Models of Human Development, Vol. 1 of Handbook of Child Psychology, edited by William Damon and Richard M. Lerner, 6th ed., Wiley, 2006, pp. 793–828.

Carolina Consortium on Human Development. “Developmental Science: A Collaborative Statement.” Developmental Science, edited by Robert B. Cairns, Glen H. Elder, and E. Jane Costello, Cambridge UP, 1996, pp. 1–6.

Chan, Carol. “Can Reading Increase Cognitive Reserve?” International Psychogeriatric Association, vol. 33, no. 1, Feb. 2021, pp. 15–17,

Cohen, Gene D. The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. Basic Books, 2005.

Composing a Further Life. Special issue of Literacy in Composition Studies, edited by Lauren Marshall Bowen, vol. 6, no. 2, Nov. 2018,

Cox, Michelle, Jeffrey R. Galin, and Dan Melzer. Sustainable WAC: A Whole Systems Approach to Launching and Developing Writing Across the Curriculum Programs. NCTE, 2018.

Crow, Angela. Aging Literacies: Training and Development Challenges for Faculty. Hampton Press, 2006.

“Dementia.” Mayo Clinic, Accessed 10 Mar. 2021.

Dick, Anthony Steven, and Ulrich Muller. Advancing Developmental Science: Philosophy, Theory, and Method. Routledge, 2018.

Dippre, Ryan J. “Faith, Squirrels, and Artwork: The Expansive Agency of Textual Coordination. Literacy in Composition Studies, vol 6, no. 2, Nov. 2018, pp. 76–93,

Dippre, Ryan J., and Talinn Phillips. “Generating Murmuration for an Actionable Coherence.” Introduction. Approaches to Lifespan Writing Research: Generating an Actionable Coherence, edited by Ryan J. Dieppre and Talinn Phillips, WAC Clearinghouse/University Press of Colorado, Aug. 2020, pp. 3–11.

Dippre. Ryan J., and Talinn Phillips, editors. Approaches to Lifespan Writing Research: Generating an Actionable Coherence. WAC Clearing House/UP of Colorado, 2020.

Dobrin, Sidney I. “Ecology and a Future of Writing Studies.” Introduction. Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology, edited by Sidney I. Dobrin, Routledge, 2012, pp. 1–23.

---, editor. Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology. Routledge, 2012.

Driscoll, Dana, and Jing Zhang. “The Person-Context-Time Model-in-Action: Using Writing Development as a Framework.” Writing Research across Borders Conference, 5-6 Mar. 2021.

Edmondson, Ricca. Ageing, Insight and Wisdom: Meaning and Practice across the Lifecourse. Policy Press, 2015.

Elder, Glen H. “Time, Human Agency, and Social Change: Perspectives on the Life Course.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 1, Mar. 1994, pp. 4–15,

Elliot, Norbert, and Alice Horning, editors. Talking Back: Senior Scholars Deliberate the Past, Present, and Future of Writing Studies. Utah State UP, 2020.

Epstein, David. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Riverhead Books, 2019.

Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Picador, 2014.

Gonzalez, Jennifer A. “Autotopographies.” Prosthetic Territories: Politics and Hypertechnologies, edited by Gabriel Brahm, Jr. and Mark Driscoll. Westview Press, 1995, pp. 133–50.

Gries, Laurie. “Agential Matters: Tumbleweed, Women-Pens, Citizens-Hope, and Rhetorical Actancy.” Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology, edited by Sidney I. Dobrin, Routledge, 2012, pp. 67–91.

Gutchess, Angela. Cognitive and Social Neuroscience of Aging. Cambridge UP, 2019.

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011.

Harada, Caroline B., Marissa C. Natelson Love, and Kristen Triebel. “Normal Cognitive Aging.” Clinics in Geriatric Medicine, vol. 29, no. 4, Nov. 2013, pp. 737–52,

Hartshorne, Joshua K., and Laura T. Germine. “When Does Cognitive Functioning Peak? The Asynchronous Rise and Fall of Different Cognitive Abilities Across the Lifespan.” Psychological Science, vol. 26, no. 4, Mar. 2015, pp. 433–43,

Herzog, Christopher, Arthur F. Kramer, Robert S. Wilson, and Ulman Lindenberger. “Enrichment Effects on Adult Cognitive Development: Can the Functional Capacity of Older Adults Be Preserved and Enhanced?” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 9, no. 1, Oct. 2008, pp. 1–65,


Hoare, Carol Hren. Erikson on Development in Adulthood: New Insights from the Unpublished Papers. Oxford UP, 2002.

Holman, Daniel, and Alan Walker. “Understanding Unequal Ageing: Towards a Synthesis of Intersectionality and Life Course Analyses.” European Journal of Ageing, vol. 18, Oct. 220, pp. 239–55,

Innes, Anthea. Dementia Studies: A Social Science Perspective. SAGE Publications Ltd, 2009.

Innes, Anthea, Fiona Kelly, and Louise McCabe, editors. Key Issues in Evolving Dementia Care: International Theory-Based Policy and Practice. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2012.

Järvilehto, Timo. “The Theory of the Organism-Environment System: I. Description of the Theory.” Tim, vol. 33, no. 4, Oct.–Dec. 1998, pp. 321–34.

Jörgensen, Sven. “Complex Ecology in the 21st Century.” Complex Ecology: The Whole-Part Relation in Ecosystems, edited by Bernard C. Patten and Sven E. Jörgensen, Prentice Hall, 1995, pp. xvii-xix.

Kail, Robert V., and John C. Cavanaugh. Human Development: A Life-Span View. 6th ed., Wadsworth, 2013.

Kaplan, Louise K. Oneness and Separateness: From Infant to Individual. Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Karelitz, Tzur, Linda Jarvin, and Robert J. Sternberg. “The Meaning of Wisdom and Its Development throughout Life.” Cognition, Biology, and Methods, vol. 1 of The Handbook of Life-Span Development, edited by Richard M. Lerner and Willis F. Overton, Wiley, 2010, pp. 837–81.

Kennedy, Quinn. “How to Maintain Good Cognitive Function in Late Adulthood.” Webinar, 24 April 2021.

Kitwood, Tom. Dementia Reconsidered, Revisited: The Person Comes First, edited by Dawn Brooker, 2nd ed., Open UP, 2019.

Langa, Kenneth M., Eric B. Larson, Eileen M. Crimmins, Jessica D. Faul, Deborah A. Levine, Mohammed U. Kabeto, and David R. Weir. “A Comparison of the Prevalence of Dementia in the United States in 2000 and 2012.” JAMA Internal Medicine, vol. 177, no. 1, Jan. 2017, pp. 51–58,

Lemke, Jay L. “Across the Scales of Time: Artifacts, Activities, and Meanings in Ecosocial Systems.” Mind, Culture, and Activity, vol. 7, no. 4, 2000, pp. 273–90,

Lerner, Richard M. Concepts and Theories of Human Development. 4th ed., Routledge, 2018.

---. “Urie Bronfenbrenner: Career Contributions of the Consummate Developmental Scientist.” Making Human Beings Human: Bioecological Perspectives on Human Development, edited by Richard M. Lerner and Urie Bronfenbrenner, Sage, 2005, pp. ix–xxvi.

Lindbergh, Reeve. No More Words: A Journal of My Mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Linell, Per. Rethinking Language, Mind, and World Dialogically: Interactional and Contextual Theories of Human Sense-Making. Information Age Publishing, 2009.

Lyman, Karen A. “Bringing the Social Back in: A Critique of the Biomedicalization of Dementia.” The Gerontologist, vol. 29, no. 5, Oct. 1989, pp. 597–605,

Madsen, Jens Coed, and Stephen Cowley, editors. Cognition, Language, and the Scales of Time. Special issue of Cybernetics and Human Knowing, vol. 21, no. 1–2, 2014.

Mlynarczyk, Rebecca Williams. “Making Meaning in (and of) Old Age: The Value of Lifelong Literacy.” Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, Nov. 2018, pp. 36–58,

Morell, Carolyn M. “Empowerment and Long-Living Women: Return to the Rejected Body.” Journal of Aging Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, Feb. 2003, pp. 69–85,

Mueller, Derek, Andrea Williams, Louise Wetherbee Phelps, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. Cross-Border Networks in Writing Studies. Inkshed / Parlor Press, 2017.

Norman, Geoffrey. Bouncing Back: How a Heroic Band of POWs Survived Vietnam. Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

O’Rand, Angela M. “Stratification and the Life Course: The Forms of Life-Course Capital and Their Interrelationships.” Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, edited by Robert Binstock and Linda K. George, 5th ed., Academic P, 2001, pp. 197–213.

Overton, Willis F. “Processes, Relations, and Relational-Developmental Systems.” Theory and Method, Vol. 1 of Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, edited by Willis F. Overton and Peter C. M. Molenaar, 7th ed., Wiley, 2015, pp. 9–62.

Overton, Willis F., and Peter C. M. Molenaar, editors. Theory and Method, Vol. 1 of Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, 7th ed.,Wiley, 2015.

Phelps, Louise Wetherbee. “Horizons of Transformation: When Age, Literacy, and Scholarship Meet.” Afterword. Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, Nov. 2018, pp. 170–84,

---. “Between Smoke and Crystal: Accomplishing In(ter)Dependent Writing Programs.” Afterword. A Minefield of Dreams: Triumphs and Travails of Independent Writing Programs, edited by Justin Everett and Cristina Hanganu-Bresch, WAC Clearinghouse / UP of Colorado, 2016, pp. 321–50.

---. Composition as a Human Science: Contributions to the Self-Understanding of a Discipline. Oxford UP, 1988.

Pinkert, Laurie A., and Lauren Marshall Bowen. “Disciplinary Lifecycling: A Generative Framework for Career Trajectories in Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies.” Composition Studies, vol. 49, no. 1, 2021, pp. 16–41.

Plassman, Brenda. L., Kenneth M. Langa, Gwenith G. Fisher, Steven G. Heeringa, David R. Weir, Mary Beth Ofstedal, James R. Burke, Michael D. Hurd, Guy G. Potter, Willard L. Rodgers, David C. Steffens, Robert J. Willis, and Robert B. Wallace. “Prevalence of Dementia in the United States: The Aging, Demographics, and Memory Study.” Neuroepidemiology, vol. 29, no. 1–2, 2007, pp. 125–32,

Prior, Paul. “How Moments Add Up to Lives: Flat CHAT Assemblage, Embodiment, and Lifespan Becoming.” SIG 10 Invited Symposium: Learning as Material Formation. EARLI 2019, Aachen, Germany, 15 Aug. 2019, pp. 1–31. ResearchGate,

---. “Setting a Research Agenda for Lifespan Writing Development: The Long View from Where?” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 52, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–19.

Ray, Ruth E. Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Life-Story Writing. UP of Virginia, 2000.

---. Endnotes: An Intimate Look at the End of Life. Columbia UP, 2008.

Reiff, Mary Jo, Anis Bawarshi, Michelle Ballif, and Christian Weisser, editors. Ecologies of Writing Programs: Program Profiles in Context. Parlor Press, 2015.

Restaino, Jessica. Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness. Southern Illinois UP, 2019.

Roozen, Kevin, and Joe Erickson. Expanding Literate Landscapes: Persons, Practices, and Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. Computers and Composition Digital Press / Utah State UP, 2017.

Rosenberg, Lauren. “‘Still Learning’: One Couple’s Literacy Development in Older Adulthood.” Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, Nov. 2018, pp. 18–35,

Rule, Hannah J. Situating Writing Processes. WAC Clearinghouse / UP of Colorado, 2019.

Rumsey, Suzanne Kesler. “Holding On to Literacies: Older Narratives of Literacy and Agency.” Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, May 2018, pp. 81–104,

Sabat, Steven R. Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford UP, 2018.

Scott-Maxwell, Florida. The Measure of My Days. Penguin, 1968.

Smith, Anna, and Paul Prior. “A Flat CHAT Perspective on Transliteracies Development.” Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, vol. 24, no. 100268, Mar. 2020, pp. 1–11,

Sörman, Daniel Eriksson, Jessica Körning Ljungberg, and Michael Rönnlund. “Reading Habits Among Older Adults in Relation to Level and 15-Year Changes in Verbal Fluency and Episodic Recall.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 9, no. 1872, Sept. 2018, pp. 1–10,

Southwick, Steven M., and Charney, Dennis S. Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, 2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 2018.

Spicker, Stuart F. “Gerontogenetic Mentation: Memory, Dementia and Medicine in the Penultimate Years.” Aging and the Elderly: Humanistic Perspectives in Gerontology, edited by Stuart F. Spicker, Kathleen M. Woodward, and David D. Van Tassel, Humanities Press, 1978, pp. 153–80.

Steffensen, Sune Vork, and Pedersen, Sarah Bro. “Temporal Dynamics in Human Interaction.” Cybernetics and Human Knowing, vol. 21, no. 1–2, Jan. 2014, pp. 80–97.

Stern, Yaakov. “Cognitive Reserve in Ageing and Alzheimer’s Disease.” Lancet Neurology, vol. 11, no. 11, Nov. 2012, pp. 1006–112,

Stern, Yaakov, Eider M. Arenaza-Urquijo, David Bartrés-Faz, Sylvie Belleville, Marc Cantilon, Gael Chetelat, Michael Ewers, Nicolai Franzmeier, Gerd Kempermann, William S. Kremen, Ozioma Okonkwo, Nikolaos Scarmeas, Anja Soldan, Chinedu Udeh-Momoh, Michael Valenzuela, Prashanthi Vemuri, Eero Vuoksimaa, and the Reserve, Resilience and Protective Factors PIA Empirical Definitions and Conceptual Frameworks Workgroup. “Whitepaper: Defining and Investigating Cognitive Reserve, Brain Reserve, and Brain Maintenance.” Alzheimer’s and Dementia, vol. 16, Jan. 2020, pp. 1305–11,

Teems, Yvonne R. “‘My Body Feels Old: Seniors’ Discursive Constructions of Aging-as-Disabling.” Review of Disability Studies, vol. 12, no. 2 & 3, 2016, pp. 1–16.

Thibault, Paul. “First-Order Languaging Dynamics and Second-Order Language: The Distributed Language View.” Ecological Psychology, vol. 23, no. 3, Jul. 2011, pp. 210–45,

Tinnell, John. “Post-Media Occupations for Writing Theory: From Augmentation to Autopoiesis.” Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology, edited by Sidney I. Dobrin, Routledge, 2012, pp. 122–42.

Tucker, Adrienne, and Yaakov Stern. “Cognitive Reserve in Aging.” Current Alzheimer Research, vol. 8, no. 3, June 2011, pp. 1–7,

Vaillant, George E. Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. Little Brown, 2002.

Wanless, Richard. Bouncing Back: Skills for Adaptation to Injury, Aging, Illness, and Pain. Oxford UP, 2017.

Wetherbee, Virginia. “The Golden Age of Eccentricity.” The American Scholar, Spring 1986, pp. 208–20.

---. “Life with Father, Life with Socrates.” The American Scholar, Autumn 1983, pp. 497–510.

---. The Parenting Game. Unpublished ms. Reconstructed by Louise Wetherbee Phelps, 2022.

---. The Rosetta Stone. Unpublished ms., 1958.

---. “Too Many Chiefs and No Indians.” Ladies’ Home Journal, no. January, 1951, pp. 121–22.

Winnicott, D. W. Home Is Where We Start From: Essays by a Psychoanalyst. Norton, 1986.

Zittoun, Tania, Jaan Valsiner, Dankeert Vedeler, João Salgado, Miguel M. Gonçalves, and Dieter Ferring. Human Development in the Life Course: Melodies of Living. Cambridge UP, 2013.




How to Cite

Phelps, L. W. (2023). Bouncing Back: Resilience and Its Limits in Late-Age Composing. Literacy in Composition Studies, 10(2), 1–37.