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Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 69 85

Empowerment and long-living women: return to the rejected body

Carolyn M. Morell*
Social Work Department, Niagara University, P.O. Box 1942, Lewiston, NY 14109, USA

Abstract Adhering to a feminist empowerment model, this article began as an attempt to elicit the voices of long-living women on the subject of late life. My intent was to develop understandings that could be used to guide social work interventions. Half way into the project, I discovered that our models of empowerment do not quite fit the realities of advanced age. I argue that feminists need to develop a more body-sensitive and thus age-sensitive model of empowerment. Rather than power and powerlessness being understood as polar opposites, they could be seen a coexistent and interpenetrating. Seeing the interplay of power and vulnerability subverts the individualistic ethic of successful aging with its implied hostility toward aging bodies. As empowerment theory becomes embodied, disability and death lose their stigma and become acceptable and respectable human experiences. D 2002 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Feminism; Empowerment; Women; Disability; Old; Social work

1. Introduction Empowerment is a central value of the social work profession and one I endorse. As a social work educator, I am committed to a perspective that focuses attention on peoples capacities and their opportunities for decision-making and social contributions. The assumptions underlying the concept of empowerment sharply contrast with problem-centered medical and therapeutic paradigms that see individuals through the lens of deficiency.

* Tel.: +1-716-775-0933; fax: +1-716-286-8518. E-mail address: (C.M. Morell). 0890-4065/02/$ see front matter D 2002 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved. PII: S 0 8 9 0 - 4 0 6 5 ( 0 2 ) 0 0 0 9 1 - 9


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Promoting an empowerment approach necessitates a recognition of resiliency and an understanding of peoples lives as understood and defined by themselves. Feminist perspectives are also important to my profession and to me personally. While there is much disagreement among feminists, the broad goal of feminist activity as I see it is the transformation of all relations of domination and subordination. Because much existing knowledge supports womens subordination by distorting or ignoring their lived experiences, feminist researchers like myself listen to women and describe their lives in ways that challenge the status quo (Morell, 1994). Feminism and empowerment are at the heart of this paper, but what follows here is not the paper I intended to write. Adhering to a feminist empowerment model, the manuscript began as an attempt to elicit the voices of elder women on the subject of late life that could be used to guide social work understanding and interventions with long living women. That guidebook has been postponed. What the project evolved into is a revealing document of the personal and theoretical struggles I encountered while trying to do the work I set out to do. I see now that feminist empowerment theory, as well as the persuasive voices of healthy long-living women, steered me away from exploring essential and troubling issues related to chronic illness, disability, and death. Intending to be empowering, I focused my interviews and readings on discovering the strengths, competencies, and contributions of women who are living late life. I had yet to discover that an age-conscious definition of empowerment requires embodiment. My unexpected personal story as a daughter deeply penetrated the outcome of this undertaking. I interviewed my mother, Carol, for this article. Two months after the interview, when the paper was half written, she became ill. One day I was wrestling with the abstractions of feminist theory; the next day I moved to New Jersey to help care for my mother, who became extremely weak while visiting my sisters home. After a months stay with my sister, Carol, my mother, returned to her own home following her own strong desire. My sister and I arranged in-home assistance. Two weeks later, despite everyones best efforts, our mother had a disabling fall and entered a Christian Science nursing home. Six months later, she died. My mothers experience, and my experience as a daughter, moved me to question the completeness of a feminist empowerment model in the context of late life. The second half of my paper focuses directly on incapacities, since I believe emphasizing strengths and deemphasizing physical weakness and disability is ultimately disempowering. To circumvent such troubling topics promotes cultural fears of bodily suffering (and thus of people who are old) as well as inadequate clinical and policy responses. Taken together, Part I and Part II of this paper affirm twin yet seemingly contradictory aspects of late life: expanding possibilities and limited bodies. At its conclusion, my work reflects on the importance of acknowledging the dynamic tension between strength and weakness, power and vulnerability. An age-conscious definition of empowerment requires that I do so. My explorations into the problematic of age and power were assisted by conversations with four women in their 90s, consideration of writings by long-living women and study of selected literature of feminist theorists of social work, age studies, and disability studies. I decided to limit my attention to women who are nearing or living the ninth decade of their

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lives since discussions about older women often do not discriminate between women in their 60s and women nearing their hundreds. This span of age seems too great to capture what patterns may be unique to long-living women. I imagine that the full force of ageism is most keenly felt by women in late age. My mother, Carol; my friend, Helen; Ida, a relative of a co-worker; and Thelma, a relative of a friend, graciously spent hours with me, sharing their experiences with and ideas about late life. Carol, Helen, and Ida are European-American women. At the time of our conversations, Carol, age 95, and Helen, age 93, each lived alone in her own suburban home. Ida, age 93, lived with her daughter and son-in-law in a pleasant suburb of Buffalo. Thelma, a woman of color, age 90, lived alone in her city home, surrounded by a large and loving family. At the time of the interviews, all four women were able-bodied. Given such a small sample size, I make no claim to scientific truth but rather use their stories to stimulate thinking about what empowerment might mean in the context of late life. In Part I, I begin with a review of empowerment as theorized by several feminists thinkers. Next, in related sections, I look at two key aspects of empowerment: self-definition and competence. What I find is that self-descriptions given by long-living women confront what Susan Wendell (1996) calls the rejected bodythe body associated with weakness, disability, and death. In Part II, I return to a discussion of empowerment, and with the help of feminist disability theorists, I argue that the frontier of late life empowerment is the transformation of disability (and death) into acceptable and respectable human experiences. This transition involves embodying our concept of empowerment.

2. Feminists on empowerment: competence, self-definition, and participation In Women, Feminism and Aging, social worker Collette Browne (1998) discusses empowerment specifically with and for older women. She reviews feminist perspectives on empowerment and finds that a key theme is self-definition. For example, both Patricia Hill Collins (1991) and Audre Lorde (1984) associate empowerment with the ability to define oneself rather than accepting definitions provided by dominant others. For individuals who are members of marginalized groups, self-definition in itself can be an act of true resistance and power (Browne, 1998, p. 220). Competence is another theme feminists (and others) relate to empowerment. A shift to observing competencies rather than focusing on deficits creates an optimistic view of the nature of human beings. People are seen as growing, changing, learning, and engaging in continuous interaction with their environments. Browne finds that feminists have altered the meaning of power, and thus empowerment. Power and empowerment . . . are reconceptualized by feminists as processes more than things, with a focus more on power as energy, potential, self-definition, and competence rather than domination, coercion, and competition. Hartsock (1985) sees the common thread in their understanding that power is a process rooted . . . not simply in womens experience but by the systematic pulling together and working out of the liberatory possibilities present in that experience (Browne, 1998, p. 215).


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Feminists understand that empowerment results when the experiences of those who have been marginalized are valued and affirmed and they have the opportunity to tell their own stories. In Carolyn Heilbruns (1988) terms, The true representation of power is not a big man beating a small man or woman but it is the ability to take ones place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have ones part matter (p. 18). Browne suggests a method for those interested in the empowerment of older women. It begins with listening to womenwhat is their view of themselves? Second, Browne suggests consulting the writings of older women, absorbing the perspectives that are offered, and acquainting oneself with the needs and possibilities they present to us. Finally, she says we must validate their standpoint (Browne, 1998). I am aware of the complexities of a standpoint approach and know it has been disputed extensively by feminists who raise questions about the epistemic advantages of oppressed groups and the plausibility of standpoint epistemologies (Wendell, 1996, p. 69). Efforts to describe late life women as a social group and to honor their experiences may disguise real differences among them given patterns of race and ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, disability, family background, and mothering or not-mothering. Of course, all categorization risks obscuring differences. But people who live into their 90s are perceived and perceive themselves as collectively distinct from younger people in certain key aspects, such as the strength of stigmatizing assumptions and growing discrimination based on advanced age and appearance. And this group is the target of special policies and programs, such as assisted living and long-term care. Their social location in life can provide information about patterns of opportunities and limitations less often experienced among other age groups. Skillful social work practices and appropriate social policies would appear to require their standpoint(s). Based on my conversations and readings, I have concluded that living into their 90s does not give women a particular point of view or even a less distorted perspective on aging than younger persons. What I do find is that long life creates the possibility of new perspectives that have epistemic advantages specifically with respect to matters of aging (Wendell, 1996, p. 73). Rich with possibility, these perspectives need further development and articulation. Using the assumptions and approach to empowerment articulated above, I begin interpretative work with the self-definitions of women who are living late life.

3. The politics of self-definition 1: de-centering the rejected body Many writers have explored the debilitating connotations of the word old. Many of these negative stereotypes and stigmas are directly related to what feminist disability theorist Susan Wendell (1996) calls the rejected body or the negative body. Wendell uses these phrases interchangeably to refer to those aspects of bodily life (such as illness, disability, weakness, and dying), bodily appearance (usually deviations from the cultural ideals of the body), and bodily experience (including most forms of bodily suffering) that are feared, ignored, despised, and/or rejected in a society and its culture (p. 85). The rejected body takes center stage in popular conceptions of old age that proliferate within the dominant culture of the United States.

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Not surprisingly, long-living women may respond angrily to having their lives defined as the negative opposite of everything their culture valueshealth, physical fitness, vigor, youth, and youthful attractiveness. Lynn Segal (1988) reminds us that the personal and subjective struggle of all oppressed people is one against being defined as inferior, marginal and deviant, in the language, discourse, myths and fantasies of the dominant culture (p. xi). Given this context, it is a common practice among long-living women to refuse customary understandings of old age and thus to de-center the rejected body as the defining characteristic of late life. Each woman I interviewed refused to consider herself old and associated being old with the rejected body. Following is an entry from my journal: It is early morning Easter Sunday. I am talking with Mom on my sisters porch. I tell her about the book I am reading, Youre Not Old Until Youre Ninety. Mom informs me that she is not old, that she is still doing what I did in my 60s and Im doing it better. Two weeks later, I talk with my friend Helen on the phone. I ask Helen if she considers herself old and the answer is no. When I ask Helen how she defines old her answer is dysfunctional. The following Monday I meet with Ida and her daughter, Eleanor. Ida tells me that to be honest, I dont feel it. I dont feel like Im real old that I cant do nothing. I think I can still do something, though I get a little bit wobbly. I begin to put two and two together: for these long living women, the subtext of old is inactivity, disability, incompetence. To be old is to be unable to function in some way, shape or form. To be old is to be unable to carry on. And all are indeed carrying on, with gusto. A few months later, I conversed with Thelma at her home. Thelma told me: I dont mind being called elderly, not old. Elderly sounds better (laughing). Old just sounds like (pause) not cooking anything and not being able to take a bath or keep your appearance up. Carol, Ida, Helen, and Thelma are active and competent, and therefore not old in their own eyes. And they are in good company with many other long-living women. Mary Pipher (1999) discovered that many of the people she interviewed for her research were uncomfortable talking about age and were unhappy to be labeled old: They said, I dont feel old. What they meant was I dont act and feel like the person who the stereotypes suggest I am (p. 42). In her book Youre Not Old Until Youre Ninety. . .Best to be Prepared However, Rebecca Latimer (1997) discusses her painful personal struggle with the negative view of herself as old as pictured through the eyes of others. I only see myself as others picture me and they dont see the actual me at all. Dont even glimpse it (p. 97). Latimers actual self is related to her unyielding spirit, growing interests, and expanding consciousness. For Latimer, a sense of personal power is achieved when she refuses to identify herself with her body. In summing up her advice to others on the subject of getting old, she states: Remember its your body thats aging, not you! (p. 174). The rejected body that women de-center is constantly being replaced upon them by others, against their wishes. I am reminded of my conversation with Helen about her travels with Elderhostel. At 93, she senses that others (younger others) are distancing themselves from her more and more as she gets older and older. She is able-bodied yet hesitates to sign up for


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further travel tours: Theres a whole group of people who dont want to be around you. They see your white hair and expect that you will fall, that you cant see. She described a situation that occurred on one of her trips where a woman in her late 80s was slow getting around. People didnt want to sit near her. Helen concludes: Its other peoples fear. They dont want to be around it (late age). Its like you have a disease that they might catch (Fig. 1). I see long-living womens flight from the rejected body as a political practice, a way of dignifying oneself within a social context that degrades. Women resist being identified with disability and (ultimately) death. They refuse to be the repository of others fears and denials, or to see themselves through the ageist lens that others do. Women may actively protest, like Helen, or disempower others perceptions through thinking practices. Carol told me that I dont think about other people thinking about me ever. Its my thinking about other people that matters. What I think about others is very crucial to my life, but what other people think about me doesnt bother me in the least. Helen also said at one point: If you think Im old,

Fig. 1. Helen in her living room chair.

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thats your problem! The long-living women I spoke with, and most of those I met through their writings, resisted being placed in a subordinated category. Helens Elderhostel story points out how old is a label assigned by younger people on the basis of appearance and function and does not accurately describe many womens subjective experience of age, which may not be body-centered. Rather, women in their 90s often describe feeling young or youthful because activities begun in their earlier years continue uninterrupted. In addition, their activities are commonly thought to be the prerogative of younger women. Lenore Friedman (1997), although 67, and therefore not yet a long-living woman, gives us a hint of what women older than she may experience. When confronting her own aging she speaks about her mind being confusingly young, 18 or 19, mixed up with 45. She feels no age at all and all ages at once, still identified with a young I (pp. 7172). Helen Nearing (1992), the author of Loving and Leaving the Good Life, reports thinking of herself as much younger than her years and remembers she is nearing 90 only when looking in the mirror. When I asked Ida how old she felt, she guessed about 70, but then, laughing, said she could not choose that age because her daughter is 70. At the time I interviewed my mother, before her troubles began, she felt as if she were in her 60s since she was not retired from professional life and she was living alone in her home of 57 years. Helen targeted the 70s as her subjective experience of age. She continues to be an active participant and host with Elderhostel, is the oldest student at Fresno State College, chairs the Newcomers Auxiliary, and volunteers at the local art museum. As women de-center the rejected body that is assigned by the culture and assumed by others, they replace it with descriptions of their abilities and activities. They emphasize that learning continues with new experiences, and capacities expand with lifes changes.

4. The politics of self-definition 2: centering the able self When I asked women I interviewed to tell me about their lives, they emphasized their abilities and related interests. When I spoke with my mother, Carol, 8 months before her death, she indicated that at the center of her world was her lifelong work as a Christian Science Practitioner, which began at the age of 19. Many people have depended on her abilities as a spiritual healer. Carol saw her advanced age as enhancing her effectiveness. As she told it, the diminishment of vitality she experienced in her 90s increased her understanding of and compassion for those she helped. In addition, her power to heal was intensified by her slower-paced lifestyle and the time and attention she committed to prayerful thought. Carol spent her mornings reading, and took great interest in world affairs. She told me: I read the Christian Science Monitor every day to see whats going on and then I do my work for the whole world, not just a few people but for everybody. And if they tune into it, they get it. Widowed in her late 40s, Thelma has lived alone for many years. She worked in a school cafeteria decades ago and told me she loves to cook because I love to eat. When I asked Thelma what she liked about being in her 90s, she said: I kind of like being the head of the


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family, the oldest one in the family, and everyone is so thoughtful of me. The eldest of her parents seven children, Thelma is an important person in her large, extended family and regularly sees three of her sisters and her many nieces and nephews. She is reaping the benefits of the contributions she had made to the lives of others. A daughter, whom she fostered since the age of three, visits Thelma and assists her with errands. Thelma is thankful that she can take care of her own house, cook her own meals, and go to church. In the summer she is fond of cutting grass, trimming hedges, and talking with neighbors. She used to read a lot, but because her eyesight is not as good as it once was, she listens to radio talk shows as she works around the house. She is interested in whats going on in the world, and she stays informed (Fig. 2). Central to Idas identity is her skill with handcrafts and her giving nature. In her teens, predating her career as a beautician, Ida learned to knit in Polish school and has been

Fig. 2. Thelma in her garden.

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knitting ever since. (She remembers that for 50 cents she was able to knit sweaters for all three of my kids.) At the present time, Ida has just finished 10 sets of matching scarves and hats and slippers for various grandchildren and great grandchildren. Throughout her life, people around her have been saying, Ida, sew me . . . I love doing things for other people and I love giving things to other people. When I make something, I dont mind sharing everything (I left her home with two knitted doves, one to send to my mother, and a crocheted angel.) (Fig. 3). For Helen, lifelong learning, community involvement, and spirituality are central to her sense of self. At last reading, she was taking a class in Pre-Columbian Art, serving on a scholarship committee at the local high school, preparing for a guest lectureship at a spiritual study group, and hosting an Elderhostel group. She is proud of her past presidency of the American Association of University Women, Burbank branch, and her recent presidency of the Fresno Newcomers Auxiliary, a group with over 200 members. Helen sent me the

Fig. 3. Ida in her living room chair.


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definition of an Elder circulated by The Live Oak Project. She does not like to be considered old but likes to be thought of as an elder: An Elder is a person who is still growing, still a learner, still with potential and whose life continues to have within it a promise for, and connection to the future. An Elder is still in pursuit of happiness, joy and pleasure, and her or his birthright to these remains intact. Moreover, an Elder is a person who deserves respect and honor and whose work it is to synthesize wisdom from long life experience and formulate this into a legacy for future generations. Women may continue to learn and grow in late life through their continuing abilities and expanding interests. And they continue to meet lifes challenges on a daily basis. For her study, The Older Woman: The Able Self, Kathleen Dee Ahern (1996), a nursing professor of community health, interviewed 20 European-American women age 85 and over living in two modest suburbs of New York City. Ahern describes how these women created meaning in their lives through activity. What emerged from her research were womens descriptions of the able self, capable of accomplishing daily tasks of living despite physical limitations. While some participants reported slowing down, all emphasized their abilities. They carried out their activities of living and engaging in work that had meaning for themselves and others. When necessary, they enlisted assistance from others while seeking to maintain significant control over their lives. In short, and importantly, many long-living women do not define themselves by their disabilities or limitations as society does. It is not that women do not perceive and experience disabilities, but these issues are not at the center of their self-definitions. The able self-identity aids and abets womens continuing activity. Ahern found some of the oldest participants in her study were quite resourceful in accomplishing what otherwise appeared to be impossible tasks. (I am reminded of an incident with my mother when she was 93. One winters morning after a bad storm hit Long Island, I called Mom and got no answer. I then called her neighbor to see if she would check on Carol. To my delight (and horror) my mother had climbed out of her second-story bedroom window onto the flat sun porch roof and was shoveling off the deep snow, afraid that the roof would be damaged by the snows weight). Ahern reminds us that women who are now in late life have faced many stresses. They have lived through world wars, economic depressions, and multiple losses of loved ones, and they have survived illnesses and personal difficulties. Many women have weathered these hardships and developed identities as able selves capable of dealing with lifes stresses. They have developed new capacities, changed the environment, and/or reorganized the self so that there is meaning and purpose to living that transcends difficult experiences (Ahern, 1996, p. 81). The self-definitions of long-living women described here undermine the very categories of age which guide my research. When women in their 90s are actively involved in life, they are often described by themselves and others as youthful. Yet they are not young in years. Late life includes experiences that are assigned to youthsuch as maintaining a busy social life, having others depend on you for emotional and practical supports, being physically and sexually active, or being interested in world affairs, romance, and soap operasbut actually

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these activities occur across the life course. Conversely, people who are young in years may have negative bodily experiences that make them feel old. For instance, I have a friend who at the age of 38 had a stroke; he refers to his experience as power aging. The de-centering of the rejected body and the centering of the able self by long-living women creates a conundrum similar to a Zen Koan. What is young? What is old? All usual considerations are reversedoldness incorporates youth just as youth does age. Chronology and experience are not coterminous. And, of course, there is always a distribution of energy, activity, and ability in whatever age category is under consideration. Florida Scott-Maxwell provides a summary: We who are old know that age is more than a disability. It is an intense and varied experience, almost beyond our capacity at times, but something to be carried high. If it is a long defeat it is also a victory, meaningful for the initiates of time, if not for those who have come less far (Scott-Maxwell, 1968, p. 5).

5. Questioning empowerment Personal Journal Entry Dated 6/10/99 Im concerned about where my paper is heading. What I like about the empowerment approach Ive taken is that it produces information that challenges false and biased theories about the competence and talents of long-living women. But something seems amiss. Im reinforcing an ideal image of women as powerful and capable, making powerlessness and incapacity somehow a failing. Where does this strategy leave me in the face of my mothers recent illness and her lack of energy and competence and potential? By elevating energy and vitality, am I belittling frailty? By focusing on strengths, am I implying that only women who are competent and contributing are worthwhile? Do we in social work need to stop privileging power over powerlessness? I feel like my attempt to empower long-living women is collapsing. 6. Embodying empowerment: embracing the rejected body My personal experience, my readings, and my interviews tell me that for social workers and others to emphasize abilities and de-emphasize disabilities is both incomplete and deeply problematic: such an approach reinforces everyones flight from the rejected body. Positively valuing abilities reinforces disability as negative and extends the fear, ignorance, and hatred of aged bodies which fuels disempowerment in the first place. Individual fear and shame and silences follow. A social environment hostile to peoples real needs remains unchallenged. Said simply, empowerment theory and practice with long-living women must recognize and deal with the bodily changes that are authentically connected to aging (Hillyer, 1998). Wendell says it clearly in the following remarks: Aging is disabling. Recognizing this helps us to see that disabled people are not the other, that they are really us. Unless we die suddenly, we are all disabled eventually. Most of us will live part of our lives with bodies that hurt, that move with difficulty or not


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at all, that deprive us of activities we once took for granted or that others take for granted, bodies that make daily life a physical struggle. We need an understanding of disability that does not support a paradigm of humanity as young and healthy. Encouraging everyone to acknowledge, accommodate and identify with a wide range of physical conditions is the road to self-acceptance as well as the road to liberating those who are disabled now. (Wendell, 1996, p. 66) And, I would add, it is the road to empowering long-living people and all who follow behind on the same road. Here is the bottom line: people of all ages need to accept aspects of aging that are disabling and resist disability as negative. Frailty is an unalterable given in human existence. At all ages, people face the possibility of illness, injury, and destruction (Gadow, 1986). To be flesh is to be fragile. Celebrating strengths can inadvertently dishonor weaknesses. Hence, focusing on empowerment can seriously misrepresent the human condition and create stigma and unnecessary human suffering. Honoring our bodies involves embracing and appreciating both abilities and disabilities. When the rejected body is reclaimed, a primary cultural myth is toppledthe myth that the body can be controlled. Contrary to popular notions of successful aging, which translate into a rejection or postponement of physical aging, few people can prevent disability and no one can avoid death. When we understand that the body is not controllable, those who cannot control their bodies will no longer be seen as responsible for their limitations or as examples of unsuccessful aging. In my role as a social worker, I want to retain empowerment as a value that guides my practice. What I have learned from employing a feminist empowerment approach in my writing and from conversations with women is that social workers would do well to develop a more body-sensitive and thus age-sensitive model of empowerment. Such a model would necessarily be more dialectical. Rather than power and powerlessness being understood as polar opposites that exist in hierarchical relation, they would be seen as coexistent and interpenetrating. As Mairs (1996) says: Binary thinking is merely a habit of mind, and despite the comfort of order and familiarity it offers, it doesnt apprehend reality, which is, lets face it, a frightful jumble(p. 13). In Mairs scenario, there would be no privileging of power over powerlessness, strength over weakness. Each category would be seen as necessary to the other. While elaboration and application of this body-conscious conceptualization of empowerment will necessarily be a long-term collective project, two interrelated paths to this goal suggest themselves. One path involves thinking dialectically, the other involves changing the social environment to accommodate the uncontrollable body. First, rather than focusing exclusively on strengths and abilities of women who are living late life as I did here, the focus of social work research and clinical practice could be on the interplay between a womans consciousness and body, her spirit and flesh, her strengths and weaknesses, her abilities and disabilities, her life and eventual death. Womens bodily based limitations could be seen as significant to whatever stories women tell (Hillyer, 1998). As power and vulnerability are understood dialectically, frailty is seen as containing within it the possibility of its apparent opposite (Gadow, 1986). Conversely, power is seen as subject to

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depletion. Such a reformulation of empowerment leads researchers and clinicians to investigate the intersection of power and powerlessness in womens lives, honoring them both since they are interconnected. For example, we could inquire into how dealing with age-related physical changes can stimulate mental, emotional, moral, and spiritual growth. We can acknowledge and make concrete how women cultivate the demanding arts of acceptance, adjustment, and appreciation (Wendell, 1999, p. 146). This kind of information is largely unavailable. At the same time that we develop our social work knowledge base, we will be recognizing the wealth of information which long-living women have that can help others to know what to expect and how to deal with the changes time brings. We need to document the creativity and inventiveness that long life entails, along with and related to probable physical limitations. Seeing power and powerlessness as a dialectic leads to an embodied empowerment, an acceptance and appreciation of the previously rejected body. A couple of examples may help make my point. A few months ago, I heard Houston Smith (1999) being interviewed on public radio. He spoke about shattering the polarities of illness and health as he shared stories about living with a severe hearing impairment. He described how his effectiveness as a teacher at the University of California was directly enhanced by his limited body. Lecturing to hundreds of students in a large auditorium, he was unable to hear students questions even with the assistance of two hearing aids. He developed a practice of leaving the stage and traveling down through the aisles to speak with students face to face. This simple practice transformed the classroom from an impersonal to an intimate environment and intensified learning. He closed his remarks about this experience with the following statement: What exactly is illness? What exactly is health? This is just one example of how illness can be health. Importantly, Houstons story about living with a disability was not a simple loss is gain narrative. He also spoke about loss is loss when he mentioned his wistfulness about no longer being able to hear birds singing. Disability is limitation and possibility. A second example of how accepting disability as potential and/or reality can lead to increases in ability was offered during the 1999 Obermann Center for Advanced Studies Summer Research Seminar on Late Life at the University of Iowa by Kathleen Buckwalter, Associate Provost for Health Sciences and Professor of Gerontology and Nursing. Buckwalter described how nurses are teaching men and women who are at-risk of falling how to fall in the safest possible way, minimizing the risks of seriously disabling conditions. Men and women practice falling with the assistance of nursing professionals, learning the skill of falling well. Another path to embodied empowerment involves focusing on the social environment and needed social changes. Seeing the interrelationship of power and vulnerability subverts the individualistic ethic of successful aging with its implied hostility toward decay. The popular emphasis on individual successful aging eclipses the collective needs of long-living people. Ida, Helen, and Thelma share the need for supportive social programs which are attractive and dignifying as they continue their life journeys. They also need safe conditions as their bodies weaken. In June of 1999, my mother was living alone in her own home. In July of 1999, given her fall, she was unable to live alone and needed nursing care. She faced major changes in her situation. Her personal strengths were more apparent than ever within the context of


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disability, yet her body was weak and out of her control. Nearing death, her spirit was clearly alive and well, but she needed full-time care. Ida told me that if you are healthy, ambitious, late life is swell. It really is. Her life now is good and she is surrounded by a large and caring family. One of the two times she became tearful during our conversation was when she talked about how much her home meant to her. Without my home Id be lost. Lost. There, you see, you are making me cry! (laughing). Will she and her family be socially supported in her desire to live out her life at home? Helen lives alone in her condominium home and wonders if she will need to move at some point. What options does she have? She lives in fear of having to go to a nursing home and losing her say so. She cannot afford to pay US$3000 a month for the life care community in California that attracts her. You pay for those fancy chandeliers. Many elders wish to age in place and to do so requires safe housing and safe neighborhoods. At several points in my discussion with Thelma, she mentioned the issue of safety. She feels less safe since the house most adjacent to hers was torn down by the City. It feels empty around here, you know, so much space. It feels lonesome and not too safe. In summary, we all need safe homes and neighborhoods, affordable and desirable longterm care facilities, assisted living opportunities, attendant services that do not promote feelings of failure and shame, and various in-home support services. These critically important human needs will remain neglected at the policy level as long as the rejected body is feared and ignored.

7. Conclusion Thus, I return to the values of the social work profession, empowerment, and feminism. Developing an empowering social work practice with long-living women is critically important and yet presents a distinct challenge for social workers. As I have discovered writing this paper, our models of empowerment dont quite fit the realities of advanced age. Feminists define power as energy, potential, self-definition, and competence (Browne, 1998, p. 215) and emphasize strengths, energetic action, and the overcoming of limitations (Ahern, 1996). Yet human beings are powerless as well as powerful: we get sick, our bodies become weak, and we die. Because of the debilitating cultural meanings of old age as bodily deterioration and medical practices that promote biology as destiny, feminist-identified social workers (like myself) are reluctant to emphasize disempowering aspects of embodiment for fear of perpetuating sexist and ageist views. While a medical model is clearly inappropriate because it targets embodiment to the exclusion of empowerment, empowerment models often focus on power to the exclusion of embodiment. Thus, human fragility is not honored and affirmed. Wendells (1999) statement is to the point: Aging is not always and never just about being sick or dying, but it is also these (p. 135). In Doris Grumbachs (1998) words, infirmity is a familiar, a predictable and inevitable ingredient of an aged body (p. 84). And so advanced age brings new potentials and vulnerabilities as well.

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I suggest, first, that feminists need to embody empowerment and, second, that the frontier of late life empowerment is the de-stigmatization of disability and death and their transformation into acceptable and respectable human experiences. A dialectical approach to empowerment integrates power and powerlessness, strength and weakness, life energy and death. Seeing the interplay of power and vulnerability subverts the individualistic ethic of successful aging with its implied hostility toward bodily aging and focuses instead on the need for accommodation and changes in the social world. The women I talked with for this essay make it clear that an empowerment model is appropriate and desirable. When I spoke with them they all expressed energy, potential, selfdefinition and competence (Browne, 1998). Yet I have learned that to emphasize only those aspects of aging is to augment hostility towards the less-than-energetic, less-than-competent body. As women elders tell us, we are bodies and consciousness and spirit. To see only one

Fig. 4. Carols living room chair.


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aspect is to violate our completeness. We are all, every one of us, a body/mind/spirit who is part of a common world characterized by the passage of time (Moody, 1992, p. 231). Empowerment requires recognition of this fullness of being (Fig. 4).

Acknowledgements The first draft of the paper greatly benefited from the suggestions of my colleagues at the remarkable seminar on aging that took place at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa. Thank you all. I also thank Larry Flood and June Licence for helpful comments and editorial assistance. My greatest thanks go to Thelma, Ida, Helen, and Carol for their generosity in sharing their stories and knowledge with me.

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Carolyn M. Morell is an Associate Professor of Social Work and Coordinator of the Women Studies Minor at Niagara University, Lewiston, NY. She is author of Unwomanly Conduct: The Challenges of Intentional Childlessness, and has published numerous articles focused on womens health issues and feminist social work practice. She also writes on social work theory and pedagogy. She is presently engaged in ethnographic research with long-living women.