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Interview: Using Gender to Improve Services for Older Men


Dr. Tony Coles

Dr. Tony Coles

A new study shows that services for older men could be improved by paying more attention to their gender and to the impact of masculinity.

Tony Coles and Therese Vassarotti of the Australian Catholic University, Canberra, Australia, explored the affect of aging on men’s social identities. The researchers focused on the understanding of older men of themselves as male and masculine, and their connections and relationships with others. The research offers useful insights for those working with older men.

The findings appeared online in the Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging (January 10, 2012).

Dr. Coles is the National Executive Officer for the Australian Association of Gerontology. He was instrumental in establishing the National Alliance of Pastoral and Spiritual Care for Older People in Australia. His doctoral work focused on men’s health and aging issues.

AHB reached Dr. Coles in Melbourne, Australia.

Ruth Dempsey: Your research looks at how men negotiate their masculinity across the life course. How do you define masculinity?

Tony Coles: This is a difficult question. Countless books have been written on the subject and entire university courses dedicated to explaining men and masculinities, yet, there is no one definition. This is because the meaning of masculinity changes across cultures and over time, and it means different things to different people.

RD: These meanings are shaped by social and generational factors . . .

TC: That’s right. How men do masculinity is affected by a host of factors: class, ethnicity, health status, sexual orientation, geographical location, education and age.

But although men are influenced by their social environment, they are not passive agents. So, a combination of factors – structural and individual – shape men’s masculinities.

RD: What about dominant ideals of masculinity . . .

TC: In most western societies, the culturally dominant masculine ideal is one of men who are strong, youthful, able-bodied, and heterosexual. They are fearless, aggressive, and impervious to pain. They are rational, emotionally detached, and powerful.

Masculinity is personified by sports heroes and movie stars, and it is projected as the image of maleness to which all men are expected to aspire.

Of course, most men never meet these impossible standards. Instead, they negotiate what masculinity means for them in the context and circumstances of their own lives.

In my own research and interviews with men, I have never come across a gay man who felt as though he wasn’t masculine, even though the culturally dominant ideal of masculinity is one of heterosexual masculinity.

RD: As men age, lean muscular bodies become more difficult to maintain . . .

TC: You have hit on an aspect of my research that I have found particularly interesting: it deals with how men’s understanding of their masculinity – and what it means to them – shifts to accommodate change over time. In other words, the concept of masculinity has an elasticity that allows men to renegotiate what it means to them.

RD: So, some men said they still enjoyed going to the gym but they steered away from competitive sports. And others had become interested in intellectual pursuits.

TC: Yes. Instead of trying to fit the male body ideal, the men developed other strategies to compensate for their aging bodies.

Rather than seeing themselves as weak or vulnerable, traits characteristic of femininity, they saw their ability to draw on their wisdom and experience as strength; rather than viewing themselves as physically frail and passive, they saw themselves as intellectually active.

RD: You argue spirituality can be an important aspect of men’s identity. How so?

TC: We are all spiritual people. It is what makes us human. We ask ourselves: "Who am I?" "Why am I here?" "What is the meaning of my life?" These are human questions that challenge us to look deep within ourselves to understand our identity.

Spirituality is also about being able to connect with others and the external environment, including divinity, in search of enlightenment.

Yet the spirit is often a part of ourselves that we neglect. It only tends to be in times of crisis that we undertake soul searching to better understand ourselves and nurture our spirit.

For men, this may be further exacerbated by a cultural ideal that discourages men from reflecting on life or discussing their spiritual needs. In fact, it is precisely at times of vulnerability that men are expected to be stoic and self-reliant in order to get through the crisis.

RD: "Brian", a retiree in his early 70s talked about becoming more philosophical, more peace loving . . .

TC: There was a tendency amongst many of the older men in the study to reject standards of masculinity emphasizing stoicism and invulnerability and, instead, to negotiate what masculinity meant for them.

As Brian demonstrates, aging brings with it wisdom that allows one to reflect on life and develop a masculine sense of self that is more peaceful and reflective, and less aggressive and remonstrative.

RD: Services for older people have been dubbed "male unfriendly." Do you have any tips?

TC: I was at a conference recently where a presenter talked about men living in a residential aged-care facility and her attempts to engage them in conversational activities.

She introduced weekly talking sessions just for men (although facilitated by women). The group met informally over a cup of tea. To spark conversation, the facilitator would hold up a picture of an object, such as a tree or flower, and invite the men to share their thoughts and feelings on the subject.

Not surprisingly, the program wasn’t a huge success with the male residents. Just putting men together in the same room does not create a masculine environment. Men born around the time of the Great Depression do not regard conversations on subjects, such as flowers, while having a cup of tea as a particularly masculine activity – quite the reverse, in fact.

Some residential care facilities here in Australia have introduced a happy hour for men. At five o’clock in the afternoon, the men get together and have a beer and a chat before dinner. It has been hugely successful, and many of the men say that it is the highlight of their day.

Another program that has been extremely successful, particularly for older men, is "Men’s Sheds." The idea is that men like to talk shoulder-to-shoulder, not face-to-face. So providing a community shed for men to get together and work on projects (woodwork, metalwork, etc.,) provides a context for men to socialize and communicate in a way that is comfortable for men.

Some of the residential care facilities have built sheds on site for residents. At the same time, others prefer to take the men to sheds off site and get them actively participating in the community. Although the Men’s Shed movement started in Australia, the concept has gone international and there are now programs in Canada, too.