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Understanding long-standing illness among older people


  • Gooberman-Hill, Rachael
  • Ayis, Salma
  • Ebrahim, Shah


This paper describes a study of older people's interpretations of a survey question about long-standing illness, disability or infirmity. This and similar questions are frequently used in various studies and surveys that influence policy and planning. With population ageing and growing concern about the health of older people, we sought to examine the survey question's relevance to older people. Following-on from a cross-sectional survey of 999 people aged 65 and over in the UK, we explored their interpretations of the survey item by asking it in the context of in-depth interviews with 24 respondents. We found that few of our respondents subscribed to the constructs of long-standing illness, disability or infirmity that surveys often employ. Older people's descriptions of their health status in response to a "standard-issue" survey question are informed by their understandings of health itself as well as elements such as control, engagement with health service providers, time and ageing. This implies that questionnaire-based surveys may not only be unable to capture the meaning of chronic illness to older people, but also its prevalence. We conclude on a methodological note by reminding ourselves that answers to survey and in-depth interviews are narratives told about health status. As such, both represent many facets of social and cultural life, and are best assessed as "trustworthy" rather than "truthful".

Suggested Citation

  • Gooberman-Hill, Rachael & Ayis, Salma & Ebrahim, Shah, 2003. "Understanding long-standing illness among older people," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 56(12), pages 2555-2564, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:56:y:2003:i:12:p:2555-2564

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    Cited by:

    1. Andrews, Gavin J. & Cutchin, Malcolm & McCracken, Kevin & Phillips, David R. & Wiles, Janine, 2007. "Geographical Gerontology: The constitution of a discipline," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 65(1), pages 151-168, July.
    2. Rees, Philip Howell & Wohland, Pia N. & Norman, Paul D., 2009. "The estimation of mortality for ethnic groups at local scale within the United Kingdom," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 69(11), pages 1592-1607, December.


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