Year of Publication

2002

Document Type

Dissertation

College

Graduate School

Department

Gerontology

First Advisor

John Watkins

Abstract

Studies have supported the benefits of positive dietary behaviors in preventing or reducing morbidity and extending longevity, as well as the psychosocial function of dietary practices for quality of life. Research is needed though on the dietary behaviors of elders in general and older women in particular, for whom gender affects lifelong dietary patterns. Health behavior theory has typically focused on psychological factors, to the neglect of sociocultural processes. This investigation utilized a life course perspective, enhanced by social interactionist elements, to address aspects of development and change in behavior neglected by health behavior theories, such as temporal dimensions and social contexts. Using primarily an ethnographic approach centered on in-depth narrative interviews of 18 older women residing in a retirement community, this study explored how social milieu influences the development and progression of dietary behavior throughout life, the potential of life course transitions to modify dietary behavior, and how the retirement community environment shapes current dietary behavior. The interviews probed current dietary experiences and practices, as well as constructed histories of dietary behavior. Through the use of coding techniques and thematic analysis, themes and concepts that emerged from the data were organized for further analysis. Four levels of influence on dietary behavior were identified: 1) person factors, including psychological and physiological processes; 2) interpersonal relationships and social interaction; 3) social roles and statuses; and 4) contexts, particularly environmental, community policy and political economic contexts. Analysis additionally revealed four major food-related themes in the lives of the women: dietary morality, dietary wellness, dietary sociability and dietary duty. Interpretation of the findings, in terms of lifelong social experiences, the impact of relationships, roles and transitions, and structural characteristics of the retirement community that constrain or facilitate dietary practices, contributed to the development of a theoretical model. The research findings and model of life course influences on the nature of dietary behaviors of older women provide a more holistic understanding of dietary practices of older women and have implications for future research and practice, particularly as related to quality of life issues.

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