• ageism;
  • discourses;
  • Foucault;
  • nursing practice;
  • older people;
  • social constructionism;
  • theories of old age

phelan a. (2011) Socially constructing older people: examining discourses which can shape nurses’ understanding and practice. Journal of Advanced Nursing67(4), 893–903.


Aim.  In this discussion paper, the construct of ageing is examined, not only as a process in human life, but also as a defined, taken for granted phenomenon in which particular assumptions can implicitly insinuate themselves into nursing practice.

Background.  Older people are a growing sub-group in global populations who regularly interface with nurses. However, older people can be devalued in society through attitudes, practices and beliefs engendered in discourse. As an institution in society, nursing can be influenced by such negative discourses.

Data sources.  A literature search was undertaken using the CINAHL and PUBMED databases using the terms ‘older people and theories of ageing’, ‘ageism and health care professionals’, and ‘social policy and older people’ for the years 2002–2009. Seminal works, which were frequently cited in journal articles, were also reviewed. In addition, the scholarly works of Michel Foucault were examined.

Discussion.  Using a Foucauldian approach, this paper argues that perspectives on older people can be constituted through multiple, complex social discourses, which have tangible consequences in nursing practice. Power operates in discursively producing subject positions of older people and associated subjectivities which can shape nursing practice.

Implications for nursing.  Discourses of ageing can locate older people as disempowered, vulnerable and dependent and may deny nurses’ ability to constitute older people in alternative subject positions.

Conclusion.  The taken for granted discourses of ageing can implicitly affect how nurses interact with older people. It is important that all nurses are cognizant of the consequences of such discourses in practice.