Successful ageing

"Having the time of my life": An exploratory study of women with intellectual disability growing older.

Project team

Prof Gwynnyth Llewellyn
Ms Angela Dew


Women with intellectual disability represent a growing sub group of older Australians. The most recent census figures of 1998 suggest there were 79,000 plus women over the age of 65 years with intellectual disability in Australia (AIHW, 2003). These women are typically described as having a double disadvantage – being a woman and having a disability (Nosek & Hughes, 2003). In short, they experience disablist attitudes and discrimination due to their disability and as they get older the adversity to which all women are exposed: the death of one’s parents or other close family members, ill health and poverty (Gill & Brown, 2000). Many in the current generation of older people have also experienced little schooling, institutionalisation often at an early age, and marginalisation from the mainstream of society. Faced with these hardships, older women with intellectual disability could be forgiven if they had a bleak outlook on life. However an exploratory study we conducted with a small group of older women with intellectual disability living in the northern suburbs of Sydney, Australia reveals a different picture. We discovered considerable resilience in these women and a positive outlook on ageing.


In the face of limited knowledge about the lives of older Australian women with intellectual disability our aim in the present study was to explore how a group of women living in metropolitan Sydney experienced and understood their lives in late adulthood.


In keeping with this exploratory aim we chose a qualitative design involving semi-structured interviews which we tape recorded. We interviewed 13 women with intellectual disability between the ages of 55 and 82 years old with a mean age of 68 years. The women lived in a range of home situations with most living in rented units or townhouses either on their own or with one other person. The women were recruited through contact with two large non-government service providers offering accommodation support and two advocacy services for people with intellectual disability in the northern suburbs of Sydney, Australia.

The interviews were based on a semi-structured interview protocol, the details of which can be found in Walsh & Le Roy (2004). In brief, the interview protocol contained 103 questions in four areas selected from the extensive literature on successful ageing using the work by Rowe & Kahn (2004) as an organising framework. The key areas were economic and personal safety net, health, social roles, and well-being.

At the same time as we were conducting this study colleagues in eighteen countries around the world were engaged in similar interviews as part of an international effort to better understand the lives of older women with intellectual disability in different contexts and cultures. The cross cultural comparison data from this larger study gathered by semi-structured questionnaire are reported in Walsh and Le Roy (2003). Data pertinent to the North American and Irish women are reported in LeRoy et al (2004).

Findings and Implications

The picture that emerged from their interviews was, by and large, of women who had meaningful, productive and sustainable lives. A number of the women felt their lives were better now than when they were younger because they had more autonomy and leisure living in the community, rather than earlier in their lives when they were living in institutions or under the control of their families. The women were remarkably optimistic and felt good about themselves. They told us they had people who cared about them, they felt welcome in their community, had a sense of control over their everyday life and that they did not want anything to change.

The women we interviewed believed themselves to be ageing well and when we analysed their interviews in relation to the literature on successful ageing, we could not help but agree. In looking for reasons as to why these women, who had faced more than their fair share of difficulties throughout their lives, were ageing well, we identified resilience as a key factor.

We believe that there are lessons for other women with disability, and those who provide them with support, to be learnt from these women’s lives. These include the importance of creating and maintaining strong networks with family, friends and neighbours and engaging in activities, which promote social connectedness within a local community. Strong networks and purposeful activity were the influencing key factors reported by the older women with intellectual disability in this exploratory study.


Noonan Walsh, P., & LeRoy, B. (2004). Women with Disabilities Aging Well: A Global View. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

LeRoy, B.W., Noonan Walsh, P., Kulik, N., & Rooney, M. (2004). Retreat and Resilience: Life Experiences of Older Women with Intellectual Disabilities. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 109(5), 429-441.

Related Publications

Dew, A., Llewellyn, G., & Gorman, J. (2006). Having the time of my life: and exploratory study of women with intellectual disability growing older. Healthy Care for Women International, 27(10), 908-929.

Llewellyn, G., Balandin, S., Dew, A., & McConnell, D. (2004). Promoting healthy, productive ageing: Plan early, plan well. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 29(4), 366-369.