Theorising Sleep Practices and Later Life: Moving to Sheltered Housing

by Eileen Fairhurst
Manchester Metropolitan University

Sociological Research Online 12(5)10

Received: 9 Jan 2007     Accepted: 20 Aug 2007    Published: 30 Sep 2007


This paper re-analyses data from a study of older people and sheltered housing which combined textual analysis of professional discourse with interviews. There were only two references salient to 'sleep' in that paper and I offered no analytic comment upon them. At that time, then, sleep as a sociologically interesting topic, was, for me a taken for granted matter. It is that taken for grantedness that is examined here. On being invited to contribute to this special issue, I went back to the original data and interrogated it for 'sleep'. I realised that, with this different concern, the texts and interviews contained much more about the 'doing' of sleep in later life than I had appreciated, especially where, when and how sleeping practices occur. Sleeping 'upstairs' or 'downstairs', in a single- or double-bed and on which side of the bed were all matters of relevance when older people were considering a move to sheltered housing. Older people's own sleeping practices are contrasted with those offered in texts produced by architects designing sheltered housing. The paper concludes by considering the methodological implications of re-analysing research materials for emerging sociological topics and by giving pointers to future research on sleep practices in later life.

Keywords: Later Life, Re-Analysis, Sheltered Housing, Sleep Practices, Upstairs/downstairs


1.1 This paper re-analyses data from a study of older people and sheltered housing conducted in the early 1990s which combined textual analysis of professional discourse of architects with thematic interviews. In doing so, it has a dual substantive and methodological intent. In relation to the former, its purpose is to add to the developing corpus of knowledge on the sociology of sleep and, specifically, theorising sleep practices in later life. Methodological concerns are to outline and reflect upon the ‘doing’ of re-analysis and to consider pointers to further study of sleep practices in later life.

1.2 One of the purposes of the original study was to examine designers and older people’s different perspectives on space utilisation in sheltered housing (Fairhurst 2000). The study overall was intended to be an ethnography of the development of a sheltered housing complex in order to describe the experiences of older people who moved home in later life. Sited in a northern English industrial city, the development was by a voluntary organisation. Tape-recorded interviews took place with sixteen men and women who had been informed by the voluntary organisation that accommodation had been reserved for them. Of these, one widow, one man and one woman all living alone and three couples had applied directly to the housing association; the remaining seven individuals, three couples and one widow, had been local authority nominations to the housing association. Interviews took place in participant’s own homes and, in the case of couples, separately and concurrently by myself and another researcher. All names used are pseudonyms.

1.3 My aim was to conduct interviews with prospective tenants over a period of time: before seeing the accommodation, after visiting the flat to which they had been allocated, after moving in to it and then spending some time as a participant observer. In order to put the development’s architect's views into a professional context, a textual analysis of professional literature was undertaken. Unfortunately, matters beyond my control prevented the completion of the study as originally envisaged. This paper re-analyses interviews from the first two stages of the study so that, though older people had visited the development’s show flat, they had not yet moved into their new accommodation. The professional texts examined in the original paper (Fairhurst 2000) also are re-analysed.

1.4 In addressing space utilisation in sheltered housing that original paper pinpointed two common sense usages of home, as a physical location and as a location in space, in the differing orientations of designers of sheltered housing and older people. Conventionally home is a space in which material objects such as furniture, pictures, books and domestic equipment are placed and social activity takes place. For designers, space is not only something to be fashioned but also to be utilised by imposing a form/structure upon it; for the latter, the predicament is what objects to take as both their size and number far outweigh the available space for their location. Moreover, for architects, space is logically prior to objects for until something is ‘done’ to or with space there is no place to put objects. For older people, though, this relationship is reversed; their objects predate the space created by the architect so that objects are logically prior to space.

1.5 These temporal matters linked into different perspectives of designers and older people on home which were explicated in terms of Schutz’s (1964) notion of anonymous typifications. When designing sheltered housing, architects considered the future and predicted the needs of older people. As interaction takes different forms, so do typifications: according to the kind of relationship involved, some are more anonymous than others. A consequence of this is that the more anonymous the typificatory construct is, the less it can convey unique features of an individual's personality and behaviour. In the case of sheltered housing this category of anonymised older person is contained in the design brief and relates not only to activities to be engaged in by older people but also to the number and types of objects to be placed in their rooms. For instance, when sheltered housing provision was either in terms of a bed-sitting room or a one bed-roomed flat it was assumed that single people would not use a double bed and that a widow or widower would not want to bring the marital bed with her/him or be used in that bed space. The textual analysis of designers’ discourse enabled me to demonstrate the ways in which different anonymous typifications of older people were evident in designs for special accommodation for older people.

1.6 It was shown that these anonymous typifications were connected to the category of ‘vulnerability’. In the 1960s vulnerability was assumed to be an aspect of the ageing body. That focus on the ageing body and its implied physical degeneration, with its attendant restriction of social life, underpinned the ways in which designers approached their task. They assumed a reduced living space would be needed by older people so that they emphasised its ergonomic usage in order to make life 'as easy as possible' within the home. By the 1990s the view of vulnerability as consequent upon activity outside the home shifted designers to a concern not so much with protecting old people from themselves but from others, particularly vandals. Since designers did not have access to knowledge of unique features of potential residents, design could only be informed by abstract knowledge as evidenced in typifications. A consequence of this was that ideas about space and its utilisation remained at a rather general level.

1.7 By contrast, prospective residents, when talking about how they intended to use their new space in sheltered housing, brought to bear onto their appraisals aspects of their own biographies. Designers inevitably were excluded from such knowledge. Older people’s talk of domestic objects to be taken to a new home called upon such biographical details. Whereas for older people memories were both things and elaborated in things, for designers objects were things: no more and no less.

1.8 There were only two references to sleep practices my original paper. One, on placement of beds, in my textual analysis of professional discourse and I offered no analytic comment upon it (Fairhurst 2000: 768). The other was from an older person, Mrs Knight who referred to interrupted sleep in the data extract I gave.

When I first came to this house I knew I was going to get it and I didn't feel strange in it As soon as I walked in I knew. I can walk round this house even in the middle of the night and I'm not afraid. In the night-I can't sleep well, I've been ill myself- if I hear a noise or go to the toilet I can walk in the dark and I'm not afraid. Now what I'm going to do down there (to sheltered housing) I don't know. It will be smaller and they'll have the alarms on. (Fairhurst 2000: 773)

1.9 The analysis offered of that data was in terms of Mrs Knight’s orientations to ‘safety’ and ‘security’. She pinpointed those features of night time happenings, conventionally treated as potential threats to a person’s safety but she was not afraid, when her sleep was broken, of walking around her unlit familiar home in the middle of the night.

1.10 At that time, then, sleep as a sociologically interesting topic was, for me, a taken for granted matter. It is that taken for grantedness which will be examined here. On being invited to contribute to this special issue, I went back to the original data and interrogated it for ‘sleep’. I realised that, with this different concern, my research materials contained much more about the ‘doing’ of sleep in later life than I had appreciated. Indeed, it will be seen that Mrs Knight’s account was peppered with talk about sleep practices.

1.11 The remainder of the paper considers the literature on sleep practices and later life and its connection to how data re-analysis was undertaken. (For a wider sociological examination of sleep see Williams 2005) A re-analysis of texts by designers of sheltered housing is then offered. This is followed by an examination of older people’s theorising sleep practices, especially where, when and how they occur. Sleeping ‘upstairs’ or ‘downstairs’, in a single- or double-bed and on which side of the bed were all matters of relevance in older people’s accounts of moving to sheltered housing. Older people’s own sleeping practices are contrasted with those offered in designers’ texts. Just as in the original paper (Fairhurst 2000), it is not just the content of differences which are important but rather what they might tell us about theorising sleep. The paper concludes by considering methodological implications of re-analysing research materials not only for emerging sociological topics but also for previously presented analyses and by giving pointers to the further sociological study of sleep practices in later life

Sociology of sleep and later life and re-analysing data

2.1 Just as when I wrote the original paper there was relatively little literature to draw upon (eg Rowles 1978, Harper 1987, Laws 1997, Harper and Laws 1995and Fairhurst 1997) so is this the case in relation to sleep and later life. Indeed, much of the present literature on housing of older people and use of space fails to discuss sleep except in passing if raised by research participants. (Kellaher 2002, Peace 2002) Nevertheless, it is possible to identify three themes within the relatively sparse literature, namely, the public/private distinction, discourses of ‘successful’ ageing and the place of activity within it and the gendered nature of sleep in mid-life.

2.2 Taylor (1993) employed the public/private distinction to contrast the different ‘interactive’ features of sleep between young and old so that he suggests, with age, sleep becomes ‘more private’. He notes

A necessary rite de passage of growing up is therefore the right to be first left alone unobserved when sleeping, and then achieving the right to go to sleep at a time, if not a period of one’s choosing. Few adults, therefore, have their sleep observed in this way, except, interestingly enough, during those periods which interactionist sociology indicates as regenerating childlike status in their adult inmates. (Taylor 1993: 466)

2.3 Lee-Treweek’s (1994) identification of what she terms the ‘lounge standard resident’ in residential homes for older individuals is a consequence of institutional control of everyday activities noted by Taylor above. Becoming a ‘lounge standard resident’, however, is contingent upon an older person losing control over the time at which to get up out of bed and disregarding their own sleeping practices. ‘Getting residents up’ is a part of care work. Interestingly, Twigg’s (2000) study of care work as body work has no listing in the index for either ‘sleep’ or ‘bed’.

2.4 Whilst Taylor (1993) links the right to choose when to sleep with being an adult, the discourse of ‘successful’ ageing rests on different assumptions of the place of sleep in adult life. Within this discourse, successful ageing is contingent upon being ‘active’ and, by implication, it could be argued that being asleep prevents/limits activity. Although sleep practices were not Jolanki’s (2004) exclusive concern, they are apparent in her work on discourses of ageing. She points to two contrasting models: a fatalistic one in which ageing is inevitable and a successful one in which activity is retained and maintained. Controlling sleep, by not falling asleep, during the day was seen by Jolanki’s participants as a demonstration of being active and ‘fighting’ the onset of old age. She shows how moral argumentation about sleeping during the day is a feature in older people’s discourse. Paradoxically, then, that connection of the right to choose when to sleep with being an adult may not be as clear as Taylor suggests. Jolanki’s research suggests that older people may use sleeping practices as part of cultural knowledge about older people being active to morally assess their own and other’s successful ageing. In this sense, then, resistance to ‘dropping off’ to sleep is part of the armoury to be called upon to ‘successfully’ age.

2.5 Unlike others, Hislop and Arber (2003a, 2003b) have explicitly focused on the topic of sleep in mid life and particularly its gendered features. For mid-life women sleep is characterised by disruption associated with

…the physical and emotional labour involved in caring for children, young babies, as well as by teenage children coming in late, menopausal symptoms, waking up to go to the toilet, partner snoring or restlessness, work or environmental factors. Hislop and Arber 2003a: 699
They go on to identify a range of strategies such as exercise, reading or a hot drink which women use to minimise the consequences of these matters.

2.6 The literature considered here, though limited, raises general theoretical issues about where, when and how sleeping practices occur. Such matters informed the re-analysis of my original data. Both professional texts and transcribed interviews were re-analysed by using analytic induction which involves searching for deviant cases and using the method of constant comparison (for an elaboration, see Silverman 1993). Consequently, data extracts presented have been chosen for their theoretical import rather than primarily in terms of frequency. Such an approach enables an exploration of older people’s theorising sleep practices through talk on going ‘upstairs’ to bed, sleeping in the double bed and the bed, caring and being bed-ridden.

Sleep practices and re-analysis of designers’ texts

3.1 In the 1960s the Ministry of Housing and Local Government regularly issued guidelines on standards to be met for local authority housing. These were published as housing circulars under the title of Design Bulletins and those specifically on housing for older people were analysed in my original textual analysis (Fairhurst 2000). I argued that their place in professional discourse was indicated in at least two ways. Firstly, because until relatively recently sheltered housing was built almost exclusively by local authorities and therefore Design Bulletins assumed an authoritative status. Ideas espoused in them about extent of and use of space became the reference point for designers and set out the boundaries of relevance in the design of sheltered housing. Secondly, an edited and bound collection of Design Bulletins relating to housing for older people was published in 1974. These specific Design Bulletins, which in their original form were printed on flimsy paper, were seen, then, to be of sufficient importance to merit publication in an accessible form. It is to this collection that page references will be made in this paper. Although the publication of central government guidelines for local authority building ceased in 1981, the influence of the Design Bulletins still remains. For instance, the distinction between different types of sheltered housing as being either Category I or II which was first used in Design Bulletin 82, may still be found (Housing Corporation 2003).

3.2 The Design Bulletins were characterised by an emphasis on anthropometric and ergonomic approaches. Whilst not advocating an overtly medical model of old age, physical degeneration was seen to be a sufficient condition to alert the designer to special needs of older people. In particular, old age was an adversity to be overcome as physical decline predisposes older people to become vulnerable to accidents within the home and a recognition, therefore, that the home is a source of danger. By attending to 'comfort, convenience and safety' (Design Bulletin 1974:3) housing design may reduce, if not control, such danger.

3.3 The remit of designers, then, was to use space to address the three matters: achieving 'comfort, convenience and safety' which was to be via the application of anthropometric techniques. These rest upon a range of body dimensions in the standing and sitting positions such as height, elbow height and eye height and the upward, downward and forward reach from the same positions. The mean and standard deviation of these range of measurements feed into the ergonomic use of space. Using space, then, becomes a technical matter. A further Design Bulletin on Housing Standards for the Elderly listed not only the furniture to be needed by ‘the elderly’ but also its dimensions and ergonomically most appropriate layouts in sheltered housing (Design Bulletin 1974) Most of the content of Design Bulletins focused on kitchens, bathrooms and living spaces. This was reflected in my original analysis (Fairhurst 2000: 766-768).

3.4 My re-analysis of these texts identified some reference to sleeping practices, albeit by implication. I used the index of the bound collection of the Design Bulletins, as my route into my current analysis of sleeping practices. There was one listing to the category of ‘sleep’ and that was as a sub-set of a more general category of ‘safety’. In addition there were four listings to bedrooms and/or bedsitting rooms. Attention given by designers to sleep practices as a feature of everyday life was, primarily, in the context of the design of the fabric of the building. Within a section on ‘Ventilation, lighting and window design’ it was noted:

Bedroom: Daylight factor minimum 1%. An old person who is confined to bed will almost certainly enjoy looking out of the window. This is easier and more comfortable if the window is arranged in relation to the bed area so that the view is to one side rather than over the end of the bed. The glare from a window straight in front may cause some discomfort. (Design Bulletin 1974: 7)

3.5 Designers, by relating the position of a bed to a window, are acknowledging that beds may be for more than sleeping; if ‘confined to bed’, older people may want to watch the world pass by. Enjoyment of this, however, may be hampered by glare from light. An everyday matter is defined as requiring a design solution.

3.6 Standards were laid down in relation to bedrooms: Could a double bed be accommodated in a 1-person unit if necessary? (many older people retain their old furniture) Would it be possible in all dwellings to see out of a window when lying in bed? (It is desirable for beds to be away from and parallel to windows to minimise glare) Has any window opening gear been kept within reach of an elderly person? (Design Bulletin 1974: 61)

3.7 The anonymous typification identified in the original analysis of older people as vulnerable and needing protection from themselves is evident in these standards relating to bedrooms. Over and above this, however, standard has particular resonance with my current analytic concern with sleep practices. Problematising the size of a double bed as a spatial matter suggests that, with age and following widowhood, there may be changes in sleeping arrangements. We shall see how older people’s own theorising of sleep practices is more complex.

3.8 The extent to which design was an ergonomic task is clear in a case study of one development in Stevenage

Little information about the physical dimensions of old people was available. As this design information was urgently needed a small pilot study of these dimensions was commissioned. (Design Bulletin 1974: 123)

3.9 In discussions of ‘Sleeping and Personal care’, typifying older people as ‘vulnerable’ was apparent again in connections made between sleep and danger.

Accidents often happen when people get up in the night. They may not be properly awake. Old people, especially, suffer from a loss of a sense of direction or giddiness when they first wake up. If there is no light switch at hand they may fall in the darkness as they get out of bed. It is important to be able to see on the journey between bedroom and w.c. and to avoid changes of level. (Design Bulletin 1974: 102)

3.10 Overall, designers were much more concerned with spatial matters in relation to social interaction and ‘wakefulness’; where matters salient to sleep practices were addressed the focus was primarily on the fabric of a building and potential danger. That designers acknowledged little the interactive features of sleep, is in line with my original analysis. Without being privy to biographical features of older people, such personal and invisible matters as sleep practices remained unknowable, by implication irrelevant, and could only be treated at a general level of abstraction through anonymous typifications.

Older people’s theorising of sleep practices and re-analysis of interviews

4.1 A thread running through older individuals’ accounts was of health matters prompting a move to sheltered housing. A consequence of this was difficulty in going ‘upstairs’. Stairs then become a problem to policy makers which potentially can be overcome by technical adaptations such as handrails or chairlifts. Moving to a flat, where all living spaces were on one level is another solution to both older people and policy makers. Articulating matters in terms of such de-contextualised ‘solutions’, inevitably ignores the social significance of domestic environments. There is an extensive anthropological literature on domestic architecture and home as symbolic systems. Anthropologists have conceptualized domestic architecture and home as models of society so that the more elaborate their structure in terms of separate rooms, the more complex the society (Fairhurst 1997). Douglas’ (1972) reference to the physical layout of houses and social relations along north-south or east-west axes as indicators of genealogical and age distinctions has been noted in the British Isles. Arensberg and Kimball (1965, 1968) identified the phenomenon of the ‘west room’ in rural areas of western Ireland. This was that part of the farmhouse where the ‘old couple’ moved upon the marriage of their eldest son. The ‘west room’ was where sleeping and living took place. The ‘old couple’s’ move to the ‘west room’ not only involved both a change and reduction in living space but also marked the father’s retirement from running the farm and the son’s social maturity in assuming control of it. In this paper, older people’s theorising sleep practices will be explored through talk on going ‘upstairs’ to bed, sleeping in the double bed and the bed, caring and being bed-ridden.

Going ‘upstairs’ to bed

4.2 In my study, older individual’s theorizing about sleep practices calls upon their own cultural knowledge about spatial matters and sleep. Older people’s orientation to the contrastive categories ‘upstairs’/ ‘downstairs’ demonstrates how particular kinds of sleep practices are socially organised. Where, when and how one sleeps are all implicative of sleep. Just as Meadows (2005) argues that embodiment is a key to understanding the sociology of sleep, this can also be seen to be evident in theorising sleep practices in later life. It was in talk about ‘upstairs’ and connections to bodily matters that such theorising was situated rather than in explicit talk about sleep. Meadows’ argument can be refined further by recognizing, in the context of the location of sleep, not just the body but particular parts/limbs of a body. When elaborating on the problematic matter of ‘going upstairs to bed’, it is usually legs which are implicated, rarely, if ever, arms or hands. My data illustrate how metaphors such as ‘going off your feet’ are ways of indicating difficulties experienced in climbing upstairs to go to bed.

4.3 Mrs Silver’s theorizing linked bodily matters with sleep practices. Talking about why she wanted a ground floor flat she noted:

(It’s) because of (husband’s) legs. And that’s another reason we wanted to sell this house because he’s finding it increasingly difficult to get up and down the stairs especially since he’s got angina as well.
Bodily matters are explicated not only in a general health category, ‘angina’ but also through particular limbs.

4.4 Older individual’s orientations to the category of ‘upstairs’, as a location for sleep, may be linked to moral assessments made of a proper place and time to sleep. Independently of each other, both Mr and Mrs Silk’s accounts contained sleep talk which was related to Mr Silk’s accident which, in turn, was a consequence of his disability. Mrs Silk noted that:

I’ve not been to bed for six months (ie, since husband’s accident). We sit down in chairs (by implication to sleep). I’ll be glad when we do go into the flat. It’ll be better for us. He (husband) is the main reason for moving. He can’t get upstairs and I can’t get a good night’s sleep. I’ve always been one for getting up early.

4.5 After viewing the show flat, she commented that she was looking forward to

being on one level as my husband can’t go upstairs. We’ll be able to have a good rest and I’m looking forward to that.

4.6 Mrs Silk’s detailing of recent changes in where she and her husband sleep, downstairs in chairs rather than upstairs in bed, illustrates Aubert and White’s (1959) point that there is a proper time and place to sleep By making the contrast in terms of the normal place to sleep she is emphasising the untypicality of her current situation. The next section considers the power of the cultural norms that prevent Mrs Silk continuing to sleep in her bed upstairs while leaving her husband to sleep downstairs.

4.7 In addition, Mrs Silk suggests that as ‘an early riser’ her proper sleeping times have been altered. In looking forward to a ‘good rest’ she is implying that, in the current absence of a proper place and time to sleep, it is unattainable. In Mediterranean countries, though, where the siesta is a feature of everyday life, there are two proper times to sleep, in the afternoon as well as at night. This serves to emphasise how notions of a proper time to sleep are situated in specific cultural contexts.

The marital bed

4.8 In our culture the bed is an object indicative of both bodily and sexual intimacy. Public response to Tracey Emin’s Bed being shortlisted for the Turner prize for art in 1999 may be understood in terms of it transgressing our cultural knowledge about the right and proper place for a bed to be seen by the public: in a show-room, prior to its location in a domestic setting in a bedroom. Moreover, ‘public outrage’ at the object’s cladding with dirty linen and used tampons arguably was a response to ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas 1974).

4.9 The intimate aspect of beds links to our cultural knowledge about sleeping arrangements and appropriate marital relations. Hislop and Arber (2003a) document how for mid life women sleeping in a double bed with their husband is an important symbol of their marital relationship. My study shows that this is salient also to men. Mr Silk acknowledged that since his accident he, too, had not slept in his own bed. In the afternoon he had a rest and usually fell asleep. He noted that ‘This is the only time (in our marriage) we’ve been separated in separate beds’. Mr Silk shares with his wife ideas about proper places to sleep but elaborates sleeping practices further by connecting the object on which sleep occurs, the bed, to sleeping arrangements, namely sharing a bed. Mr Silk’s use of the qualifier, ‘only time’, when talking about their sleeping arrangements points to its unusualness, for married couples normally sleep together. (Fairhurst 2003where similar qualifiers are used to warrant actions contrary to cultural knowledge associated with coupleness) For both Mr and Mrs Silk moving to a flat promised the restoration of not only their normal sleeping practices but also their normal couple relationship. Moreover, so powerful is the cultural norm of couple’s sleeping together, irrespective of life stage, that Mrs Silk felt ‘forced’ to sleep uncomfortably in an armchair downstairs in the same room as her husband rather than upstairs alone in the ‘marital bed’.

4.10 The linkage between sleeping in a ‘double bed’ and ‘coupleness’ is evident in Mrs Silver’s account, a married woman in her sixties. Whilst the sheltered housing development was still being constructed she had visited the site and had asked the builders if she could ‘look around’. On the basis of this visit Mrs Silver concluded that ‘the plans are wrongly drawn’ as ‘you can’t get a double size bed in (the bedroom)’. My original analysis of Mrs Silver’s account had emphasized her own orientations to spatial matters such as size of rooms and their consequences in terms of restrictions for what she defined as ‘normal’ daily life. Given the focus of this paper, I want to argue that so taken for granted is cultural knowledge about couple’s sleeping together in a double bed that its potential impossibility warrants comment. Mrs Silver’s incredulity that ‘their’ double bed would be too big to fit into the bedroom could only be accounted for in terms of a mistake by designers, in terms of wrongly drawn plans. Furthermore Mr and Mrs Silk’s and Mrs Silver’s theorizing of sleep practices in later life offers some evidence that sleep patterns are not re-structured with post-retirement roles (Hislop and Arber 2003c).

4.11 Older individual’s situating of a normal couple relationship in the type of bed (namely a double bed) may extend to talk about which side of the bed is slept on or what Hislop (in this issue) calls the ‘geography of sleep’. For Mrs Silver moving to a smaller sized bedroom had consequences for continuing to sleep on ‘her’ side of the bed.

When his legs bother him (husband), I go and get in the back bedroom but there are no two bed-roomed (flats in the sheltered housing development). You couldn’t get two single beds in the bedroom and it’s impossible to get in a double bed. I sleep by the wall and I’d have to climb over (him) to get in.

4.12 Mrs Silver’s account allows elaboration of my earlier point about our sociological understanding of sleep requiring a focus on the complexity of the concept of embodiment. She specifies parts of her husband’s body, ‘his legs bother him’, as prompting her move to another bedroom. The opening of this extract with ‘when’, conveying contingency, serves to emphasize marital normality of ‘sharing a double bed’, noted above.

The bed, caring and being bed-ridden

4.13 So far in elaborating on the social organization of sleep practices I have shown how older people’s theorizing is situated in categories of ‘upstairs’/ ‘downstairs’ and invokes temporality and cultural knowledge of the appropriateness of couples sharing a double bed. Now I want to turn to Mrs Knight’s account in which these and more explicit ‘bed matters’ are demonstrated.

It looks to me, all my married life I’ve been looking after the sick cause when we first came to this house, this is our 30th year in November, I had to bring me mother with me. She was poorly. She was with me from the November we moved in to the following April when she died. Now her sister, my aunt, was in hospital on and off for over 20 years. She couldn’t walk when we lived in Rover Street. She was in bed, eight years, then long stay hospital for 14 years.

4.14 Mrs Knight used to bring her aunt to her home ‘for a holiday’. After Mrs Knight’s mother’s death, the aunt ‘got very depressed’ and went to live with the former ‘for a while’. Initially, Mrs Knight’s daughter helped her because

…she (aunt) was a big job. After two years of it my daughter left home. She’d had enough so it was left to me. I looked after her (aunt) for another two (years) but it was getting me down.

4.15 Mrs Knight contacted the long stay hospital and her aunt was admitted to an acute hospital and eventually died in her 80th year in a long stay hospital.

She was a very big woman, you see, and I couldn’t handle her in bed. Now I should be free and having a bit of a comfortable life, all my children gone, and he starts, me husband and I’ve been seeing to (caring for) him, six or seven years so my life’s never really been free. It’s got me down. That’s why I put in for a flat……. He (husband) never really tries. He’s never done anything for himself. I have to do everything, toilet, the lot. He will not walk…. He never moves, only to the table for a meal, never does any exercise, never walks, nothing… He’s a very stupid man and of course he’s only got me to depend on. The doctor said she thought if we did have a flat, he’d help himself a bit more, go to the toilet, give himself a wash…. He’s never had a bath proper, only on a bed. He can’t get upstairs.

4.16 Mrs Knight returned to the connection between beds and caring in a later part of the interview:

My grandmother was an invalid for years, donkey’s years. When she was in her parlour she had a bed and my aunt looked after her…. When my grandma died, my aunt was on her own. She took to her bed, her legs gave out. (This was when the aunt went to live with Mrs Knight) I could leave them (the children) on the bed with my aunty. I used to get up at 4.30am (to do office cleaning) and come back at 6, whichever baby I had I gave their bottle.

4.17 The catalogue of relatives Mrs Knight had cared for who were ‘in bed’ illustrates the impact of caring not just on carer’s lives, in general, but specially on carer’s sleep. She implies she had ‘little’ sleep when her children were babies as she went out to work early in the morning. Similarly, this was so for Mrs Silk who slept in a chair downstairs rather than upstairs in the marital bed and for Mrs Silver who, when her husband’s legs ‘bothered’ him, retreated to try to sleep in a separate bedroom. These findings elaborate further Hislop and Arber’s (2003a) point about how all encompassing women’s caring responsibilities may be at the expense of the quality of their sleep.

4.18 In particular, my study adds to Bianchera and Arber’s (in this issue) development of a typology of caring and its consequences for sleep. Like the women carers in their Italian study, those in mine experienced different kinds of consequences for their sleep. For Mrs Knight, meeting the direct care needs of others, had been a life time activity which had embraced extended as well as near kin (mother and children) and culminated in caring for her husband. Caring had meant, throughout her life, either little or interrupted sleep. That Mrs Silk slept downstairs in an armchair rather than upstairs, alone, in the marital bed, suggests that she was anticipating meeting any needs her husband might have in the night. Whilst typologies convey conceptual discreteness, in reality their content may be empirically indistinguishable and, consequently overlap. It could be argued that Mrs Silver’s experience can be seen in this way. By moving to another bedroom when her husband’s legs ‘bothered him’, she was anticipating both his need for a ‘good night’s sleep’ and demonstrating the worries she had related to care-giving.

‘Doing’ re-analysis and implications of new analysis

5.1 This paper has explored the ‘doing’ of sleep with specific reference to theorizing sleep practices in later life and has involved re-analysing materials from a previous study. ‘Doing’ re-analysis warrants some comment on the process, specifically about the possibility of ‘adding’ data to the original. Whilst my re-analysis of interviews could only be on the existing transcripts, that of architectural designers’ texts could be approached in a different way. Precisely because the Design Bulletins were oriented to as ‘reference sources’, they followed the conventional format of including an index. Consequently, by referring to different listings in it, I was able to use it as a way of ‘increasing analytical access’ to my interest in sleep practices. Whereas it may be possible to ‘add’ to textual material, this is impossible in relation to interview data for the researcher is confined to what already exists: the transcript displays social interaction which had a beginning and an end.

5.2 The means through which I examined this substantive topic of sleep practices in later life are inextricably connected to methodological approaches for my re-analysis of original research data relied upon reflexivity. I would suggest that this paper is as much about ‘doing’ reflexivity as it is about ‘doing’ sleep practices. Despite the original publication (Fairhurst 2000) making ‘space’ a topic for rather than a resource in my analysis, I had made sleep practices a resource in my analysis of space. It was only with the recognition of my taken for grantedness of sleep practices that I was able ‘to see’ how older people’s theorizing was situated in distinctions between ‘upstairs’/ ‘downstairs’ which are spatial matters. Much of my research has sought to explicate the mundane realities of everyday life. Yet the temporal implications of the ‘everyday’ have been taken for granted, too, for my attention has been directed primarily to day(time) as opposed to night time activities (Fairhurst 1983)

5.3 My re-reading of the original data was done also in the light of subsequent research in which I showed how going ‘upstairs’ may be contextualized as a source of exercise as opposed to a ‘problem ‘ for older people (Fairhurst 2005). At the same time, the writing of this paper led me to reflect upon how in previous research the analytic import of sleep and bed matters had escaped me. For instance, in my ethnography of rehabilitation of older individuals I showed how members of the multi-disciplinary rehabilitation team situated their typifications of an ‘ideal’ rehabilitation patient in their distinctive work routines. An analysis of ‘dressing practice’ on rehabilitation wards for older people had been in terms of the multiple realities of nurses and occupational therapists of their work routines. Whilst nurses oriented to their work as a contingent matter so that ‘getting through’ their work was dependent upon patients being up, out of bed and dressed, occupational therapists’ work rested upon quite the opposite set of relevancies. In order to complete their assessment of an individual’s progress towards independence, occupational therapists focused on activities of daily living such as the ability, given possible cognitive or physical impairment, to fasten buttons, put arms through sleeves and so on (Fairhurst 1982). Now I would make much more about the source of the tension between those two occupations as pivoting upon an older rehabilitation patient being in, rather than out of, bed in the morning.

5.4 There is a sense in which the bed in discourses of ageing is identified with failure. ‘Successful’ ageing is predicated upon staying out of bed and being active. The discourse of ‘successful ageing’, however, fails to acknowledge mortality. Placement of beds, ‘downstairs’ or ‘upstairs’ has connections with mortality. In everyday life, ‘bringing a bed downstairs’ is a temporal marker of the ‘end of life’ being reached. Although I have examined how sleeping ‘upstairs’ rather than ‘downstairs’ is part of our cultural knowledge about ‘appropriate’ places to sleep, this may be reversed at the ‘end of life’. ‘Bringing a bed downstairs’ serves to emphasise that death may be at hand: the bed becomes the centre of social interaction so that relatives and friends come ‘to the bed’ to see the person.

5.5 Yet all such discourse ignores other activities which may be bed related. In Victorian times, ‘day beds’ were found ‘downstairs’ and around which social interaction took place. ‘Bed rest’ has recuperative connections. Increasingly, televisions are found in bedrooms as well as in ‘downstairs’ rooms and people may go to watch it while relaxing in bed. All of these matters have implications not only for the general sociological study of sleep but also in the context of later life. The ‘baby boomer’ generation have just begun to reach retirement. We know that their biographies and life experiences are quite different to those of the individuals who participated in my study. My own experiences of friends who have taken early retirement point to their getting up at a later time in the morning and to ‘getting under the duvet’ in the afternoon to listen to the radio. The extent to which these are idiosyncratic matters awaits the systematic study of the ‘baby boomers’. With such research, theorising sleep practices in later life will be located in more contemporary times.


I would like to thank anonymous referees and the participants at the ESRC Sleep in Society seminar on December 8th 2006 for their helpful comments on my paper.


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