Eating Experiences in Later Life: Researching the Meal Provisioning Practices of Older Adults

  • Ema Johnson

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis explores the everyday lives of older adults and enquires about their sense of belonging to society and the social places and practices that meal provisioning play within this. It examines the everyday experiences and social connections of older, predominately single, adults living in a deprived coastal community in Northern England. It seeks to shed light on how a sense of belonging is created and maintained in relation to different ways of supplying meals. The research takes a qualitative approach, utilising ethnographic and interview methods focused on three contrasting sites where meals are provided: a supermarket café, a community centre and a traditional social club. Twenty-six older adult interviews and seven service provider interviews were obtained. These were combined with ethnographic notes to explore how a sense of belonging is created and maintained and the role that meals play in this process. The research makes an original contribution, in three main ways: firstly, in the field of cultural gerontology, by enhancing our understanding of older adult social life, identity, belonging and consumption through meal practices. Secondly, it is one of the first studies to employ the theory of modes of provision to empirically examine third spaces and the social infrastructure of communities from an ageing perspective. Third, the research was carried out in the context of a deprived coastal community, and adds to our knowledge about the role and importance of social spaces within those communities. The thesis finds that the circumstances in which meals are provisioned matter. Older adults who live alone tend to simplify meals at home, which highlights the risk of loneliness and nutrition deficiencies for this group. For those living alone, eating out alone among others is often used and favoured over eating at home alone. Moreover, it further develops our understanding of the concept of commensality and the meaning and contexts of eating alone in later life. Eating out alone surrounded by others could also be viewed as a form of commensality. Diverging from dominant approaches in the literature, that commensality is always an act of eating with others, it is a contention of this thesis that eating alone among other commensal groups or in the company of other lone diners is a form of commensality also. More importantly, social eating in its many forms has been overlooked in its usefulness and ability to maintain and support a future ageing and increasingly solo living population.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorLuke Yates (Supervisor) & Christopher Phillipson (Supervisor)


  • older adult social life
  • eating together
  • meal sharing
  • loneliness
  • ethnography
  • belonging
  • social gerontology
  • seaside communities
  • social isolation
  • commensality
  • sociology of food
  • Blackpool
  • third space
  • coastal communities
  • ageing society
  • cultural gerontology
  • social infrastructure
  • social eating
  • eating alone
  • living alone
  • modes of provision

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