Division of Community Health Sciences, St George's, University of London.
The last 40 years have witnessed substantial changes to the experience of later life. Health and life expectancy have improved and the emergence of a putative third age has allowed post-working life to move beyond being a residual social category to become an arena in which later life lifestyles can be constructed. Greater emphasis is now placed on expectations of self-agency and choice. Allied to this is the growing role of consumerism as a way of organizing key aspects of social life. Not only do these changes place increased emphasis on individual responsibility for health, but they also engage individuals in various forms of health consumerism.This study draws on these aspects of contemporary society to provide an explanatory framework for understanding older people's engagement with, and consumption of non-prescription medicines. We present a qualitative study in which we interviewed 22 men and women aged 60 plus who were purchasing or interested in purchasing non-prescription medicines, including complementary and alternative medicines. Our findings suggest that the use of non-prescription medicines is both pluralistic and makeshift. Moreover, while this pluralism led to tensions with conventional bio-medicine, conventional bio-medicine still maintained the legitimacy of its knowledge base. Self-care using non-prescription medicines appeared more governed by hope than by evidence or knowledge of the treatments concerned.We conclude that such pluralism of approach reflects the growing consumerism in health and self-care and that older people may in fact be similar to other age groups in terms of their approach to such commodification.