Clare Wenger obituary

The gerontologist Clare Wenger, who has died aged 84, conducted the Bangor Longitudinal Study of Ageing, the first of its kind in the UK, which spanned 20 years from 1979 until 1999, and collected data on the availability and provision of support from family, friends and neighbours for older people in a rural area of North Wales.

At the time, there were concerns that urbanisation and industrialisation were leading to a weakening of family support, and questions were raised about the ability of older people to change and adapt to new circumstances. Clare’s research demonstrated that, although the social support networks of older people are shaped by societal forces, as aspects of society change, networks simultaneously adapt. For example, although retirement migration may result in family members living at a distance from each other, many older people establish new networks of friends and volunteer in local community groups.

Clare involved older people themselves as data collectors in the Bangor study, using what are now known as participatory research methods. Thus she enabled ordinary people to play an active part in the research that would have an impact on the development of policy and practice, and therefore affect their lives. She also developed the Practitioner’s Assessment of Network Type (PANT) toolkit, comprising eight questions that could be used by social workers and health professionals to identify five distinct social support network types.

Clare’s network typology is used globally today in longitudinal studies such as the 10/66 Dementia Research Group studies carrying out population-based research into dementia, non-communicable diseases and ageing in low and middle income countries. In the UK, it was employed in the Cognitive Function and Ageing Studies (CFAS, 1993-95) looking into the prevalence of dementia in the UK, and the support available to people living with the condition. Its findings have been used to make long-term projections and public policy decisions. I first met Clare in 1994 when she employed me as a research assistant on the CFAS studies.

In 1999 Clare was a member of the expert group on the International Rural Ageing Project in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, which, at the 2000 Forum on Rural Ageing, reached consensus on priority issues for rural research with older populations that needed study urgently.

From 2002 until 2004 she was director of a six-nation European Study of Adult Well-being (funded by the European Commission) which helped the European Union meet the challenges of changing demographics and an ageing population. It identified social, psychological and lifestyle factors that can help promote well-being and healthy longevity.

Simultaneously, she led the study Families and Migration: Older People from South Asia (funded by the Department for International Development), the first research study to examine the impact of migration on support networks of older Gujaratis, Punjabis and Sylhetis in the UK and in South Asia, by studying the constellations of relatives and friends in both the countries of origin and destination. Clare continued to have strong links with India and she helped to establish a research centre on ageing at the Bharati Vidyapeeth Deemed University, Pune. Following the Indian Ocean tsunami on 26 December 2004 she personally provided financial support to older widows in South India.

Clare was born in East Finchley, north London, the elder daughter of Edwin Smith, a manager with the Midland Bank, and Gwyneth (nee Baxter), who ran an antiques shop. At the approach of the second world war, the family moved to Gwyneth’s home town, Llandudno, in north Wales, and Clare went to Howell’s school in Denbigh.

In her early 20s she went to stay with friends of the family in the US and got a job there working for a law firm. She met Dan Wenger, a computer programmer, and they married in 1960. Clare commenced an undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1962, majoring in anthropology, but her studies were interrupted when she became a mother, eventually to three boys. Dan and Clare separated in 1967 and divorced in 1971, and she returned to UCLA as soon as her youngest son was able to go to nursery school. She was awarded a BA summa cum laude in anthropology and sociology in 1971 and a master’s in social anthropology from the University of California Berkeley in 1972.

She returned to Wales later that year and started field work for her PhD in Caerwys that marked the start of her long career in gerontological research. Clare took up an appointment at Aberystwyth University as a researcher in 1974 and she was awarded a PhD in social anthropology from the University of California Berkeley in 1976.

In 1985, as a co-director with Gordon Grant, Clare established the Centre for Social Policy Research & Development at Bangor University. She was awarded a personal chair in 1991, as the first female professor at Bangor, and became sole director of CSPRD in 1997, retiring in 2002 as emeritus professor. She was presented with the outstanding achievement award of the British Society of Gerontology in 2017.

Clare married Roger Hadley, a professor of social administration at Lancaster University, in 1986. He died in 2001. She is survived by her sons, Alex, Max and Matthew, stepchildren, Richard and Anne, grandchildren, Luke, William, Rhiannon and Brynna, and step-grandchildren, Walter, Beatrix and James.




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