Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

17460 The Impact of Childhood Trauma On Level of Functioning In Old Age: Orphan Train Riders (OTR) and Stress-Process Theory

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 5:30 PM
Burnham (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Pat Conway, PhD, Director, Mayville State University, Mayville, ND
Jeanne Cooke, PhD, Director, Coker College, Hartsville, SC
Jennifer Uhrich, Research Assistant, Organization, Seattle, WA
Background and Purpose

This retrospective qualitative study examines the impact of child relocation on people in old age, utilizing the perspective of elders who were Orphan Train Riders. The common early childhood stressor for all OTRs was removal from family, friends, and community to another region to live with a new family. As the population ages and the length of time spent in old age increases, interest has increased in theories that explain “successful aging” (Erickson, 1950; Erickson, 1997). One emerging theory, stress-process, builds on stage theories, offering an expanded method for understanding functioning in old age and for examining the impact of early childhood experiences and other factors throughout life on that functioning (Kahana, Kahana, and Kercher, 2003; Kahana, Kahana, Wykle, & Kulle, 2009; Pearlin, Mullan, Semple, and Skaff, 1990). It suggests that Temporal Contexts (characteristics of the elder), Spatial Contexts (characteristics of the environment) and proactive behaviors moderate outcomes. Relationships between the moderating variables, as well as that between the stressor and outcomes, are critical. This study examines the impact of child relocation on level of function in old age to better understand proactive behaviors which may have buffered the negative impact of child relocation.


Our sample was comprised of 25 older adults, who were born between 1907 and 1925. All had experienced relocation from New York City to the U. S. Midwest as children. They were recruited for this study through the Orphan Train Heritage Society.

Oral histories from elders were collected through 1 to 1 ½ hour face to face interviews at the national conference and by phone. Terpstra's (1989) questions, organized into the categories preplacement, placement, and postplacement recollections, guided the interviews, which were taped and transcribed. The analysis of the elders' stories combined oral history (Hoopes, 1979), which collects individuals' memories, and educational criticism, which offers a technique for interpreting events (Mears, 2008). NVIVO allowed the identification of complex relationships suggested by stress-process theory. Two researchers developed themes through an iterative process, including coding interviews, comparing results, revising categories (nodes) and recoding.


Four major categories emerged: foster/adoption; individual, family, and community. The common stressor, foster/adoption, includes experiences regarding preplacement, placement, the OTR agency, discovery of adoptive status, and separation. Four subthemes comprise the individual category: level of functioning and proactive behaviors in old age, work/career, and education. Three separate family categories emerged: birth, foster/adopt, and adult. The fourth category, community, had three subcategories: friends, the Orphan Train Rider Society, and community engagement.

Conclusions and Implications

This study's findings support stress-process theory's conception of the relationship between early trauma, functioning in old age, and proactive behaviors that mediate the impact of trauma. This illuminates the importance of understanding the meaning of earlier experiences and responses to those experiences and appreciating the importance of proactive behaviors by social workers, as well as supporting elders' proactive behaviors. Research might extend this theoretical framework by examining the impact of intergenerational trauma and resultant proactive behaviors through interviews with children and grandchildren of OTRs.

<< Previous Abstract | Next Abstract