This paper draws on ethnographic and case study data from a variety of sources to explore the changing social practices of literacy across the lifespan. It explores the new literacy demands that people encounter with age when dealing with life events in a range of social domains. These include increased leisure; travel; changing family and peer relationships as a result of death and loss; issues of health and disability and accessing new technologies. It reveals how literacy is implicated in peoples' changing sense of time, place and history; how the older person’s identity as a literate actor may be interrupted by both institutional and informal processes of caring and their disengagement from spheres of activity that were previously central markers of their identity. Ageing thus involves both expansion and retreat from familiar literacy practices.