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The geographies of health and wellbeing – by Pauline Garvey

LauraHaapio-Kirk15 August 2018

Author: Pauline Garvey

Photo (CC BY) Anna Li

Fairly frequently the Irish media focuses on the ‘downsizing dilemma’ for retirees (O’Rourke 2017), but what receives less attention is the downsizing that comes with marital breakdown. As I conduct research the frequency with which I meet men and women who are separated or divorced is striking. This observation is backed up by recent census data that reveals that separation is currently a significant aspect of life for many Irish families. The Central Statistics Office figures show a significant increase in the percentages of people who separate in the forty-plus age groups (CSO, 2016). The rate of separation peaks at age 48.

This trend in mid-life is significant because, otherwise, marital breakdown is decreasing in the general population. In fact, there was a decrease of 11,115 separated or divorced persons aged under 50 between 2011 and 2016. By contrast there was a substantial increase of 29,224 persons over the age of 50 between 2011-2016. Not only is there an age factor but there is also a gendered dimension in how people report their marital status. Lunn et al. (2009) found that more women than men report themselves to be separated. The conclusion they drew was that men who are separated are more likely to identify themselves as ‘single’ rather than ‘separated’. Also a higher rate of re-marriage by men goes some way to explaining the disparity in figures between the rate of female separation and the rate of male separation, but it also raises questions about how Irish women self-identify following separation (see Hyland 2013).

What we learn from this is that marriage separation is particularly significant for people in their 40s and 50s, that a larger proportion of women do not re-marry and think of themselves as separated rather than single. This alteration in domestic circumstances may be experienced with a mix of emotions but the people I have spoken to are keenly aware of the importance of being accessible to others as they age. This has been discussed with me as either an issue regarding physical (‘what if I fall getting out of the bath?’) or emotional wellbeing (‘my daughter knows when I’m watching Love Island and she’ll text me “he’s a wally” …so I don’t feel alone’). One woman told me of a series of health problems she encountered around the time she was due to retire. As a result of what she calls a ‘bad reaction to life’, she suffered from acute depression and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for 6 months. On her release and return home she described the effect of having automatic text messages sent to her from the hospital as part of her treatment. The text messages that she received were automatic daily messages: ‘they sent me texts every day or every second day saying ‘how are you doing?’, ‘hope everything is ok?’. So although the messages were not personalised, she describes them as  ‘sending some positivity, it was superb to think that someone knew you weren’t well and could send a text to say you weren’t alone’. The key issue for her is that regular text messages inquiring about her health represented ‘a life line, some contact from the outside world to say we care about you and hope you are getting on alright’. 

As my research continues it is clear that while no life experience can be viewed in isolation, the geographies of age, the places that one experiences midlife, can matter a great deal. My respondents are not just well or unwell, they experience age, health, illness or wellbeing in specific places, whether that is in the privacy of their homes, public spaces or doctors’ clinics. Similarly in contrast to being single, this research causes me to consider the ways in which ‘being separated’ is relational? Should we think of separation as a geographical term, suggesting a lingering connection to place as well as to person?

 

Central Statistics Office, Ireland (2016), available online at https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-cp4hf/cp4hf/ms/

Hyland, L. (2013) Doing’ separation in contemporary Ireland: the experiences of women who separate in midlife, D.Soc.Sc Thesis, University College Cork, available online at https://cora.ucc.ie/bitstream/handle/10468/1179/HylandL_DSocSc2013.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

Lunn, P., Fahey, T. and Hannan, C. (2009) Family Figures: Family Dynamics and Family Types in Ireland, 1986-2006, Dublin: ESRI and UCD.

O’Rourke, F. (16/09/2017) The downsizing dilemma? Getting rid of the family furniture, The Irish Times, available online at www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/the-downsizing-dilemma-getting-rid-of-the-family-furniture-1.3214649

The Challenge of Menopause – Daniel Miller

DanielMiller3 August 2018

Photo (CC BY) Daniel Miller

For a project concerned with health and mid-life, menopause is an obvious target. What specifically does an anthropological perspective add, first to understanding menopause and second to envisaging a positive digital intervention? One key anthropological component, which is the comparative perspective, will have to wait until the team completes its research, but from my Irish fieldsite there are many possible insights. The challenge is firstly that no two women have the same experience. Menopause can start in your 30s or 50s. It can be almost symptom-free or have dramatic effects, some of which may never end.

The anthropologist will focus on the way medical issues are inextricable from the social context. The effect can be on close relationships. As a pharmacist told me, Sometimes they come and say ‘I’m ready to kill my husband I think I’m going crazy’ very reassured when you say it could be the menopause”. Or women report that vaginal dryness makes it too painful to have sex. Women have told me that their mothers never mentioned menopause to them, or that they do or do not feel they can discuss the topic with their sister or close friends. Mostly they report that menopause is a topic that can only be broached through jokes. The impact might also be on wider relationships, such as to one’s work: “You might say to your colleague `could you just take over for a moment’ and then not explain why you would disappear, because you had a flush and you needed to remove yourself”.

Then there is the relation to wider medical authorities. Concerns about HRT or addictive sleeping pills may mean they prefer to consult complementary medicine rather than doctors. Knowledge seems to be a complete lottery, where some are well aware of the potential effects on bone density while others have never had anyone suggest this is something they might look into. Listening to women, within an ethnography, also alerts one to the considerable differences in perspective. One woman will give a feminist perspective about the need to rethink menopause as a celebration of a natural process, rather than merely a medical problem. While another, who is undergoing IVF and is desperate to have children, sees nothing to celebrate.

For us, the ASSA team, it is important that this same alertness to the social and wider context should manifest itself as the anthropological contribution towards delivering that will be of genuine benefit. One of the lessons from this research is that we need to see smartphone apps less as autonomous interventions and more as potential hubs. Different women will respond to different levels of information. There are those who are turned off by text and just want visuals, contrasted to those who want to read the medical journals. In my research so far, women have split equally between those who would prefer a discussion forum based on complete anonymity, to those who would only want to discuss these issues with people they can identity and feel some sort of relation to. In making relevant information more accessible all these factors need to be taken into account, but first and foremost comes listening to what a broad range of women say.

 

What’s the Opposite of Facebook? Err…it’s (still) Facebook – by Daniel Miller and Shireen Walton

ShireenWalton28 June 2018

Authors: Daniel Miller and Shireen Walton

Facebook as digital allotment for growing community? Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Once Facebook had become established, there developed a general consensus as to its primary social consequence: it allegedly led to rampant narcissistic individualism – people preening themselves in public, and to the decline of community and ‘proper’ sociality. The dominant motifs, much used in advertising at the time, would be of a woman posting herself painting her toenails a bright colour, or a teenager posing for a selfie. As such, Facebook was castigated by older people as something which encouraged this self-centred orientation by the young. Yet by the time the Why We Post project developed in 2012, the evidence was that the primary orientation of this social media was indeed social. The young posed with their arms around their Best Friend Forever and Facebook had become central to mother and toddler groups and the reintegration of families separated by migration and diaspora.

We work in very different field contexts; Danny within a comfortable small Irish town, and Shireen in an inner-city, multiethnic neighbourhood of Milan. Yet in both cases, the people we speak to say that the main reason they use Facebook is to keep up with the community; to share in another opportunity for being together (this time online), and to find out about events and gatherings taking place in the area. In the Irish case this might be a charity walk such as `Darkness into Light’, to raise money for the prevention of suicide, or the events associated with a weekend celebrating traditional music, or to facilitate community development in a new housing estate. In Milan, this could be to arrange and advertise a mass convening in public space one Saturday afternoon, standing side by side holding hands to form a 4km long catena umana (‘human chain’) – an act of celebrating the unity present in their community, and to contest the negative perception of the neighbourhood as a ghetto. Facebook, in both of these contexts, is the main site for local community news, community history, community photography and so forth. In the Irish site, this is especially important for local sports – of which there are a great many in this small town. For example one informant from Buan goes on Facebook several times a day. They look at two Buan sites concerned with swimming, two closed groups; one called Buan Talk and the other Buan buy/sell/swap, a Buan kayaking group, the fortnightly Buan News site, and the site of one of Buan’s cafes. In the Milan site, community Facebook group(s) are where the neighbourhood keeps together in a range of interesting ways, including where people express willingness to offer their time or a helping hand to one another. One informant in the Milan site found it remarkable, for instance, how if someone gets sick or needs help with something and posts this to the group, there will be an average of 20-30 responses each time from people willing to help them – from buying some basic groceries to picking up medicines, and so on.

Such community uses are not new, but they may have become increasingly important while more individualistic uses have declined., This may reflect the way in which Snapchat has become more important for young people, while WhatsApp has taken on the primary role of linking families together in everyday communication. By contrast, Facebook with its combination of visuals, texts, unfolding events in sequences, complemented by basic information such as contact details, is now ideal for advertising the latest play, or explaining to people how to get their T-shirts to support a charitable walk. Another factor, noted by Danny in 2012 is the way Facebook is gradually migrating from younger to older people in its usage. While there is a cross-generational feel to these community Facebook groups, the people that create, use, and invest time in them are increasingly in their 40s and upwards.

In both fieldsites, creating community includes establishing what is appropriate usage. For example, politics is largely avoided since it would be divisive. In the Milan site, this is especially important given the negative views other people have of this area – here, Facebook groups project an alternative, positive image of the neighbourhood. People using Facebook in these ways create a nurturing space for their community; a kind of digital green allotment space (echoing the importance of physical community allotments in both the Milan site and in Buan), where community togetherness offers some respite from the wider noise of Facebook, and the wider web at large, and where above all, the existing altruism we both find present in our fieldsites can plant itself/be planted, collectively self-nurture, and grow.

You will still find selfies on Facebook, and plenty of interaction within families, but in our two fieldsites, what is striking is the degree to which Facebook has taken on a role which is pretty much the exact opposite of its assumed consequence – which was the development of narcissistic individualism. Today, for many people in our fieldsites, Facebook is where the offline development of community spirit is enhanced by its cultivation within a digital online space.

What is a smartphone?

DanielMiller1 June 2018

Author: Daniel Miller

Photo (CC BY) newkemall

I have spent the last two months in my Irish fieldsite trying to answer a simple question: what is a smartphone? Actually, it’s a fiendishly difficult question. Several older people started our discussion by insisting that the only things they use their phones for are voice calls and texting. Once we looked at the phone in more detail, it turned out that just the most common functions include WhatsApp, maps, voice calls, camera, alarm/time, Facebook, text messages, calendar, weather and news. Once we add a variety of more specialist apps such as sports, music, airlines, banks etc. we easily reach the most typical result which would be that an individual uses between twenty-five and thirty different functions of their smartphone.

In the newspapers, the personalisation of the smartphone is understood as the advances in algorithms and artificial intelligence, which allow smartphones to learn from people and predict their behaviour. But, just as in our previous Why We Post project, for the ethnographer, these corporate developments pale into insignificance compared to the personalisation represented by the diversity of usage that will arise from the way an individual configures this multitude of apps.

Indeed, it may be the personality of the user that comes across most. A man expresses a particular version of masculinity in demonstrating how all his usage is based on need and pragmatism. He mentions more than once how, now his daughter is no longer in Australia, he will never use Skype again. By contrast, a woman, aged 69, has every last detail of her life, from the steps involved in paying each particular type of bill, to the slide decks from workshops she has attended, all carefully classified in nested hierarchies of icons on her iPhone. About the only thing she doesn’t like is the clumsy and intrusive Siri. In both cases the smartphone effectively expresses their personality. Sometimes a particular activity dominates an individual’s phone life; a phone where everything is geared to a retirement spent playing and teaching the banjo, or a phone that contains seven apps all associated with sailing.  It’s not that a woman is addicted to her phone, or even to YouTube per. se., it’s just that she can’t stop spending two hours a day following US politics on YouTube. More commonly the phone will revolve around three or four key activities and concerns such as a combination of family, sports, holidays, and photography.

Working with people in their 60s and 70s, I come to appreciate that they are not elderly, but that much of their life may be devoted to caring for an elderly parent in their 90s. For some of these people everything about the phone is connected with this responsibility of care, whether mobilising family care through WhatsApp, showing pictures of great grandchildren through Facebook, using maps to get to a hospital appointment, employing phone and text to negotiate with the local council and never turning the phone off, because you never know…

An equally important component of what makes the phone is people’s lack of knowledge. An older person is told to download an app, but she has never heard of Google Play and so attempts this action using an icon labelled ‘Downloads’. A man won’t buy a new Samsung Galaxy because it doesn’t have an inbuilt radio and he doesn’t know he can download radio as an app. Many users do not know the distinction between Wi-Fi and data that they have to pay for, so they won’t watch video while on Wi-Fi because they think it will cost them. Many can’t understand that a phone which ‘doesn’t work’, is not a broken phone, rather they just need to go about something in a different way. This is because the smartphone has so little in common with traditions of machines and tools. There is no manual they can actually use. Trying to work out precisely why one 80-year-old finds every little step impossible and another seems entirely comfortable in using these phones may give us many clues as to what, in effect, a smartphone is.

In the newspapers the smartphone appears as the constant development of new capacities – articles about the latest thing you can do with your smartphone are commonplace. For the ethnographer the smartphone is the myriad constellation of new actualities – we strive for an appreciation of what ordinary people create with or cannot understand about these devices.

The Blow-in Community

DanielMiller4 April 2018

Sneem, Kerry, photo by Bill Barber

Most people one meets in this small Irish town describe themselves as blow-ins, meaning they were born in some other part of Ireland. That’s hardly surprising since given the huge expansion of housing estates since the 1970s it is demographically true. More interesting is their dedicated participation in the vast number of community and volunteer groups that can be found here. Many of these organisations were founded by people born here, but it is the blow-ins who have sustained and expanded them and seem quite passionate about their contribution to the subsequent sense of vibrant community.

There is an important lesson here for anthropology. We have tended to see authenticity through ideals of tradition and continuity relating authenticity also to actual origin. But in most places this ideal of community is a modern invention and antidote to the fragmentation of the forces that we call modernity. The original population had less need for such an explicit ideal of community. As one such person noted – when he was young his large family was sufficient for his social interactions. The Catholic Church was and still is often the primary vehicle for a sense of wider socialising. While identity with this pleasant town was simply a given by birth. The same person noted that he would always say he was coming into the town, while blow-ins might say they were coming into the village.

By contrast, the vast majority of blow-ins initially encountered this town through tourism and viewed it as a rural seaside idyll, very likely often the place they wish they had been born into. Once they have settled, and in many cases retired, community and identification develop through their active and creative labour. This is an opportunity to help create the idealised community that they have imagined themselves moving into. Some of them would like to call the centre a village while those born here are clear that it is a town. It is the blow-ins that need fascinating and anecdotal history, prizes from being a tidy or age-friendly town, books, chess, bowls, theatre, creative writing, painting, music, sports, film and many other clubs. In this they are joined by the original inhabitants who gratefully accept this support and appreciation, while remaining quite aware as to who is or is not a blow-in, for example, who has rights to be buried in the original cemetery.

 

‘Healthy Ireland’ by Pauline Garvey

LauraHaapio-Kirk16 February 2018

From the Healthy Ireland website: http://www.healthyireland.ie/

Author: Pauline Garvey

 

Just last month the Irish government launched the latest national initiative to promote health and wellbeing across the country. The Healthy Ireland campaign 2018 was launched on the 6th January and aims to encourage people to ‘get active, eat well and mind their mental wellbeing’ (www.healthyIreland.ie).  Many of the planned initiatives run through local libraries and are advertised by pictures of families cycling through wooded glades or groups of friends exercising outdoors.

On the day of the launch in Dublin’s sporting venue Croke Park, Taoiseach (Prime Minster) Leo Varadkar said:

The message of the Government’s Healthy Ireland 2018 campaign is simple; I’m encouraging everyone to get involved, by making the small changes needed to improve your health and your family’s health. That could mean including a walk in your daily routine, making healthier choice at meal times or taking a break from your phone to give your mental health a boost. These positive and sustainable changes can help us all build a healthy Ireland (MerrionStreet 06/01/18).

The webpage dedicated to HealthyIreland acknowledges that social factors such as levels of education and income, or housing and work conditions may adversely affect health, and are determined by social, environmental and economic policies beyond the direct responsibility or remit of the health sector. Therefore the campaign asserts the ‘health sector alone cannot address these problems – we must collectively change our approach.’

Excessive mobile-phone use has now been added to nutrition and exercise as a health risk. And while this is interesting, it is perhaps not surprising. Frequent associations between an unhealthy attachment or addictive behaviour and mobile-phone use have been profiled in the national media recently. For example in December 2017 new research from Deloitte, found that 90% of 18-75-year-olds in Ireland now own or have access to a smartphone – putting Ireland among the top users of smartphones in Europe. By comparison 88% of people own, or have access to a smartphone in Europe. Richard Howard, head of technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte greeted this figure with some caution: “Mobile devices are a relatively new ‘addiction’ to our social fabric and they form an important part of our daily activities and interactions’ (Quann 2017).

There are lots of unknowns in smart-phone use, which is why we are currently investigating this topic, and why we try to understand the smartphone in actual life situations. For example while the Deloitte study found that half of Irish people thought they used their phone too much, 60% thought their partner used it too much! What does this tell us of the place of the phone in negotiating relationships? Are people neglecting their loved ones, forging new friendships or engaging with existing friends and family in novel ways?

Meanwhile the government’s response in the Healthy Ireland Campaign is clear:  “Take the stairs rather than the lift, Eat more fruit and veg, Take a 30-minute break from your phone”. And Varadkar describes his own practice of turning off the phone during meals – “it not only makes the meal more pleasant and your interaction with people more pleasant, it is actually good for your headspace.”  (O’Connor 07/01/18)

 

References:

HealthyIreland 2018, www.healthyireland.ie

MerrionStreet Irish Government News Service 06/01/18, available online at https://merrionstreet.ie/en/Issues/Taoiseach_Leo_Varadkar_launches_Healthy_Ireland_2018_campaign.html (http://www.healthyireland.ie/about/)

O’Connor, Wayne 07/01/18 ‘Healthy Ireland 2018 aims to get us all fitter and more mindful’ Irish Independent, available online at https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/health/healthy-ireland-2018-aims-to-get-us-all-fitter-and-more-mindful-36464484.html.

Quann, Jack 05/12/17 ‘Three million Irish people now own or have access to a smartphone’, available online at http://www.newstalk.com/Mobile-phone-habits-of-Irish-people-revealed