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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

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Being Together Alone in East Jerusalem

By Maya De Vries Kedem, on 23 May 2018

Author: Maya de Vries

As the days go by, I am starting to become more familiar with my field site of Dar al Hawa in East Jerusalem. Recently, I joined the Elderly’s Club in the village community center.

The club was opened in 1985, before the foundation of the community center. A group of 50-60 year olds meet here twice a week – on Sundays and Thursdays at 10am, for 2-3 hours of various activities – including lectures concerning culture, health, welfare, nutrition and religion. One of the most popular activities they have is a regular sports lesson for adults, usually while sitting on a chair.

Photo (CC BY) Maya de Vries

Photo (CC BY) Maya de Vries

Most of the elderly people who come to the club were born and raised in Dar al Hawa. It is their hometown, in which they feel most comfortable and safe. In many cases, the houses people live in are the same in which they grew up, or moved into when they got married. This is especially the case for women, many of whom live close to their children’s families. So why should they join this club, rather than remaining within the comfort and safety of their own home and families?

The act of leaving the security of an elder’s home is not simple, since it usually takes quite a lot of physical effort. Those who live nearby can easily walk, but others who live in more distant streets use a special transport system organized by the community center. Their presence is also depended on the weather; if it is too cold it is most likely that less people will show up. Some will call their friends to see if they are coming or not, but most of them will provide updates on their actions through the WhatsApp group of “the elderly club”, administrated by the club instructor.

One reason this club is succeeding in retaining its members is that it has tried not to impose rules on its participants. This is important in respecting the seniority of older people. As such, each person can come and go as she/he wishes; they just need to be friendly to each other and quiet during a lecture or class. Being quiet does not always come easily however, as they seem to enjoy their conversations.

The majority of the people who attend the club are women. In the exercise class, the women sit on sofas close to the wall, while the men sit at the front table. Over time, individual women will develop particular roles. One woman serves water, making sure no one will be thirsty. There is also the ‘joker’, who keeps everyone laughing during an activity, another walks in and out of the room as she takes various phones calls.

Mobile phones frequently go off during lectures, meetings and films, even during a religion lesson given by the local Imam. When asked who carries a mobile phone, everyone raised their hand. All but two were Smartphones. The most popular apps are WhatsApp Messenger and Imo – these two apps make it easier and cheaper for people here to speak with relatives and friends in Jordan, Kuwait and America. At first glance, it seems that despite their age, they handle their device quite well.

Photo (CC BY) Maya de Vries

On closer inspection, however, the problems become more apparent. It is often hard for individuals to hear the ringtones, or to make the swiping action needed to unlock and open their phones. Many of these people may not be aware of the presence of apps already on their phone, which could potentially help them with health issues such as exercising, Most of the people I speak with here do not know they can download an app for the local health clinics that can assist them in setting doctor appointments, renew subscriptions, and so on.

Notably, every person I talked with about his or her smartphones told me that they are getting help and instructions from their grandchildren – they teach them how write, how to upload a post, how to call and even how to post on Facebook. In this manner, smartphones, from isolating people, may help to bring family members closer together, and to bridge a kind of digital divide that exists between the generations. At the same time, the interruptions created by phone calls cuts through the flow of the group’s activity, undermining its unity; – it literally pulls out the elderly from the room.

In short, both the club and the smartphone work here at the intersection of individualism and sociality. The club is a social forum that helps counter isolation, but works by respecting the individual. The phone is strongly associated with the individual, who may not be aware of many of its possibilities, but it has become a major link to the wider collective. These two aspects appear to work in tandem. Hence, a person who lacks the support of their family or community is also unlikely to learn to use their phone.

Photo (CC BY) Maya de Vries

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