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The challenges of staying active – by Maya de Vries

ShireenWalton25 September 2018

Author: Maya de Vries

10 years ago, in a Russian store at the city center of Jerusalem, I bought an A3 size poster from the communist time, with a drawing of an old lady who looks like a farmer, holding a book. The short text beside her image read: If you stop reading books, you might forget the language.

Recently in my field site of Dar al Hawa I found myself remembering this poster when visiting the elderly club, a central place in my field site, as I observed a variety of practices that aim to keep them sharp and vital.

One of the most challenging problems in the elderly club is to find suitable activities for the members. They need to be activities that both men and women can do; not too physical, because many are suffering from pains in their legs and can’t walk a lot, some have hearing problems, or cannot breath well. Hence, many of the activities are ‘just’ talks – it is easier for them to sit and listen. However, there can still be difficulties in establishing the time and place with lecturers as sometimes they call in the morning of the lecture to cancel. When a lecturer stands them up like this or if there is no other organized activity in the club, their alternative is an independent Quran lesson, which is quite different from the religion lesson that they have every few weeks with the local Iman. They take out larger volumes of the Quran and start reading aloud, each one in his/her turn. Hala, a member in the club who is volunteering in the Israeli welfare department and coordinates some of the club’s activities, leads the reading session and corrects them as they read. It is not easy to read correctly from the Quran,  as ech part has its own chants. The exercise is productive not just of the sense of community but also isa practice which helps stimulate memory (Collier, 2017).

The books were donated by one of the club’s members, and are large in order to make reading easier. From the perspective of our projects work on smartphones, in a site where religion plays a core role in daily life, the small screen of the smartphone poses a problem – even if they are able to change the size of the font. However, people here do find relevant uses for the technology. For example, most of them have downloaded an app that reminds them when to pray during the day.

Quran reading lessons seem to be physically passive, since they take place while sitting. However, praying in Islam is quite a physical experience, as the person praying needs to first take off his/her shoes, following this he/she may enter the mosque and begin praying. Praying also involves all kinds of physical positions such as sitting, leaning to the ground, standing up, turning the head to the side – these movements are frequently repeated. The entire group went inside the mosque to pray, some sat on the floor as is custom, while others who physically cannot get down to the floor took plastic chairs. For almost an hour, they all prayed, regardless of any physical limitations, and in a way, were challenging their bodies through the prayer. It is easy to forget that prayer is far more than just words. It is an immersion of the person physically and mentally within their religious practice, and for older people, it remains the structure to much of their life. So when thinking about the impact of the smartphone on people’s lives, one has to be continually aware of how much, and how, this is mediated by religion.

References:

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320377.php 

Double feature – by Maya de Vries

ShireenWalton19 July 2018

Author: Maya de Vries

My field site last month was a bit sleepy as it was Ramadan. This holiday continues over a whole month during which Muslims fast throughout the day, break the fast after sunset, and continue eating throughout the night. In Jerusalem, during these days, school and work places usually finish early and people who fast prefer to stay home, especially when Ramadan takes place in the summer and the heat forces people to stay indoors. During Ramadan, the elderly club at Dar al Hawa was closed and there were no activities at all. However, its WhatsApp group, “The group of the elderly club members,” was open 24/7.

As mentioned in my previous blog post, as part of my ethnography, I conduct a participatory observation at the elderly club at Dar al-Hawa Community Center. Recently, they agreed to add me to their WhatsApp group, which was established in October 2015. The admin of the group is also the coordinator of the elderly club. Besides the admin, there are 30 members in the WhatsApp group, although 50 members participate in the weekly meetings and activities at Dar al Hawa. That means that people do not receive information through the WhatsApp group. Instead, the coordinator phones them about the regular activities of the club, such as sport lessons, field trips, and so on. However, some information they miss since they are not part of the WhatsApp group; that is the informal messages, which are usually composed of images of flowers combined with a “good morning” or “good evening” blessing or other quotes from the Qur’an calling to pray to the Prophet Muhammad.

They also do not receive the various videos containing information about bad foods, such as snacks, that cause cancer, a disease that bothers everyone at the club.

When asking their club’s coordinator if she thinks it matters that some members of the group miss such information, she said it is not a big deal. I agree with her that it is not such a big problem, as long as they get the formal information and keep on coming to the club every Sunday and Thursday. However, I do think it can affect to some extent the sociability of the members who do not carry a smartphones and cannot use WhatsApp. Those images of daily greetings have a positive impact, based on my short experience in the WhatsApp group.  Just reading the blessings and seeing the joyful image attached—usually of red and pink flowers—have a positive impact, even if it is just a minor one.

Nevertheless, an image is just an image, and it is fair enough to say that looking at it will not solve major problems of elderly such as loneliness, difficulties in walking, or reaching high shelves at home.

Overcoming such problems is not easy, and one of guest lectures at the elderly club dealt exactly with such issues. The lecturer was a representative from the non-profit organization called Mini Active. This important organization run by women only has a project for elderly people in which an authorized instructor for the golden age meets with elderly people, including the elderly club in Dar al Hawa, and brings all sort of objects for keeping the home environment safe. There was complete silence during almost the entire lecture, indicating that it was an important topic. I sat quietly as well during the lecture and took photos of the various objects.

At the end of the lecture, they all approached the table where the objects were exhibited and asked the instructor many questions. There was a big fuss and noise around the table, and it seems many of them asked if they could buy some of the objects, but they were not for sale. The instructor explained where they could buy them, but not all of them heard her, meaning they missed this important information. Furthermore, it means that probably they will have to go with someone from their family because many of them do not drive or need assistance when leaving the village of Dar al Hawa. I felt an urge to do something for those who did not hear her or would not remember how things look like when they go to buy them. Therefore, I took photos of each object and sent them immediately to their WhatsApp group. While sending it, I knew that there were club members who would not receive these important photos. Furthermore, other important information was missing, such as the locations of the shops and their phone numbers. Therefore, I prepared a file with all the photos of the objects and the names and details of the nearby shops where they can buy them. I sent the file in the WhatsApp group, but more importantly I printed 30 copies and handed it personally to each one of the club’s members who were present in the last meeting.

خدمات.docx.pdf

Why is it important to blog about this? I find this experience significant to the ASSA project that aims to understand how digitation assists seniors. It is a great example of how elderly people experience life today. They are in between the fast pace of smartphones and the digitization of life, but not all the time, and certainly not all them are, as happened at the Dar al Hawa elderly club.

So, let’s imagine a scenario of a person going to buy one of the objects he was told about in the elderly club’s lecture. But, he cannot remember its name and he mistakenly forgot his phone at home so he does not have the image with him.  The information paper handed out at the meeting was left in his bag, folded inside his wallet acting as a safety net, un-digitized. Now he can quietly buy what he needs. Therefore, it seems to me that when thinking of life improvements for older people, it should always be on both tracks, with digital and non-digital features. In a way, it is like a double feature screening, of the same movie from two different copies: analog and digital.

Being Together Alone in East Jerusalem – by Maya de Vries

ShireenWalton23 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

Wonder (Grand) Women – by Maya de Vries

ShireenWalton29 March 2018

Author: Maya de Vries

Recently the world celebrated International Women’s Day. In the Arab world, another important date taking place in the same month is Mother’s Day. Not in all cultures is this day still celebrated; for example, in my country, Israel, Mother’s Day turned into Family Day. Instead, it has become more and more popular to celebrate Women’s Day in workplaces, universities, and private organisations. During Women’s Day, special events for women, including lectures given by women, take place and there are lots and lots of discounts on all sorts of “women”-oriented products, an act one can criticize, of course.

In the Palestinian village of Dar al Hawa (دار الهواء), the field site I am conducting research in with the ASSA project, Women’s  Day was also celebrated in a unique form of a special day tour—just for women of Dar al Hawa of all ages—outside of the village as I was told by the women group I joined.

Photo by Maya de Vries, February 2018.

Dar al Hawa is located in the city of Jerusalem. It is not contiguous with the other Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem since part of it is considered West Jerusalem.

Photo by Maya de Vries, February 2018.

Nowadays, Dar al Hawa has a mixed population of Muslims and Christians and around 13,000 people reside in it. The majority of the village are young, mainly between the ages 21–40. The elder population in the village (61–74) is only 5.38%. The older women in the village do not go out to work, as when they were younger it was not so acceptable that they work; they also do not speak well Hebrew—the dominant language in work places.  Usually, when visiting Dar al Hawa in the morning, you can see women walking around to make run errands, or visit family or friends as happens in the intimate women’s group I have been lucky enough to join. This group of six older adult women meet every Tuesday at 11 am since 2006. Each time, they meet at a different house. They shared with me that they started to meet just to pass the time and that they enjoyed talking together. Usually a few grandchildren, from babies to toddlers, accompanied them,[1] so they could play together.

During their last meeting, I learned (among many other things), how they celebrated Women’s Day.  The entire group went on a day-long field trip to the Sea of Galilee. The trip was organized by the village’s Community Centre and was open to all women of Dar al Hawa, so others joined as well.  I was surprised to learn that the women in the group did not enjoy the trip at all. When I asked why, they explained that the trip was not suitable for their age; it was too long; and they did not have any breaks for coffee and shopping—everything was too fast. They even said that they would not register again for any trips organized by the community center. I thought to myself that they look so strong and vivid to me, so how could it be not suitable for them? Was it only the physical aspect or is was it also other, emotional aspects, such as loneliness or depression that may affect their feeling discontent?

I realized that they act like “wonder grand women as they take care of the entire family, clean the house, take care of their children, their husband (if he  is still alive), and their grandchildren in addition going out on fieldtrips. They also cook for the entire family. It is important  for them, according to their  testimony, to help their daughters and brides with their children, but throughout our conversations I heard other voices saying it is hard for them be with the little ones throughout the day—and that is one of the reasons  they established this group—to be together, with the grandchildren. I also heard that it is not easy to cook for so many people— sometimes twice a day. The tension between their love for the family and the burden they feel comes up quite a lot in their conversations.

Furthermore, the fast and easy communication channels we have today is also an integral part of their lives. All of them carry a smartphone, and they communicate with their families through it, mainly using the WhatsApp app.  They exchange recipes and photos of the grandchildren and give the grandchildren the smartphones so they can watch YouTube.  Nevertheless, although they also enjoy their phones most of the time, they are afraid and anxious for the young generation, as the phone has “stolen their childhood.”

Sitting with these impressive women, I keep wondering if and how their daughters will act when they will be grandmothers. Will they be “wonder grand women” as their mothers are?  I prefer not to take the position of a prophet, but I have a feeling that we are facing a change (as has happened in other places) in the perception of aging. Smartphones and other technologies have a lot to do with it. How exactly is the perception of aging changing? Is it different between men and women? What is happiness for older people today? These issues are what I hope to learn through the older adult population in Dar al Hawa.

[1] There is a shortage in day care institutes of young children, hence grandmother are babysitting quite a lot.

Start-up Nation for Whom? – by Maya de Vries

ShireenWalton23 January 2018

Israel is perceived as a start-up nation; in 2016, alone 1,200 hi-tech companies were founded. Israelis have established several global start-up companies such as “mobileye”, “waze”, “gettaxi” and “wework”. There is also an Israeli presence in the field of mobile health and medicine. One of the criticisms within Israeli society is that the wealth created by these companies fails to trickle down, which is evident in that 2.4 million Israelis are considered poor. Nevertheless, in Israel there is a relatively good and largely public health system, which serves both citizens and non-citizens.

The term “non-citizens” refers to Palestinians living in East Jerusalem holding the legal status of “permanent residency”. They are eligible for some rights, including medical services, but are not considered citizens of the Israeli state.  East Jerusalem, an area of 70sqkm with 66,000 Arab inhabitants, was annexed/occupied by Israel from Jordan immediately after the 67’ war.

Today, in East Jerusalem there are 300,000 Palestinians, of which 78% are considered poor, and state welfare services are relatively inactive, Their ‘gray’ status has led to a different situation which includes the creation of private medical services clinics that are financially supported by the state. Last November, I met Mr. Fuad Abu-Hamed, an owner of two semi-private clinics in Beit Safafa and Sur Baher, two Palestinians neighborhoods/villages located in East Jerusalem. These clinics are linked to a major state public clinic, and have managed to provide better services, for example access to doctors without queues. They also have improved their online services including a website and an app in Arabic.

When I asked Mr Fuad if his 9,000 clients use the Clalit app, he replied “so-so, people here are not use to being online when it comes to health matters.” He then asked an intern, a young nutritionist, who graduated from Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, if she knew any popular health apps. She mentioned several apps in the field of fitness, wellbeing and diabetes. Mr. Fuad confirmed that diabetes is a serious condition within the Arab population. I am therefore expecting to include diabetes and associated digital applications in my research, but first, I need to know a good deal more about the general condition of health amongst the Palestinians of East Jerusalem; the way they access health services, and how this relates to their ambiguous status. I wonder, if perhaps eventually the ASSA project might encourage a startup that focuses upon this and other disadvantaged populations?

– Maya de Vries