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Doing time — by Pauline Garvey

Xin Yuan Wang5 March 2019

This month I have been asking people about retirement. I’m finding that some people adopt grand projects on their retirement: one man, for instance, published a book that compiled all his photographic works completed over 12 months in the 1950s. A woman told me that she has collected all the short stories and opinion pieces she ever wrote and put them in a folder for relatives to read after she is gone.

Finally, one man who does not see himself as particularly artistic or creative, keeps a photographic record of his holidays to leave to his adult children in years to come. As we talk about such matters, the word legacy comes to mind. But legacy is difficult to capture because for many – including myself – it is unclear precisely what this term means. For some it concerns completing something that has worth and would otherwise remain undone. For others, it means leaving a sort of cartography of memories behind for the next generation.

Legacy, I have realised, tends to suggest individualised works and occasionally my assumptions have been challenged in this regard. This month, a group of retired, elderly women I meet regularly embarked on a craft project to knit several hundred small chicken shapes in preparation for Easter. The chicken shapes will be given eyes and ribbons around their necks. They will be stuffed and decorated. The local chocolate factory have agreed to donate several hundred small chocolate eggs that will be inserted into the chickens and then the totality will be given to the local hospice as part of their fundraising activities.

As I’m told of these tasks, I marvel at the work, the energy, the organisation and the generosity of these women and wonder if activities such as these represent a collective legacy, something bigger than the sum of its parts. But at the same time, I think there is more to these activities than issues of legacy.  Keeping busy is a common motif in my research. One man described his wife as ‘she’s like a shark, they die if they stop moving’ whereas another referred to the bonus of ‘having something to get me out of bed in the morning’.

Anthropologists are aware that it is in the structured routines of the day, that time is felt and experienced. As my research progresses I find that respondents constantly talk of practices in terms of time, ie. finding something that gives shape to the day, that takes time and converts it into something productive.

Time, for some becomes problematic not because it is scarce but because it must be filled.

Commonly women in my craft group, aged in their 70s and 80s comment on their need to stay busy. One woman told me she had knitted 100 small chickens because  ‘I just knit when I’m watching tv’. Another joined in that she also likes to have something to do when watching television, ‘I feel guilty if I’m not keeping active’, she said.

Of course watching television is not ‘doing nothing’, but the emphasis is on being productive with time, not letting is slip away. This point is considered so self evident that some informants look at me askance when I ask why it is a good thing to be active.

Activities fulfil the purpose of keeping them busy, of filling time that otherwise might be empty where they might feel adrift. In that respect, time is something that is ideally practiced. Which leads me to wonder: which is most important – the doing of time or the activity that fills it?

Ageing Actively in Focus

Shireen Walton8 January 2019

Books about ageing are currently in the spotlight. As discussed by Daniel Miller in an earlier blog post from February 2018, philosopher Kieran Setiya has looked at mid-life, from theoretical and practical perspectives. Another more recent work comes from journalist and author Carl Honoré, who in (B)older: Making the Most of our Longer Lives (2018) suggests a rethinking of ageing as a positive feature of the human experience, to be increasingly acknowledged and enjoyed more than ever before in history – a bonus not a burden.

Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

What these books have in common is a call to shift our thinking about ageing from a negative; to consider the positive aspects of later life, and to rebrand ageing along ‘active’ lines, recalling the European Union’s emphasis on ‘active ageing’. In Italy, a country with the second (after Japan) oldest population in the world, active ageing receives much public policy and media attention. One avenue through which I came in to contact with these initiatives is through Auser, a nation-wide NGO in Italy founded in 1989. The organisation has branches all over the country, and the Lombardy region headquarters is in Milan – located in zone 2 where I am based for my research. Auser’s mission statement is ‘promoting the active ageing of the elderly and enhancing their role in society’ from  an inclsive perspective: ‘addressed primarily to the elderly, but open to relations of dialogue between generations, nationalities, different cultures.’

Auser website (English version)

Attending one of their meetings in Milan in December, I learnt about some of the main ways that ageing is being envisioned; towards skills-acquiring and sharing; a push towards enjoying life through ‘Active Welfare’, a concept the organisation defines as follows:

“Perhaps we will all have to work on building a model of “active welfare” based on financial resources adapted to social needs, built on an integrated system of subjects and public and private interventions, where through informal networks, the State, the Third Sector and individual citizens all work to build the social welfare of people, thus strengthening the concept of community and of social cohesion.”  [Auser mission statement, website]

Auser December meeting, Milan December 2018. Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

I do not want to detract from these optimistic and significant attempts to combat ageism, but as ethnographer, I have to also investigate, specifically, what possibilities are/could be available to who – locally, regionally, nationally? From the middle-aged Italians in this fieldsite, I hear a great deal about the devastating economic situation in Italy since the 2008 economic crash, which makes the idea of retiring for many seem nigh on impossible, particularly if sufficient structures of in-family care are not in place due to transnational family lives and financial pressures. Active ageing is is also difficult to envisage amongst some of the individuals, families and groups I am working with from countries such as Egypt, Afghanistan and Peru, many of who currently imagine their futures as continuous work(ing). Noor, 45, a schoolteacher from Alexandria, explains how she “hopes my children will take care of me, as I take care of them…if we are together, Inshallah, we will all be fine.” How, I wonder, will her 15-year old daughter take care of her Mother in years to come? What might potential future Grandparenting be like for Noor, as an Egyptian single Mother living in Milan in her 60s?

Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Ali, Hazara (44), from west Kabul works a number of jobs, including as a night-time lorry driver. His wife and children are currently in another northern European country with his wife’s family. Ali explained the following: “Of course for the future having money is fundamental, but it is also important if you are a helpful person, and do good things for people; for your family, for your people (Hazara), and for humanity.”

Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Noor’s investment in Italy seems to be long-term; her ever-strengthening language proficiency, her children growing up in Italy, attending school and speaking fluent Italian, the death of her parents in recent years back in Alexandria and her own severance from the rest of the family in Egypt means that she feels she is here to stay, intent on growing old near her children. For Ali, currently working in Italy and visiting his family when he can, the geographies of his and his family’s future remains unknown.

My ongoing task then is to consider how people are ageing in – and away from – their homelands, aided by smartphone connections, but in many cases lacking public voice, and/or not involved in many of the dominant culture’s organisations and groups dedicated to ageing, health, and wellbeing. I am continuing to explore about these issues in line with broader conversations about contemporary citizenship, the role of technology, the state and NGO’s, migration trajectories & biographies, and the ongoing categorisation of peoples into strategic kinds of subjects (Giordano 2014). The approach reflects my commitment to studying ageing across cultural lines here in Milan.

References

Giordano, C. (2014). Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy. University of California Press.