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‘If you are old, you invented the Internet’: A tribute to a senior geek

Marilia Duque E SPereira22 October 2019

I felt insecure about accepting an offer of website hosting from Dudu Balochini, who suggested we host the two websites we had developed together on his server at no cost. I asked him: “But what if you die?”. I was referring to my access to the servers, but he thought it was about his age since he was almost twenty years older them me (I’m 42). He then challenged me: “What if you die?” And that was how we laughed together and moved on. The first site we published together answered a need from the Center of Ageing Studies located at UNIFESP Medical School. Their researchers monitor the elderly population of a neighbourhood in Sao Paulo, and their studies include investigating the impact of physical activity on ageing. One of the interventions they made was to map out opportunities within walking distance for older people to exercise. This mapping was manually adapted to the address of each patient – a herculean task. But an informal survey showed that 70% of program-assisted seniors have smartphones. I had this information in mind when I met Dudu for a coffee. “Do you think we could make these activities accessible through Google Maps based on people’s location?”, I asked him. And he just said “I already know how to do that. I need two hours”. Twenty-four hours later, he produced the site we called Get Up and Go: nearby activities for the 60+. “I used the Store Location feature in WordPress, but it took me a while because it was blocked for developers from Brazil”, he apologised as though I thought he was late.

The second site is part of my delivery for the applied side of the ASSA Project – Anthropology of Smartphones, Smart Ageing and mHealth. With an ethnographic approach, I observed how WhatsApp was used for health purposes in Sao Paulo. I mapped the best practices and organised them into a set of protocols for communication within hospitals and clinics. I also developed a second set of protocols addressing nutritionists (obesity and being underweight are both health issues among older people in Brazil). Both materials are open-access and should be available for download. That is why I needed a website to publish them. This time, Dudu didn’t develop the website for me. “You’re going to become a SeniorGeek”, he told me. SeniorGeek is an initiative for digital inclusion of seniors created by him. At presentation events addressing older people, Dudu tried to demystify technological themes like Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Chatbots. He believed older people should know about those things or they would be cut off from conversation with children and grandchildren and, moreover, with society. Dudu also believed he could enable seniors to become digital entrepreneurs through courses that teach how to build a website, or an e-commerce or a blog. This is how I became his student. By myself, with the autonomy he wanted all seniors to achieve, I developed and published my WhatsApp manuals at http://www.saudeeenvelhecimento.com.br. In my field site, entrepreneurship gains strength among older people as a means of reintegration into the labor market. This is a consequence of the desire of many to remain productive but it is also their way to respond to corporate ageism. Dudu himself used to say he lived in a limbo: too old for the market, but not a “legal” senior yet.

Dudu was also a public figure. He was often in the media, giving interviews about the relevance of digital inclusion for seniors. At 58, he used to say, “If you are old, you invented the Internet. The problem is that people accommodated and forgot about it”. And he has a point. We just have to remember that Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf, creators of the TCP / IP protocol that enabled the Internet, are now aged 81 and 76 years old. However, ethnography showed me that this detachment from technology was also linked to retirement, when access to technology and needs in daily life change (Selwyn, 2004). Even so, Dudu’s speeches were inspiring and older people felt more confident because of him. Dudu died one week after I left my field site. An abrupt heart attack. On the one hand, he has achieved the death my informants desire the most: a death without illness or disease. I have written before about how my informants do not fear death. On the contrary, they see death as natural and even desire it when they think of the prospect of a future lived with physical, mental or financial limitations. On the other hand, it was an early death. Dudu was gone when he began to experience the purpose of life. I say experience because, among my informants, there is a feeling that the meaning of life is not something that can be explained by past achievements or by spiritual convictions. Therefore, they abandon philosophical reflections on the subject to focus on the present: they live today with purpose, filling daily life with pleasurable activities and, if possible, positively impacting the lives of those around them. Dudu brought these two accomplishments together in an intense agenda of events and courses.

And it was precisely the technology Dudu was so enthusiastic about that mediated his farewell. The news of his death spread via WhatsApp and was shared from group to group, giving rise to dozens of messages. Information about his funeral was also shared throughout the night, as well as information about the seventh day mass. For this last meeting, friends used WhatsApp again to prepare a last tribute. They have the idea to reproduce the “uniform” worn by Dudu, a black T-shirt, with the SeniorGeek logo. And during the days leading up to the mass, they spoke about how this production was made feasible all through their smartphones, as Dudu would like. The mobilisation was properly registered. And the pictures dominated social media again, now accompanied by the text “We are all senior geeks”. Dudu’s original WhatsApp group for his SeniorGeek initiatives was deactivated. A new one named “Senior Geek Connected” was created instead. It’s still a place where older people can find information about technology and new learning opportunities, keeping Dudu’s original idea alive. For him, above all, SeniorGeek was a manifesto against the invisibility of older people, something he believed only technology could solve.

 

 

 

 

Selwyn, N. (2004). The information aged: A qualitative study of older adults’ use of information and communications technology, Journal of Aging Studies, 18, 369–384

 

50 colours of menopause – reframing the ‘age of despair’. By Maya de Vries and Laila Abe Rabho

LauraHaapio-Kirk30 September 2019

Authors: Maya de Vries and Laila Abe Rabho

Photo (CCBY) Maya de Vries. Activity at the senior’s club: colouring pine cones.

Right from the beginning of the ASSA project, one of the main topics that we discussed was menopause. Although menopause is less of a taboo, and people talk about it much more in the al-Quds field site compared with some of the other ASSA sites, it took a us a while to be able to speak with informants about this sensitive topic. We discovered that for many women speaking about the physical and mental ramifications of menopause is still not easy to do and they tend to be shy and even embarrassed by it. It was only recently, after a year spent at the field site that gathering information about menopause became easier, mainly because women felt more comfortable to open up.

Research about menopause in al-Quds is rare. However there is some research about this issue focusing on the West Bank. In the article Age of despair or age of hope? Palestinian women’s perspectives on midlife health (Hammoudeh et al., 2017), authors depict the perception of menopause among Palestinian women in the West Bank who were born between 1960-1975. They clearly say that they had no access to Palestinian women in Jerusalem due to political and security problems entering Jerusalem from the West Bank.

The term used in Arabic in medical literature and discourse to describe menopause in the West Bank and in al-Quds is the ‘age of despair’ (sin al-yaas). However, in Hommoudeh’s article this term was unpopular with the women interviewed, and they preferred not using it. Similarly, in al-Quds, women that we spoke with in Dar al-Hawa, do not like to use this term. They are familiar with it, but do not wish to use it when talking about themselves, since it is not describing them correctly. The word despair is not relevant for them and perceived as negative, whether they are married with children, widowed, married with no children, or never married. They simply do not see themselves as in despair; for them it is very strong word, that does not describe their daily life.

The women we interviewed knew that they are in their midlife, but midlife for them means much more than just menopause, which carries negative associations. Many women articulated a positive view about midlife and ageing as a natural process that is part of life. Midlife, is considered to be an age of peacefulness and wisdom in the Holy Quran. The ‘age of despair’ is not mentioned; the term to describe older people is ‘old in years’ (Kbar fi al-Snin or Sheikhoukha, referring to old people, but they tend to see their age as an advantage because of increased life experience.

While talking with the women in al-Quds we found out that they talk about menopause in private and intimate situations such as meetings with girlfriends or with other women from their family. In such occasions, they talk more about the various physical symptoms characterising this age, such as – hot flashes, tension, incontinence, lack of sleep and more, and less on the mental issues that might appear. Some said that they were sure that these symptoms will pass with no need for medical treatment. They thought menopause is natural thing, and temporary. What was interesting to hear is how they refer to the term ‘menopause’, and what are the alternatives they are using instead.

In Yasmin’s (42) interview she referred to menopause as the ‘safety age’, when there is no chance to get pregnant.

yes, I have heard about it, there is another term that is used as an alternative to menopause and it’s the safety age. I know many women relatives and friends that reached this period of their life, but they never said that they were going through it (menopause). I think that this term is wrong, because there is no age that stops women.

Abeer (58) called menopause in a different name, considering it as ‘maturity age’, while referring not just to physical consequences of menopause, which are usually negative, but also to a better self.

I have been through the menopause period, I consider it maturity age, in this period women feel that they are able to take decisions by themselves, she feels that she is strong, she lives her life the way she wants, before the menopause her life was different.

Tagreed (60) sees menopause in contrast to what it represents. For her, the role of the women as grandmother is significant:

I don’t know, maybe when women reach this period her role in life ends, on the contrary, I believe that they are wrong because in this period her role becomes even more important than before, she takes care of her grandchildren, her children get married, she takes care of everything, and all the family depends on her. They think that if her period stops, that she is no longer able to become pregnant, her role in life ends. In contrast, in this period she takes care of her grandchildren, and her children depend more on her.

Tentatively, we can say that the term ‘age of despair’, is no longer relevant, and the concept of a novel, ‘golden’ prestige age is rising now. Our guess is that there are plenty of reasons for this shift, mainly because medicine is progressing and leisure activities are more commonly pursued. We will continue exploring how the digital environment impacts on this change; this still is an enigma for us, as many of our informants are not using digital devices, or health apps heavily. Some do not even carry a smartphone.

Interestingly, just as the term ‘menopause’ is being reframed, the same is happening also with the term ‘old’, as many in al Quds refrain from using it as it might be considered insulting. Many times, we see the word “seniors” instead of old, switching the word out of respect. A small example of the change in discourse can be seen in the new WhatsApp group opened two weeks ago by the coordinator of the seniors’ club under the name ‘The group of the golden age club’. The previous WhatsApp group, which is now being abandoned by its members, was called ‘The group of the older people of Dar al-Hawa’. The ‘golden’ age highlights the possibilities this age, despite menopause, can offer. Is this reframing simply concealing what is really happening in this age? Or due to various changes in the modern world, is ageing is coloured in gold? So far the al-Quds’s field site tells us that ageing is changing, and if you are financially secure, yes – you can experience the ‘golden age’.

 

 

Health and Ethics – by Pauline Garvey

LauraHaapio-Kirk1 August 2019

Author: Pauline Garvey

The current advertising slogan for Gaelic Sports Clubs is ‘Where We All Belong’. The girl is shown holding a hurl for the sport called camogie. Gaelic sports including camogie for women and hurling for men have a huge national following, all-Ireland finals easily fill the national stadium with 80,000 spectators.

 

Why is it important to be active, or is it important to be active in specific ways? In recent years there has been mounting focus on health and wellbeing, as evident in the launch of the ‘Healthy Ireland Framework’ (2013-2025) a Government-led initiative that aims to enhance the population’s health. In this initiative health is presented as a public good, of individual and social concern. In the face of troubling temptations that arise with modern lifestyles the launch of this framework explicitly carries an ethical imperative: individual health, it asserts, affects the quality of everybody’s life experience. It is for the collective good to maintain one’s health. The approach recommends that the way to enhance wellbeing is less by focussing on the negative and more by highlighting what one can do to stay well. It recommends, in other words, a focus on the positive instead of the retribution of a poor quality of life that comes with bad behaviour.[i]

Often such initiatives focus on activities. From my fieldwork with middle-class Dubliners I have learned that staying well and being healthy is often talked about as routinised and collective in nature. People gather to walk, run or do yoga and the group aspect is an essential ingredient in the diverse efforts to stay healthy. When people talk of ‘activities’ they are often referring to group activities rather than solitary ones. Lots of keep-fit activities like walking or running can be done alone, yet they seem to be more successful when done with others. Respondents who attend tai chi classes might attend with a friend, and even if they don’t join these groups to extend their social networks they seem to prefer them to following a YouTube course online. This is interesting because it implies there is an added feel-good factor to the demonstration of healthy living beyond the benefits that come with social interaction. It is not just about being healthy, I suggest, but pursuing health in the company of others carries an added benefit in a cultural context where consensus is highly valued.

Younger respondents who have children report emphasis on mindfulness in schools where the health and wellbeing of children and young adults is couched as a social and spiritual category as much as a physical one. The National Council for Curriculum for example states that in ‘health promotion, health is about more than physical health and wellbeing. It is also concerned with social, emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing.’[ii] What we are seeing therefore is an interesting blurring of health, ethics and even spirituality to the degree that it is difficult to discern their distinctions.

 

References:

[i] A Framework For Improved Health and Wellbeing 2013 – 2025, available online https://assets.gov.ie/7555/62842eef4b13413494b13340fff9077d.pdf)

[ii] The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. https://curriculumonline.ie/getmedia/007175e5-7bb7-44c0-86cb-ba7cd54be53a/SCSEC_SPHE_Framework_English.pdf

‘Ikigai’ – what is your purpose in life? By Laura Haapio-Kirk

LauraHaapio-Kirk25 July 2019

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk.

I went to meet Wada san* on his land in the heart of the mountains of Tosa-cho, where he grows the plant sasaki, common in Shinto ceremonies and used to decorate altars. He keeps ducks who help him to take care of his rice by eating weeds and harmful insects, and by fertilising the rice crop. He knows the paths and trees in his forest as well as a city person would know the streets and buildings of their neighbourhood. School children often come here to learn about nature and see how we can work with it, such as by making beautiful things out of wood, or healing ourselves with plant remedies. He told us that the plants that are able to grow and thrive here in the mountains, growing up through other vegetation, have the strength to survive and therefore when you eat them you too gain some of that vitality. Along with my research assistant Lise Sasaki and two friends, we spent several hours walking and talking together about happiness and the things in life that give a sense of purpose, in Japanese termed ikigai. While this is quite an abstract term, Wada san was able to explain his ideas through vivid analogies to the landscape that surrounds him.

“What is happiness? Human being’s happiness… I’ve heard that it is health. But after that, its whether or not you find the job you want to devote your life to. I have lived through many jobs and have picked up skills throughout. Now I use those skills to do what I do, my passion. My life story, my life history is written in the mountains, and is remembered by the mountains. Working in an office, once you retire someone else will take on your job. But in this rural area the trees I have planted will grow and remain here, and the trees will be cut down and I will plant them again. It will be a cycle. Not only that cycle, but here – (shows us the rings of a cut tree) you can see how much it has grown, how much it has lived. The trees, even if they are chopped, they will live on as someone else’s house or in another form. It reincarnates as several things. Trees live once in the mountains, giving us oxygen and giving to us our life. And it lives that way. But in its second life, it is transformed into our homes, giving us comfort. We can’t see the oxygen, but it produces it – let’s say it was living in the mountains for 50 years and then it was chopped down and lived as a house for 50 years. Then it has lived for 100 years.”

Wada san explained that trees, like humans, are naturally wild, but that with the right kind of nurture they can find their way in the world. He said that when we are becoming an adult we have to choose our path in life and our role in society – trees are the same. For many people I have spoken to the idea of ikigai is linked to the satisfaction you gain by fulfilling your role in society, especially when you see your positive impact on others. Whether through making delicious bean paste sweets and sharing them with people, or in taking workshops to become a better teacher for your students, people agree that one element of ikigai is about trying your best in serving others.

Everyone has a different definition of ikigai. For some people it refers to dreams and ambitions, such as pursuing a career as an artist, for others it is about doing daily activities which align with one’s interests such as learning English, or for others it is more about the thing in life that you could not live without, such as your children. For some people it is about enjoyment of life, for others it is about the fulfilment of obligations, and some people are in between – a sense of ikigai can come in both difficult and joyous moments and it is more about an underlying feeling of immersion in life.

The English translation of “purpose in life”, it seems, is completely inadequate for understanding the broad range of meanings that ikigai can have in Japan. In England we often talk about life dreams, or working towards goals that we want to achieve. But it seems that people here think about life purpose in a more subtle way, through trying your best day-to-day and being fully present in whatever you are doing. Wada san explained that we must live in the now, rather than waiting for happiness in the future. I think this is an important lesson for us all, especially for people living hectic city lives far removed from the cycles and rhythms of nature. We can often get caught up in our to-do lists and anxieties rather than being fully aligned with our passions and the flow of life.

Human beings are always worried, human being all have anxiety. If your passion wins over, you’re okay. If anxiety takes you over, you can’t take a step. You think life and death are far apart? They’re next to each other. You can die anytime you know? It’s up to you whether you stay anxious or live to the fullest, with passion.” 

Thank you to Wada san for sharing your time, wisdom, and inspiring passion for nature with us.

 

*Wada san is a pseudonym because this man preferred to remain anonymous.

The Words of “oldness” in Yaoundé — by Patrick Awondo

XinyuanWang18 January 2019

Hat weaving, common creative by Max Pixel

In a book published in 2004 the French linguist Alain Montandon[1] brought together studies that show how old age is expressed in different languages, not only Indo-European languages, but also in other parts of the world and especially in Africa. Montandon argues that these amount to two universal traits.

Firstly, in almost all languages, there are various categories  of old age, especially a division between terms implying  physical old age as against normative categories of old age. For example, old age may be considered a “a gift of God, a spiritual achievement”. At the same time, old age is linguistically expressed in terms of declining physical abilities, such as impotence. The decline of the body may become linguistically associated with  personality disorders that contrast other images of an old person who is “happy, harmonious, full of wisdom and serenity “.

Perception of old age may reference elements of physical modification, such as the appearance of white hair. Montandon also notes the sociocultural variability of age categorizations. Almost always signs of are or relative maturity are different when applied to the poor as opposed to the rich.  Our comparative project accentuates these economic differences because of its focus upon retirement, which presupposes a formal structure of employment, that cannot be assumed for some of our fieldsites, and this shows the importance of such comarative studies. With these thoughts in mind, what do the linguistic expressions of the perception of old age tell us about  Yaoundé and Cameroon?

Expressing old age in Yaoundé

Originally inhabited by the Ewondo, Yaoundé is today home to nearly 3 million people from across Cameroon. French is the most commonly spoken official language across the country, employed by 80% of the population followed by English.[ref UNESCO]. So linguistic terms testify to a creativity that speaks to the dynamics of contemporary French aligned with borrowings from many national and local languages which remain strong alongisde the two official languages. For example, Ewondo, the Bantu langauge of Yaounde.

However, I would prefer to start with the Ewondo language, which belongs to the Bantu group.  In Ewondo the expression “Nya modo”, ‘this cultural area and modo ‘man’. ‘Nya modo’ is a name and a notion that refers to a person perceived as old, as well as a concept symbolically meaning the attributes of nobility of spirit, of wisdom. Even today, the expression ‘Nya modo’ refers to people who are seen as being middle aged, the most prestigious age group, superseding even the elderly. The term is made up of nya’ meaning ‘mother’ and modo which means man in the sense of the human species. The female equivalent of ‘nya modo’ is ‘nya minega’, which carries less status.

Aging: age, social status and moral discourse

In everyday French, older age is often expressed through a term analogous with the English expression ‘of a certain age’  which for people in Yaounde seems to translate as ‘as an intermediate age’, neither too old nor too young, implying people over 50 years old. The informants of Yaounde often say “he / she has an old age” while the expression “advanced age” could mean an “older person”. The top end of this category according to most informants would be around 70 years old. When a Yaoundéan feels that a person “of a certain age” says things which are deemed unworthy, he will be called “an old man like that” or an “old woman like that”, making clear the moral expectations that are associated with the process of ageing  This puts forward a moral expectation related to ‘getting old’.  In this manner we can see the linguistic variety within yaoundé that help to both forge categories for labelling the stages of ageing, but also represent these as having moral and cultural expectations against which the actual people are judged. . These games of linguistic meaning are important especially because the people who are thereby designated with both labels and normative expectations have then to confront the manner in which they have been defined.

[1] For more please see Alain Montandon (études rassemblées par), Les Mots du Vieillir, Clermont-Ferrand, Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2004.

Let’s laugh together

Marilia Duque E SPereira26 December 2018

Author: Marilia Duque

Marilia (left) with her friend

One year of fieldwork and I must say, I am here laughing alone whilst I remember all the good times I had with my informants. At first I could have argued that most of them were fighting against the stigmas of ageing. On one hand, it means that they were trying their best to hide their physical limitations in order to keep their independence and their autonomy. On the other hand, it also means they were trying to adapt to the model of successful ageing, the image of respectful old people who are healthy, productive and socially engaged. Yes, they are always alert and fighting for their space and that resistance can result in a kind of self-surveillance, with a zero-tolerance with those who try to make fun of old people.
But wait until you are accepted by the group, wait until they feel comfortable with your presence and you will be surprised. They laugh at old people all the time. They recognize their frailties and they make fun of them. I was at an event with old people last week, and an old lady was stealing the scene, dancing with her very long hair, when one jealous old woman whispered to me “her geriatric diaper will fall”. After a while, when the lunch was served and a long queue of old people had formed, one of them said laughing, “where is the senior row? I have priority”. They also make jokes of issues like impotence, lack of memory, deafness, insomnia and their difficulties with technology. They address with humour the amount of time they spend in hospitals, all they have to do to pay their health insurance, how young people think they are stupid and how they feel tired after they have to pretend they were not “that old”.
We shared incredible moments together when they were not old people anymore. They were just human beings facing some difficulties in life and getting old day after day, just like me and anyone else.

We are all going to die before we get old

DanielMiller2 December 2018

When The Who sang ‘I hope I die before I get old’, the underlying assumption was that unless they died first they would become elderly. For The Beatles we were already sitting by the fireside knitting a sweater or with grandchildren on the knee by the age of 64. As a result it is possible to give a precise date to the ‘death’ of the elderly, which is 28th May 2007, when a band called The Zimmers consisting of people who had to use zimmer frames, sang ‘I hope I die before I get Old’ on the BBC. They later also covered You Gotta Fight for your Right to Party.

When we started this project I was aiming to concentrate on what I called Mid-Life, roughly between 45-70. It didn’t take long to realise I had been hopelessly simplistic. Mid-Life would need to be between two other categories. But this doesn’t really work if people no longer regard themselves as getting old or elderly. What our fieldwork demonstrates is how variable this issue of age and elderly has become. To have a fixed age bracket makes no sense when people rarely live into that bracket in our Kampala site, routinely retire at 50 in Shanghai and are still planting rice at 95 in Japan. But the other major issue is that in each site one senses that becoming elderly is turning into a choice. Visiting our Palestinian site it was clear that many women in their sixties are comfortable taking on the clothing, mannerism and activities designated for that separate senior group that could be called elderly. In my own Irish fieldsite there remain some people where this is still the case. Most conspicuously at the rather misnamed Active Retirement Group that is dedicated to playing bingo and a few mild activities such as tea dances, but clearly rejected the suggestion that they might replace bingo on one occasion with computer classes.

As fieldwork has progressed, it has been increasingly clear that they represent a declining proportion of people, in that most I meet of the same age as those in this relatively (in)Active Retirement Group, feel no affinity with that shift into a category of elderly. Nor do they relate to the idea of mid-life. Instead they state firmly, if slightly apologetically, that they feel in almost every respect youthful. The Rolling Stones were prescient in that apparently, they will Not Fade Away.

The Rolling Stones at Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, USA, performing at Summerfest festival on June 23, 2015 – Photo by Jim Pietryga (wikemedia commons)

The people I meet really do feel that youth was wasted on the young and they spend their time power walking, and bicycling if they are fit enough, or otherwise playing intensely competitive bridge and learning new skills such as painting or singing. They still listen to rock music and at least consider dating, if appropriate. When, as here, a 13 year old is desperate to see 72 year old Cher at Las Vegas the relationship between music and age is pretty unclear.

The other side to this change is that previously to be senior was to gain ‘wisdom’ and respect. This made sense in an agricultural society where older people were skilled as a result of longer experience. But the skills that matter more today consist of things like using smartphones. Many of these older people welcome this loss of wisdom because it is replaced by continued equality with youth, rather than being placed in another category. On a committee they are listened to simply to the extent that others find their argument convincing, the same as everyone else.

The category elderly is likely to remain but now seems to designate physical disability and the dependence upon others, within which the clearest example is dementia. People recognise that there will eventually be a physical deterioration leading to death, so the category is more about dying and incapacity, rather than entering a different cultural category. Until then they will not regard themselves as having become old, however white their hair or resplendent their liver spots. Different societies are moving in this direction at different speeds but my prediction is eventually we will all die before we get old.

 

Sharing is caring: communities of abundance in rural Japan

LauraHaapio-Kirk22 October 2018

Harvested corn. Illustration by Laura Haapio-Kirk

Last week I returned from ten days among the wonderful people of my rural fieldsite in Kochi prefecture. The vibrant green rice terraces I had been mesmerised by back in August are now the colour of gold, and in the fields small pyramids of drying rice are beginning to appear. It is harvest season and I was able to experience first hand, as people kept telling me, how Kochi is truly a land of abundance. I was given bags of chestnuts and yuzu lemons, and large Japanese pears (nashi); people here are adamant about sharing the fruits of their labour. The gifting of food binds the community and is, as one woman told me, important for creating a feeling of wealth without money: “Even if we have no money here in Kochi, we have abundance because we can grow so much delicious food and we love to share it.”

Community is sustained in this small rural town through a number of institutional initiatives, such as group activities for elderly residents, or regular workshops in the town hall, for example for new mothers. But it is also through these informal networks of reciprocal giving that community is made. The building and sustaining of community is especially important to people here because Japan’s ageing and shrinking population is felt most acutely in rural areas. It is not rare to come across abandoned schools which have been repurposed as community spaces, and indeed entire empty villages. Yet, I have also come across another quite different picture – young people and families moving into this rural town in search of a slower pace of life and self-sustainability. I have met numerous families who left behind jobs in cities both in Japan and abroad, to start new lives in a place where they feel safe; both protected by a community that looks out for each other, and as a number of people have told me, far enough away from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 for the food to not be contaminated.

Akaushi – a famous breed of local cow. Illustration by Laura Haapio-Kirk.

This group of relatively recent immigrants, who have mostly arrived within the last eight years, are active on Facebook community groups where they buy and sell clothing, and post about local events. I have been told that local people are less active on Facebook, but perhaps more reliant on one-to-one messaging through Line. However, I have come across local people practicing traditional crafts who share their work on social media. For example, one woodworker in his sixties who uses Instagram to promote his products has customers as far as Tokyo. He told me “It is important for us to be active online because this is how we can reach the rest of Japan and the world, and show the beautiful things that we make here from nature.” Indeed, one of the first people to move to this community eight years ago blogged about her experience and inspired others to follow her move from urban to rural living. Blogs and social media are one way that people in rural Japan can influence a wider perception of the rural from being depopulated and dying, to re-populated and thriving. Social media also provides an opportunity for local people to build and develop their community in new ways. As my bags of fruit demonstrate, they have always had an extraordinary tradition of sharing.

Conducting a health check in rural Japan

LauraHaapio-Kirk22 August 2018

Earlier this month I was invited to help in an annual health check in a rural town in Kochi prefecture. I had wanted to find a rural comparative site to my main fieldsite of Kyoto, so when Dr Yumi Kimura, a researcher at Osaka University, invited me to participate in the health check, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to establish myself in a rural community. I arrived in Kikuyama* on a Sunday afternoon along with my research assistant, Lise Sasaki, and about 50 other researchers, students, doctors, and dentists. The five-hour train and bus journey from Kyoto ran alongside sparkling clear turquoise rivers winding their way through lush mountains.

We were first briefly taken to a scenic spot to view rice terracing; breath-taking luminous green tumbling down the mountainside. But that was the limit of our sightseeing; we soon got down to business. We were expecting to welcome about 300 people to the health check over the next five days so we spent that Sunday afternoon preparing. The health check was to take place in a large hall adjacent to the town’s health clinic. We set up distinct areas for different kinds of medicine and tests, including areas for dentists, cardiologists, gynaecologists, mobility and dexterity tests, dementia tests, driving tests, blood tests, and a space for general practitioners to give consultations at the end of the visit. The area where Lise and I were stationed featured a machine called InBody which we used to measure body fat and muscle percentage.

The machine works by running a small electric current via electrodes placed on the fingers and ankles. Over the course of the week, while we attached and removed electrodes, we had a chance to chat with people about their health. This was a great opportunity to meet a large number of people in a short space of time and to establish myself as a known person to this community. Many were very surprised to see a foreigner, and some even asked to touch my hair, telling me it was the first time they had seen someone with fair hair and skin up close. Given the hectic nature of the health check we were only able to have long conversations with a few people, most were limited to about five to ten minutes. However, we managed to get a sense of the topics that were most insistent and frequently occurring in relation to health: work, food, luck, and community. Identification of these key topics will direct my conversations that are scheduled during my return trip in October, when I am planning to conduct more in-depth interviews and also do filming. Without participating in the health check I feel it would have taken much longer to build up trust with this rural community, especially as a foreigner, but now we have many invitations to visit people in their homes.

I will save a longer discussion of the above mentioned topics for a blog post after my second visit to the site, but for now I will briefly explain why the topic of work appears so pertinent to understanding how health is conceived in this community. Most people we met were rice farmers or foresters, often still working well into their 80s. The foresters had extremely big hands which were often missing fingers, and the rice farmers were deeply tanned from spending their days in the fields. This is hard work which leaves its mark on the body, yet when asked what is the secret to staying healthy and energetic (genki) in old age nearly everyone said that daily work is key. Men and women appeared to be equally committed to farming, while all of the foresters were male. For some farming had been a life-long career, and for others they had taken it up after retiring from other jobs. While the physical nature of strenuous work appears to benefit the physical health of these strong elderly people, I am particularly fascinated by how the sociality of work affects people’s emotional and mental health. Farming requires communication, not only with suppliers and buyers, but also with fellow farmers about how to cooperate and to manage seasonal fluctuations. People also mentioned that they socialise with people who do the same work: a rice farmer will go and have sake now and then with fellow rice farmers in their association. The significance of work for health in later life appears to be about more than staying active or having an income, it seems to be central to maintaining a sense of belonging within a community. I look forward to further exploring this topic, along with the others, in the months to come.

 

Text and Illustrations by Laura Haapio-Kirk

*A pseudonym is used in order to protect privacy.

The Challenge of Menopause

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.