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Bringing Ageing to Life

alex.clegg12 May 2022

Author: Charlotte Hawkins

On 8th June, the ASSA team will host a workshop to bring together different anthropologists of ageing. This will include discussion of comparative papers from each of the team members.

My paper, written alongside ASSA researcher Laura Haapio-Kirk, offers a comparative perspective of ageing and how it is defined around the world. Whilst we bring insights from our colleague’s research, the bulk of the ethnographic comparison is based around my work in Kampala, Uganda, and Laura’s in Osaka, Japan; despite contrasting socio-demographic circumstances, with Uganda one of the world’s youngest populations, and Japan one of the world’s oldest, this comparative framework offers an opportunity to explore how people redefine age and older personhood in ever-changing circumstances, particularly in light of shifting intergenerational relationships.

Like the rest of the ASSA team, both Laura and I quickly realised that the ‘mid-life’ or ‘middle age’ (45-70 years old) category we had set out with, was not particularly applicable in our research contexts. For example, amongst my participants in Uganda, including older people, health workers, researchers of ageing[i] and age-based advocacy organizations in Kampala such as The Aged Family Uganda (TAFU), Uganda Reach the Aged Association (URAA), HelpAge Uganda, Health Nest Uganda (HENU), age is more likely to be determined by the experience and health of the individual, as well as their income and environment. People with sufficient experience and social status could be considered an elder at as young as 40 years old. Or, in Japan, older age categories are shifting within the ‘super ageing society’. While such age-based categories may be required for developing policy regarding health care and work, Laura found that such categories are of diminished importance for most people in their daily lives. For example, while people may recognise that they are suffering from age-based illnesses or use the category of ‘elderly’ when struggling with their smartphone (“I can’t do it, I’m elderly!”), in their day-to-day lives they also enjoy many continuities with their younger selves and feel rather that their interests and personality have actually become even more pronounced with age. Or, in Ireland, Brazil, Chile and China, people aged 45-70 rebuke the stereotypes associated with middle age which is something the ASSA project explored in more depth as this short video shows.

This is not to say that age categories are not also socially significant, but that they do not necessarily acquire meaning in line with the chronological concept of age we had set out with. Instead, our comparative discussion shows that age categories are socially negotiable, which means that they are dynamic, experiential and continually evolving, but also often articulated in line with established intergenerational norms and family roles. In this articulation, what values are brought to life, re-established, and experienced as part of ageing? How does this relate to contemporary contexts informed by global marketisation, migration, urbanisation and digitisation?

The ASSA project has documented various ethnographic examples which demonstrate how age is redefined by our research participants in diverse settings and within a shared global context of population ageing, longer life expectancies, declining public health investment and increasingly individualised self-responsibility. These redefinitions tend to disrupt chronologies, for example in resistance to meanings attributed to ‘middle age’ or ‘elderly’, and in the more relational and experiential definitions of age, ‘bringing ageing to life’. Often, we found that people seek to re-define established categories of age based on their experience as it deviates from that of their parents’ generation or public discourses around ageing. In some cases, this may reflect ‘active ageing’ discourses or even ageist attitudes, which tend to discriminate against inactivity, poor health and appearances of age.

[i] Thanks to Dr. Annet Nankwanga, Dr. Betty Kwagala and Dr. Abel Nzabona at Makerere University for introducing categories of age in the Ugandan context.

Sixty may be the New Fifty but is Twenty Six the New Old?

alex.clegg14 April 2022

Anonymous illustrator in late 19th century Germany. William Ely Hill (1887 – 1962), a British cartoonist, produced a later, well-known version.

Author: Sheba Mohammid

In Trinidad and Tobago, we may not have Ponce De Leon’s fountain of youth, but we do have a pool. It’s technically an offshore sandbar, but we’ll save that ecology lesson à la David Attenborough for another time. In local folklore, taking a dip in our Nylon pool, can take 10 years off your appearance. But then what is age appearance, or biology, when as many of our research participants say they simply “do not feel their age”.

Here as elsewhere there are many popular clichés as to how sixty is the new fifty, or thirty the new twenty. It is not so much that people think they can transcend age, but frustration with the inelasticity of these categories, a revelry in defying expectations and complicating the linearity associated with ageing as fixed numerically and cumulatively in its standardisation of set expressions.

In fact, the group that emerged in my study as most commonly defining themselves as ‘old’ was actually twenty-something year olds who would regularly complain to me about their feelings of “getting old”. They brought up the topic of ageing more than any other group. Mona sighed with disbelief and exasperation when she told me she had turned twenty-eight that year. There was a shared feeling among many twenty-something year olds that when they crossed 25 and especially as they approached thirty, they were approaching a major milestone that marked the end of their youth. Whether this past phase of their twenties was enraptured by the indifference often associated with youth was not the point so much as the sense that they were leaving something intangible behind that was gone faster than they could ever quite grasp what it was. Much of this had to do with ideas of ageing being linked to ideas of responsibility, domesticity and stability and anxieties of being able to perform these. Many people felt that they had not reached as far as they were supposed to in starting a family, securing a house or finding a foothold in a career trajectory. These feelings were buttressed by feelings of being delayed even further in their prospects by the Covid-19 pandemic.

You may have noticed the picture at the start of this blog, William Elly Hill’s rendition of Young Woman, Old Woman Ambiguous Figure first created by an unknown German cartoonist in the late 19th Century. It is an illusion where if you stare long enough you will see an old and young woman in the same picture. This was the image that came to mind, a metaphor of sorts for the disruption of thinking of ageing as linear and a questioning of the convenient packaging of dichotomies and what they exclude in their delineations.

In my research it was commonplace for both male and female participants of all ethnicities aged 26 to 29 to say “I’m getting old” not ironically but as an exclamation of ageing as unwelcome, unwanted and certainly coming too fast. This discourse is part of a complex lexicon surrounding ageing in Trinidad and Tobago. Maturity embodied in terms like “getting big” or “being a big woman” were met with positive associations but the idea of “getting old” and ageing were often sources of dread. Twenty-something year old’s expectations of ageing were defined in opposition to a general sense of physical fitness and mental freedom from responsibility that they ascribed to youth. They saw this as their experience during school days bringing nostalgia to this period. “Getting old” was reflected in having additional responsibilities and growing weaker and out of shape. By comparison they simultaneously noted that their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or neighbours “looked young for their age”. These tensions regarding perceptions about “getting old” problematised the term and underscored the challenges of neatly ascribing age groups as categories and ageing as linear.

How these perceptions of ageing intersect with and impact health are also complex and often problematic. Firstly, when I talked to participants about their feelings of mental wellbeing, they often expressed anxiety and distress surrounding ageing and its negotiations. Secondly, participants often equated “being old” with “being sickly”. These constructions of ageing and health are laden with further tensions and contradictions. For example, participants in their twenties often express that they are “getting old” but do not equally lay claim to feeling that they need to be aware of health with a poignant “yet” often attached to their statements. Similarly, participants upwards from their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and beyond often do not want to think about getting their blood sugar or blood pressure tested as these associations of ageing and illness are a downer and at odds with the Trinidadian sentiment that “Yuh have to live yuh life” with a subtext of clinging to vitality of youth rather than falling prey to the perceived trappings of ageing. Getting “sugar” (diabetes) or “pressure” (hypertension) are often framed among participants as diseases linked with senescence and not something to concerned about until bothersome or threatening symptoms appear. Doctors we spoke to argued that these beliefs delay testing and preventive health care, as they are seeing rising numbers of lifestyle diseases like pre-diabetes, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension among all age brackets. They also express concern regarding indications of these rising undiagnosed, “silent” killers as people admit that they do not get tested or only attempt to adjust their lifestyle factors like diet when they have fallen seriously ill.

This is one of the reasons when Daniel Miller and I thought of an applied project, we made the decision to be inclusive about ages and target a wide range of Trinis (Trinidadians) as our research demonstrates that many of the health challenges are linked to wider socio-cultural and systemic issues that are certainly not packed up into neat demographic categories of ageing. At first there was an urge that in studying ageing, I should focus on retired individuals or at least start with those aged over forty but in researching perceptions of Trinis, it became clear that understanding ageing, mobile phones and health necessitated deeper inquiry into a wider network of demographics. On the other hand, many people we spoke to about the potential project urged us to focus only on school children for our nutrition education campaign as they felt it was too late for everyone else who had already built their habits and would not be interested in learning or sharing ideas. We also want to challenge that assumption. Instead, we plan to create enjoyable formats that move away from top-down pedagogies and embrace learning from each other at all ages.