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Dependence is the new death — by Marilia Duque

XinyuanWang13 March 2019

Since the beginning of my fieldwork, I’ve been asking people about death and the meaning of life. I thought that on reaching old age, people would accept death more readily and that consciousness (or fear) of death would drive them to philosophical questions about life propose, finitude and legacy. Generally they do experience death more closely: their parents are sick or died a few years ago and so do some of their close friends. But besides their grief, death is not a big issue for them. Religion and spiritual beliefs seem to bring enough comfort and resilience to deal with the end of life and life after death. “I know I am mortal”, “Life doesn’t end here” and “It is a natural thing” are expressions they use when I ask them about death.

In The Philosophy of Ageing, Time and Finitude, Baars (1) argues that consciousness of death is not the only trigger that puts life in perspective. The author highlights that we frequently face extreme situations that make us abandon idols and ideals of what life should be. At those moments, there is just real life and a balance of the past that would give the present and future some meaning. To my informants, dependence became this trigger. Many of them see the loss of autonomy as a first death and some of them wish they could die at the exact moment when they become dependent on others.

On the one hand, they are not sure if their children will take care of them in later years. When I ask them, they answer that they don’t know or they don’t think so or they don’t expect them to. “Things are different now”, they explain. On the other hand, they don’t want to become a burden especially for their kids. Martha, for example, a 63 year-old woman who takes care of her children, had made up her mind. She already told her kids that if she had Alzheimers she would prefer to go to a clinic. “They don’t deserve this burden”, she said.

Like Martha, Linda is not afraid of death, but what comes “before death” is a different matter. She prefers to try to remain healthy as long as she can. In her 70s, she still runs marathons and takes special care of her diet and sleep. Regarding her kids, she believes this is her obligation “people who don’t take care of their health don’t deserve to stay alive”.

There are also people that just don’t want to lose the right to make decisions about their own lives. Maria for example is a very independent 67 year-old woman. She calls herself “bossy” when she talks about family decisions. “I can’t stand the idea that at a certain point in my life my children will think they can tell me what I can or can’t do”, she said.

If dependence is the new trigger for the consciousness of finitude, a good question to ask would be: what gives life a sense of purpose then? My first answer would be legacy. But what I found is that the past is not enough to fulfil life before dependence comes. As my colleague Pauline, who is conducting her fieldwork in Ireland, found out, my informants are more concerned with what they are doing today. They want to feel useful by learning new stuff, engaging with new projects, volunteering or filling their time with whatever they can. Their autonomy is their legacy and that puts life in perspective.

 

Reference:

Baars, Jan. Philosophy of Aging, Time, and Finitude. In: Thomas R. Cole, Ruth E. Ray and Robert Kastenbaum (eds), A Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging: What Does it Mean to Grow Old?, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2010

 

The Burden of Caring in Japan – By Laura Haapio-Kirk

LauraHaapio-Kirk5 January 2018

Image (c) Laura Haapio-Kirk

A recent news story titled Dying at home rather than in hospital, elderly Japanese “go to the afterlife quietly caught my eye with its suggestion of a preference for home deaths in Japan. The location of palliative care and the relationship of a dying person to their caregivers, whether they are relatives or professionals, can reveal a great deal about an individual’s social world, as demonstrated in Miller’s recent book The Comfort of People. Upon closer inspection the article’s title proved to be misleading; Japanese cultural beliefs surrounding death and the avoidance of burdening others (Long, 2012) indicate that the situation is more complicated.

The article claims that the current shortage of hospital beds combined with the expense of professional medical care means that for many people the choice to die in hospital is taken away from them. One reason why hospital care may be preferred over family care is that over half of Japanese carers are pensioners themselves (Hurst, 2017). The Japanese term rou-rou kaigo describes the common practice of care between the elderly. Our ASSA project focuses on people between the ages of 45-70 who may be both experiencing embodied reminders of ageing, while simultaneously caring for their ageing relatives. We will study how care is mediated through technology, specifically through the smartphone, such as by maintaining self-care through mHealth apps or caring for others through connected devices.

In Japan, not wanting to be a burden in death can be understood as a final act of care towards one’s family. I am wondering whether this may help to explain people’s interest in new technologies such as smartphones. Perhaps older people are hoping that technology will give them a means to look after themselves more effectively and so be less dependent upon their families. Or perhaps, as Long’s article suggests, some people resist such technologies precisely in order to preserve what they consider to be traditional Japanese family values. By conducting my research in Japan where life expectancy is the longest in the world, I hope to deepen our understanding of the possibilities afforded by a prolonged mid-life and explore how family relationships and networks of care are affected by the simultaneous rise of the smartphone.

– Laura Haapio-Kirk

 

References

Long, S.O. J. 2012. ‘Bodies, Technologies, and Aging in Japan: Thinking About Old People and Their Silver Products’ in Cross Cultural Gerontology (2012) 27: 119. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10823-012-9164-3

Hurst D. 2017. ‘More than half of Japanese carers are pensioners’ in The Times June 28 2017. Retrived 23..11.2017 (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/half-of-japanese-carers-are-pensioners-themselves-n2v3glbkz)

Dying at home rather than in hospital, elderly Japanese ‘go to the afterlife quietly’ (November 20, 2017) Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-homedying/dying-at-home-rather-than-in-hospital-elderly-japanese-go-to-the-afterlife-quietly-idUSKBN1DK2LB