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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’.

 

 

‘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.

Drawing as ethnographic method

LauraHaapio-Kirk4 February 2019

Drawings made during a group interview about the smartphone.

The anthropological method of participant observation can only go so far when trying to understand the role of an object such as the smartphone in a person’s interior emotional life. The relationship a person has with their phone is deeply connected to the relationships that person has through their phone, to others and to themselves. Yet asking people about their relationship with their phone often yields limited responses: “It’s convenient for staying in touch”, “I rely on it for everything”. People take for granted that the smartphone is a helpful tool, but they typically have not considered their relationship to it specifically, and how it affects their relationships, behaviour, and identity, therefore I needed to find a way to have deeper discussions about the smartphone if I was to understand it in terms of affect. In order to explore the topic directly I thought that engaging informants in drawing might be a way to make the subject more tangible. I asked a group of middle-aged friends to make a two-minute sketch of their relationship with their smartphone, to bring to our next lunch date.

One of the members of the group has been undergoing chemotherapy for the past six months. While I was hoping that the drawing task would elicit reflection on the affective nature of the smartphone, I did not make that an explicit part of the instructions: I only asked if they could represent their relationship with their phone in a drawing. So I was delighted when this woman produced the most striking drawing out of the group, which shows her at the centre holding her smartphone surrounded by the range of ways she is emotionally affected by the smartphone in her daily life. She explained to me:

Especially while I have been sick, the smartphone has become very important to me. It is my connection to the outside world. The days following chemotherapy my body feels drained and I cannot leave the house. During that time if I receive a Line message or sticker from my friend I feel uplifted. But I can also feel sad and disappointed if I hear from my daughter that she is having relationship problems. When I am at the hospital having chemotherapy I watch films on Netflix and they often make me feel emotional. I also sometimes read surprising news stories. My smartphone makes me feel all of these things!

During this time of illness and potential loneliness, the smartphone offers an escape from her present situation to the world beyond.

“During treatment my smartphone connects me to the outside world”

It was striking that half of the drawings were based on a design of the individual at the centre, with feelings or behaviours or information radiating out. When we discussed this as a group, the majority of women said that they feel that the smartphone is the centre of their life (chuushin), some had even written the word on their drawings. They agreed that it is an object that is not only physically close to them but emotionally central too since it connects them with many of the important people and things in their lives. For many of the middle-aged people in my research, beyond this friendship group, shifting from garakei to smartphones meant an increase in dependency on the device for daily activities, from communicating with friends, to arranging nurse visits for their elderly parents, to booking shifts at work, to online banking. One woman told me:

I switched from my old garakei to my smartphone last year when my husband died and I needed to start being more independent. It has completely changed my life – I do everything with it. I recently went to Tokyo to visit my daughter and I would not have been able to do the trip without my smartphone and the maps app.

This increasing dependency on the smartphone was treated with ambivalence by some members of the friendship group in this case study. One woman explained that the smartphone is the centre of her life but she wishes that it was not, because it then becomes a kind of burden.

This idea of the smartphone as a burden was repeated when discussing another similarity between two of the drawings: both depicting the user sitting while looking at their smartphone. For these two women, rather than reply to messages in the middle of doing other activities such as while on the train or walking, they almost always wait to reply to messages when they have enough time to sit and focus only on the smartphone. They explained that they are not capable of multitasking, yet the burden of knowing that there are messages waiting to be replied to gives them the sense that the smartphone is taking too central a position in their lives. They often will not open messages unless they have the time to sit and reply, because they do not want the sender to see that they have read their message and subsequently feel ignored if they do not reply immediately. While the smartphone can increase a sense of burden for some relationships, for others it can ease the burden of care:

My father has a smartphone and he sends me messages all the time, so many of them! Because it is so easy to send messages he tells me what he is eating and what he is doing. Giving him a smartphone is a way that I can care for him when I am not physically there. Although I feel he sends too many messages, it is easy to reply to him with a sticker to show that I care. So while there is more frequent contact, it is less troublesome contact than a phone call which would be disruptive.”

This statement reveals the affective capacity of the smartphone to enable a new kind of care from a distance, which is perhaps even warmer than if it were face-to-face due to its less burdensome nature.

This visual methodological experiment provided a basis for a three-hour discussion of the smartphone. I plan to repeat this experiment with other informants as I think that the activity worked well for focusing a discussion. The participants were all interested to see how their drawings differed from everyone else’s, and they were far more interested in the topic of the smartphone than on previous occasions since they had already spent some time contemplating it beforehand. After the session a number of the women messaged me to say that they had come away from the experience with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the role of the smartphone in their lives. The active nature of drawing enabled people to discuss their affective experiences in a deeper way, and connected people to their feelings about the smartphone more successfully than discussion alone.

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 geographies of health and wellbeing – by Pauline Garvey

LauraHaapio-Kirk15 August 2018

Author: Pauline Garvey

Photo (CC BY) Anna Li

Fairly frequently the Irish media focuses on the ‘downsizing dilemma’ for retirees (O’Rourke 2017), but what receives less attention is the downsizing that comes with marital breakdown. As I conduct research the frequency with which I meet men and women who are separated or divorced is striking. This observation is backed up by recent census data that reveals that separation is currently a significant aspect of life for many Irish families. The Central Statistics Office figures show a significant increase in the percentages of people who separate in the forty-plus age groups (CSO, 2016). The rate of separation peaks at age 48.

This trend in mid-life is significant because, otherwise, marital breakdown is decreasing in the general population. In fact, there was a decrease of 11,115 separated or divorced persons aged under 50 between 2011 and 2016. By contrast there was a substantial increase of 29,224 persons over the age of 50 between 2011-2016. Not only is there an age factor but there is also a gendered dimension in how people report their marital status. Lunn et al. (2009) found that more women than men report themselves to be separated. The conclusion they drew was that men who are separated are more likely to identify themselves as ‘single’ rather than ‘separated’. Also a higher rate of re-marriage by men goes some way to explaining the disparity in figures between the rate of female separation and the rate of male separation, but it also raises questions about how Irish women self-identify following separation (see Hyland 2013).

What we learn from this is that marriage separation is particularly significant for people in their 40s and 50s, that a larger proportion of women do not re-marry and think of themselves as separated rather than single. This alteration in domestic circumstances may be experienced with a mix of emotions but the people I have spoken to are keenly aware of the importance of being accessible to others as they age. This has been discussed with me as either an issue regarding physical (‘what if I fall getting out of the bath?’) or emotional wellbeing (‘my daughter knows when I’m watching Love Island and she’ll text me “he’s a wally” …so I don’t feel alone’). One woman told me of a series of health problems she encountered around the time she was due to retire. As a result of what she calls a ‘bad reaction to life’, she suffered from acute depression and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for 6 months. On her release and return home she described the effect of having automatic text messages sent to her from the hospital as part of her treatment. The text messages that she received were automatic daily messages: ‘they sent me texts every day or every second day saying ‘how are you doing?’, ‘hope everything is ok?’. So although the messages were not personalised, she describes them as  ‘sending some positivity, it was superb to think that someone knew you weren’t well and could send a text to say you weren’t alone’. The key issue for her is that regular text messages inquiring about her health represented ‘a life line, some contact from the outside world to say we care about you and hope you are getting on alright’. 

As my research continues it is clear that while no life experience can be viewed in isolation, the geographies of age, the places that one experiences midlife, can matter a great deal. My respondents are not just well or unwell, they experience age, health, illness or wellbeing in specific places, whether that is in the privacy of their homes, public spaces or doctors’ clinics. Similarly in contrast to being single, this research causes me to consider the ways in which ‘being separated’ is relational? Should we think of separation as a geographical term, suggesting a lingering connection to place as well as to person?

 

Central Statistics Office, Ireland (2016), available online at https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-cp4hf/cp4hf/ms/

Hyland, L. (2013) Doing’ separation in contemporary Ireland: the experiences of women who separate in midlife, D.Soc.Sc Thesis, University College Cork, available online at https://cora.ucc.ie/bitstream/handle/10468/1179/HylandL_DSocSc2013.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

Lunn, P., Fahey, T. and Hannan, C. (2009) Family Figures: Family Dynamics and Family Types in Ireland, 1986-2006, Dublin: ESRI and UCD.

O’Rourke, F. (16/09/2017) The downsizing dilemma? Getting rid of the family furniture, The Irish Times, available online at www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/the-downsizing-dilemma-getting-rid-of-the-family-furniture-1.3214649

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.

 

Work, stress, and health in Japan

LauraHaapio-Kirk4 July 2018

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk

“Because of my job it is not easy to feel Im living a healthy life. If you have a stressful life or stressful job it is a cause of ill-health. Work gives you stress but you need work to be healthy.”

This quote is from Tomoko san, a teacher who is near the age of retirement but is not considering retiring any time soon. She works six days per week and lives alone, her adult daughter living in another city. We met in the botanical garden and, after feeding turtles, we chatted overlooking a small lake and ate rice crackers that she had brought. We talked about health and in particular its relationship to stress which has surfaced as the most commonly cited source of ill-health in my conversations with people so far. She works hard and acknowledges that work stress, particularly social stress from colleagues and parents of students, causes ill-health. But at the same time she recognises that routine and purposeful work keeps her healthy. Her quote above is interesting because it captures this idea of work as both the main cause and prevention of ill-health, expressed in different ways by all of my informants. The routine and stimulation provided by work, especially of interacting with younger colleagues, has been cited as a way that people feel like they might retain their youth and stay healthy.

Diminished mental health, widely recognised by my informants under the umbrella term “stress”, does not appear to be as much of a priority to address as bodily health and fitness. Work and social relations are simply accepted as stressful because of a deference to hierarchical structures within social life. Colleagues often may not leave work until after their boss and then, if they are required to go drinking together, they also cannot leave the bar until their boss wants to. If a boss is insensitive to the exhaustion of their colleagues, this is known as power hara or power harassment. This kind of intense pressure from social bonds is often accepted as a source of stress and ill-health which people can do little about. As one informant told me with a sense of resignation “we (Japanese) have a lot of stress in daily life”. Unsurprisingly the mindfulness trend seen in Europe is also popular in Japan. However one of my informants said that mindfulness is just trendy and that people don’t really practice such activities in their daily lives. Japanese cultural activities such as tea ceremony and flower arranging (ikebana) are also supposed to be a form of paying attention and mindfulness, but as someone told me “ordinary people want to learn (such things) because its cool. For us, the mind is not so important, lifestyle is much more important. Mental health is not visible, whereas your body is, so people easily forget to take care of their mental health. How we look is very important.” One woman in her 40s confirmed these sentiments when she told me that the invisibility of mental health means that people often ignore warning signs and then reach burn-out stage. This is what happened to her while working as a designer, a job which often required 14-hour days. She subsequently quit the profession entirely and is now working as an administrator for a medium-sized company, where she feels less pressure to work excessively and therefore her health has returned.

Another person I have been getting to know is Hiroshi san, a 66-year-old nurse who also works 6 days per week. He tried retirement for 3 months but found that he wasn’t writing the novel he had planned to write, and instead felt anxious that others were doing more than him and being more productive, so he returned to work. For him, his peers are rivals who he feels in direct competition with, and retirement means dropping out of the race. Other people have told me that they don’t want to retire because it’s not healthy, they will just end up watching tv all day long, which they feel will shorten their lives. Work and “ikigai”, or purpose in life, are so bound up with health in Japan, yet in every conversation I’ve had people cite work as their main cause of stress and stress as their main cause of ill-health. This is a paradox I wish to further explore in the coming months.

Author: Laura Haapio-Kirk

Note: all names used are pseudonyms.

Experiences of ageing: as diverse as the experiences of using a smartphone

Alfonso ManuelOtaegui11 June 2018

Photo (CC BY) Garry Knight

Conducting an urban ethnography in Santiago, Chile,  has so far involved looking for opportunities in which to meet people who would agree to share their experiences on ageing and on the role of the smartphone in their everyday lives. As the coordinator of this project, Daniel Miller, once said, ‘Actually, as is often the case in ethnography, the best approach is through volunteering […], which has the clear upside that you are also contributing something’. I started, then, to volunteer as a teacher assistant at a cultural center for the elderly, helping out in two workshops on the usage of smartphones. This experience has been as rewarding as it is interesting. In four weekly meetings the students are taught the basics of smartphone usage: general settings (connecting to Wi-Fi networks, setting screen brightness, etc.), using the camera, WhatsApp and Google Maps. These very enthusiastic and engaged students do not represent the whole spectrum of relationships that the elderly have with the digital world. In a recent study in the UK by the Centre for Aging Better and the Good Things Foundation on the usage of internet by people aged between 55 and 93, the researchers aimed at including three key groups: resistant non-users (people who do not use the internet and do not intend to do so), lapsed users (former users of the internet who had stopped going online) and current users (experienced users and also beginners). If we used the same categories in my field site, we could say that the students of the workshop would be in the third group.

Even though I am working with a limited sample of people and am in the early stages of fieldwork, it is remarkable how ethnography has already allowed me to perceive the complexity of the practices surrounding the smartphone and to question several taken for granted assumptions on the life experiences of the elderly. One of the first things to notice here is the lack of homogeneity in the expectations of usage of smartphone: one lady wants to take HDR pictures to post later on Instagram, a man wants an app to scan QR codes he comes across in flyers, others want to use an app to measure glucose levels. In the same vein difficulties are also diverse: some might find it difficult to understand the difference between (paid) mobile data and (free) WiFi, or to understand the notion of ‘the cloud’, some others might have trouble with the touch interface. This diversity in the usage of the smartphone echoes the general diversity in the experience of ageing. As the psychologist specialized in pyschogerontology, Daniel Thumala, points out: ‘no hay una vejez, hay ‘vejeces’’ (2017). The contrast between the singular and the plural applied to ‘vejez’ (‘old age’) could be translated as ‘there is not one [standard] experience of ageing, there are [several] experiences of ageing”. Several factors play a role in every particular experience of ageing: family (as child and as parent), education, work, eating habits, exercise, toxic habits, etc. (Villalobos 2017). In the same way, several factors play a role in the adoption and usage of smartphones by the elderly: the usage of previous technologies (e.g. familiarity with a keyboard, or with playback icons), family support (e.g. tech assistance provided by grandchildren), education, fine motor skills and general expectations on the usage of the device (e.g. to gain independence, to stay in contact with family, to track bodily functions, etc.).

It will be interesting to go beyond the context of the workshop and to learn how the smartphone is integrated in the diverse experiences of everyday life of these engaged students. Media reports on the smartphone usually focus on the capacities it might bring to the user. If we take that perspective for a moment, even though it is by no means the only possible one, we could ask ourselves in what measure, if at all, the smartphone might be helpful for the elderly to gain higher autonomy. According to Thumala (2017) –and this goes against ageist preconceptions on the dependency of elderly people–, 76% of elderly people in Chile are autonomous. It would be interesting to see if the smartphone plays any role at all in this autonomy.

 

References

Miller, Daniel (@DannyAnth). “Actually, as is often the case in ethnography, the best approach is through volunteering (I am pretty good at making tea), which has the clear upside that you are also contributing something.” 19 April 2018, 12:18 a.m. Tweet.

Richardson, James. 2018. I Am Connected: new approaches to supporting people in later life online. Centre for Ageing Better and the Good Things Foundation. [free download at https://www.goodthingsfoundation.org/research-publications/i-am-connected-new-approaches-supporting-people-later-life-online]

Thumala, Daniela. 2017. Imágenes sociales del envejecimiento. Material del curso “Cómo envejecemos: una mirada transdisciplinaria”, impartido en UAbierta, Universidad de Chile

Villalobos C., Alicia. 2017. Conceptos básicos acerca del autocuidado. Material del curso “Cómo envejecemos: una mirada transdisciplinaria”, impartido en UAbierta, Universidad de Chile.

The marriage bazaar in Shanghai – when ‘match.com’ meets farmer’s market

XinyuanWang18 May 2018

Author: Xinyuan Wang

Early last month, I asked a group of young professionals a question: where can I get to know retired people in Shanghai? “You must visit the People’s Park!” one claimed. “Yes, in the People’s park you will meet the typical Chinese parents who force their children to get married!” one added. “My mum kept arranging blind dates for me, I feel like crying” another one complained. My curiosity got the better of me when I was told the People’s Park is the place where retired Chinese parents would gather and arrange blind dates for their adult children.

I visited the People’s Park the following Sunday. It is a sanctuary with trees, ponds and winding brick paths in the very heart of the city center. In a corner of the park there is a crowded and bustling ‘marriage bazaar’ taking place. Parents in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s gather there to find life partners for their children (fig. 1).

Figure 1: one of the entrances to the marriage bazaar at people’s park
Photo (CC BY) Xinyuan Wang

Personal profiles of singles dangle from strings, lie on floor, are held aloft by parents, and most of them are clipped atop open umbrellas (fig. 2). Lining the brick pathways are more than six-hundred open umbrellas.

Figure 2. Photo (CC BY) Xinyuan Wang

The personal profiles displayed here are extraordinarily plain  – essentially non-visual – pictures and colours are scarce. On a plain A4 size sheet of white paper, a list of personal details, including age, height, household registration area, job, annual income, property ownership, situation of parents (job, health status) are stated outright. The real name and contact details of the person in question are absent, only the mobile number of the person’s parent is provided – to ensure that the parents are the ‘gatekeepers’.

I wondered why these parents don’t go for online dating websites. As far as I observed, it is not because they are unfamiliar with the digital – quite the opposite, all of them have a smartphone in their hands. It is probably because such non-digital meeting is actually more efficient than the online dating. “Here is more reliable, dating websites are for young kids for fun.” one lady in her late 50s said. In the park, parents can immediately arrange a quick face-to-face meeting with the parent(s) of candidates.  The parents chat with each other and if they get along with each other and believe their children match, they’ll then arrange a blind date for their children. It’s a way for parents to put their stamp of approval on a relationship before the couple has even met.

Furthermore, the marriage bazaar developed organically over more than a decade in Shanghai. Retired people were meeting at the park to practice dancing, play chess and cards. As a social hub for retired people, the matchmaking arose naturally as one of the most important and popular topics at this corner. The social function of the marriage bazaar cannot be underestimated: to arrange blind dates in a way is an excuse for a massive congregation of middle-aged people who share similar values.

Chinese young professionals may dislike the way their parents are getting involved in their personal issues, but as a researcher, I am obliged to empathetically engage with both sides, and to understand why this new phenomenon has arisen.

Looking to the Future

Marilia Duque E SPereira3 March 2018

Author: Marilia Duque

By the year 2050, the Brazilian population over 60 years old is expected to grow from 24 million to 66 million[1]. Fortunately, my first impression of the District of Vila Mariana, in São Paulo city, where I have been conducting ethnography since January, is that there are already innumerable initiatives for the elderly, both public and private.

In addition to public health units, there is the AME-IDOSO for example, a centre dedicated exclusively to the care of people over 60, taking referrals from other health units in the city of São Paulo. It provides examinations, medical appointments and treatments, as well as activities such as dance classes. Just a few blocks away, you can find the Elderly Coexistence Centre (NCI), also subsidised by São Paulo City Hall. If you are 60+ and live in the Vila Mariana District you can join a large number of activities such as knitting and crocheting, fitness, circular dancing, senior dance, manual work, pilates, painting on canvas, chanting, memory games and rhythm dancing. I went there the week before the carnival. When I arrived, it was snack time. While one group were doing a dance class in the lounge integrated into a beautiful garden, another group were chatting and eating, all dressed up in traditional carnival ornaments. The worker told me that the menu takes into account the food restrictions and needs of the participants.

(CC BY) Marilia Duque

During this first month, I have already mapped five squares in the neighbourhood, all of them with gymnastics equipment, in another São Paulo City Hall initiative for people over 60 called “Longevity Playground: Happiness is Ageless”.

(CC BY) Marilia Duque

But if you keep walking you will also see many gyms offering activities for the elderly with special prices, not to mention Aqui Fitness, which has a program of physical activities developed by a geriatrician. And just a few minutes away, you can also exercise your mind and improve yourself; the Nossa Senhora da Saúde Parish offers an adult literacy course (20.4% of the population of Brazil over 60 is illiterate[2]), language classes and a Whatsapp course, especially for people over 60.

(CC BY) Marilia Duque

One of my ethnographic challenges is to investigate how the ageing population in the neighbourhood perceives these initiatives. Do they really work? Do they work for everyone? Could appearances be deceptive? This is an important point because Vila Mariana District is far from being a utopia. You can choose to see just the modern buildings that are rising everywhere among the two storey houses. But you will have some difficulty ignoring the Mario Cardin Community, a favela where more than 500 families live in precarious conditions, or the homeless people living on the streets.

(CC BY) Marilia Duque

But for the moment let us take this apparent wealth of amenities at face value. Actually, this raises a rather different question. Do Brazilian people have to get old before they experience something approaching the support and solidarity of an egalitarian state?

 

 

[1] http://www2.camara.leg.br/a-camara/estruturaadm/altosestudos/pdf/brasil-2050-os-desafios-de-uma-nacao-que-envelhece/view

[2] https://agenciadenoticias.ibge.gov.br/agencia-noticias/2013-agencia-de-noticias/releases/18992-pnad-continua-2016-51-da-populacao-com-25-anos-ou-mais-do-brasil-possuiam-apenas-o-ensino-fundamental-completo.html