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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.

Circle of life – Ageing in Dar al-Hawa

Maya De Vries Kedem27 October 2020

By Laila Abed Rabho and Maya de Vries

While doing our ethnography in Dar al Hawa for almost two years, one of the songs that kept playing in our heads was Elton John’s “Circle of life”. It is not our intention to compare the ethnographic work to a Disney animation movie. However, when talking to people in Dar al-Hawa, young and old, “the circle of life” was a main concept in people’s lives. This notion is deeply embedded in everyday life, in terms of religious practices, beliefs, culture, language and the relationship to older people in the community. But it is not only older people that this notion is important to. We came to learn that the notion, or better said, the perception of “the circle of life” in Dar al-Hawa applies, first and foremost, to the individuals in society who are considered to be more vulnerable, whether it is older people, children, or those on low-incomes. This is also based on one of five foundations of Islam, that of Zakat: giving charity to those who are in need. This practice is one of the duties every Muslim should do.

The concept of “the circle of life” starts with childhood (Al-Tufula in Arabic مرحلة الطفولة  ) and includes several periods, starting with birth and continuing through to childhood, when the person, as a child, is considered to be vulnerable and cannot help others or take care of themselves without the help of another person, especially their mother’s help. The second stage is the youth stage) Al-Shabab in Arabic مرحلة الشباب), which includes adolescence and can be extended until the age of 30, depending on whether the children leave the house or not. Usually, during these stages, the person in question is considered to be at the height of their power, and he or she does not have any major life problems, he or she is ‘accepted’ as someone who can take care of himself as well as others.

Palestinian girl scouts performing at the seniors’ club at Dar al-Hawa. Photo by Maya de Vries.

The third stage is the stage of adulthood, which extends from the age of 30 to about 40,  sometimes 50, and is also considered to be the period of the middle age (in Arabic Kahel كهل), when men and women are starting to feel, to some extent, that they are becoming older. We spoke with several women aged 40 and over and they were pleased to be living in this period, especially because most of them did not suffer from any serious medical conditions. However, an issue they raised in the interviews was that of stress – some of them said that they are suffering from mental stress in their lives.

The fourth stage is the elderly stage, seniority. This is defined by the word Sheikhuha (in Arabic شيخوخة), meaning an old man or an elderly person who is either physically or mentally/cognitively vulnerable or not necessarily physically or mentally vulnerable, but is aged above 60. The word Sheikh has a positive meaning in Arabic and refers to someone who has extensive knowledge, as defined by Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyyah. So older people are acknowledged as wise individuals that the community should listen to, simply because they have lived longer than us and have more life experience.

The last period, after Sheikhuha , is that of Ardel al-Omar (أرذل العمر), which refers to a period that signals the beginning of dementia, when a person does not know who he or she is anymore. It can be said that the ageing process is divided into two parts: the first is the ageing of the body, which is the beginning of frailty and various diseases, when the person becomes unable to carry out his or her duties and take care of themselves. However, not every person who reaches this stage is unable to take care of themselves, and there are older people who do not need anyone’s help and are able to take care of themselves and are still residing in their homes. They usually live near their family, near to at least one of their children, which means that family care is available, at different levels, according to the older person’s needs as well as the family’s capabilities.

Old woman and a young woman in an activity at the seniors’ club in Dar al-Hawa. Photo by Maya de Vries.

Geographical closeness, the actual living in the same physical space as the family usually has a positive connotation and is an integral part of the notion of “the circle of life” in Dar al-Hawa. A person is born in a specific location, which becomes his or her home. They then raise their family there, grow old there, and eventually die there. ‘The home’ is not just four walls of concrete but also means the land, the territory the home was built upon. Hence, the holding of the home equals to the holding of the land, the family’s territory. In many ways, being an owner of land provides stability, especially when the owner becomes older and cannot work anymore. This stability is extremely important to one’s tranquillity and serenity, which are highly important when getting old. In Islam, as in other cultures, mental health and the ‘health’ of the soul are part of older’s people condition – it is important to have a healthy mind to have a healthy body. When the ‘soul’ starts to lose its connection to the body, meaning memory gets lost, a different stage begins.

When talking with older people in Dar al-Hawa, it felt that there is an acceptance of the notion of “the circle of life” as part of people’s faith and religion. Below, 77-year-old Yasmin’s quote reflects this kind of acceptance of ageing and death quite well – an acceptance we found was widely present among most of the women we spoke with:

“We’ll see what happens next year, maybe I’ll die. Am I thinking about death? I am a believer; I believe in God… Whatever comes will come. This is our religion. The way we look at life in Dar al-Hawa is almost always done through the religious prism, God is the one who determines and determines our destiny, He sees and knows everything. Moreover, the default setting of medical care in Israel, including care for the elderly, is to save and extend lives rather than maintaining the quality of life. This thesis is based on a religious belief in the sanctity of life, on the idea of ​​the circle of life – the emphasis is on the stages, on how each stage is necessary, and probably has a purpose, even if you do not see it at that moment, God knows what, and Man, in the end of things, will know what it is.”

The religious-cultural perception, and to a large extent, the moral perception in Islam, according to the popular interpretation in Dar al-Hawa, is that (older adults are among the most vulnerable in human society and should be taken care of within the community out of respect. This is a moral duty, a religious duty. When thinking about the concept of the circle of life as a framework that shapes daily life and routine in Dar al-Hawa, it is important to understand that it is embedded within the religious practices that shape how a young person should behave with older people and the reasons for behaving in this way. The young person should respect older people, speak to them with dignity, and take care of them as much as he or she can. When he or she reaches this stage (that of being older and eventually elderly), another young person will do the same for them. This is the basic understanding of the circle of life.

Social activity at the community centre, for young and old alike. Photo by Maya de Vries.

With this framework in mind, we return to one of the central topics of the ASSA project: that of smartphone use. Smartphones are carried by most older people in Dar al-Hawa. When contemplating their role in the “circle of life”, we did not see them as violating or breaking the cycle, at least not for the current older generation we were in contact with. On the contrary, we found that smartphones were making the meaning of the circle of life stronger, at least in the sense of helping maintain relationships with the family and community. Things might have been different if older people in Dar al-Hawa were strongly embracing digital culture (e.g. using apps other than WhatsApp and Facebook, paying for services and goods online, paying with their smartphone and so forth). This is one of the topics we will be tackling in our upcoming monograph, ‘Ageing with Smartphones in Al-Quds’, which is due next year.