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Transitions and Transformations

Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course

Caitrin Lynch
Jason Danely
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Transitions and Transformations
    Book Description:

    Rapid population aging, once associated with only a select group of modern industrialized nations, has now become a topic of increasing global concern. This volume reframes aging on a global scale by illustrating the multiple ways it is embedded within individual, social, and cultural life courses. It presents a broad range of ethnographic work, introducing a variety of conceptual and methodological approaches to studying life-course transitions in conjunction with broader sociocultural transformations. Through detailed accounts, in such diverse settings as nursing homes in Sri Lanka, a factory in Massachusetts, cemeteries in Japan and clinics in Mexico, the authors explore not simply our understandings of growing older, but the interweaving of individual maturity and intergenerational relationships, social and economic institutions, and intimate experiences of gender, identity, and the body.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-779-0
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-ix)
    (pp. x-x)
  5. Section I. Frameworks

    • Introduction. TRANSITIONS AND TRANSFORMATIONS: Paradigms, Perspectives, and Possibilities
      (pp. 3-20)
      Jason Danely and Caitrin Lynch

      This book is the product of a general shift in perspective among anthropologists interested in aging. Rather than an earlier “geroanthropology” that focused exclusively on the lives of older adults as if they constituted a distinct and easily bounded category of persons (Cohen 1994: 138), anthropologists are moving towards a more inclusive, multigenerational, life-course approach that better captures the dynamic complexity of how humans grow older in ways that shape values, institutions, and social life for all of us.¹ A life-course approach to aging recognizes that as individuals age, their lives unfold in conjunction with those of people of different...

    • 1. CHANGES IN THE LIFE COURSE: Strengths and Stages
      (pp. 21-34)
      Mary Catherine Bateson

      Through technological and medical advances, average life expectancies in industrialized societies are two to three decades longer than they were a century ago (Butler 2008: 4). We have extended the life course by the time period usually thought of as a generation, but I will argue that this has not meant an extension of old age, but rather the creation of a new stage of adulthood before old age—Adulthood II. Combined with the possibility of controlling fertility, this increase in life expectancy has had major effects on the lives of individuals, the way in which generations interact and overlap,...

  6. Section II. Bodies

    • 2. NARRATING PAIN AND SEEKING CONTINUITY: A Life-Course Approach to Chronic Pain Management
      (pp. 37-48)
      Lindsey Martin

      “I just wanna go back to my old life,” Christina notes with an air of frustration in her voice. The usually tough-as-nails Betty says that pain “frightened the hell outta me.” In this chapter, I analyze Christina’s and Betty’s illness narratives to examine connections among the life-course concept, pain management, and the use of integrative medicine. These narratives were recorded during a year-long (August 2008 to August 2009) ethnographic study of the Integrative Medicine Pain Clinic in suburban Detroit, Michigan, and they reveal how a disruption to the life course due to chronic and debilitating pain motivates patients like Christina...

    • 3. VENTING ANGER FROM THE BODY DURING GENGNIANQI: Meanings of Midlife Transition among Chinese Women in Reform-Era Beijing
      (pp. 49-63)
      Jeanne L. Shea

      Chinese women in Beijing speak about their experiences of midlife in ways both familiar and strange to an American ear. Most importantly, many Beijing women speak about the feelings of irritability and anger that often accompany what they callgengnianqi(pronounced gung-kneeen-chee), a Mandarin Chinese word usually translated into English as “menopause.” Take, for example, the following vignette that I recorded during my fieldwork in China in 1994. This vignette exemplifies very well some of the ways in which Beijing women spoke back then, and continue to speak now, about their experiences of irritability during midlife and about the appropriate...

    • 4. “I DON’T WANT TO BE LIKE MY FATHER”: Masculinity, Modernity, and Intergenerational Relationships in Mexico
      (pp. 64-76)
      Emily Wentzell

      I interviewed Osvaldo in an urban Mexican hospital, as part of a research project examining how men’s experiences of decreasing erectile function affected their ways of being men. Like many men I spoke with, Osvaldo, a 64-year-old retired mechanic, described his own experience of being a man in relationship to the experiences of others. He compared his own behavior to that of “the Mexican man” in the abstract, as well as to that of his father and son. For example, Osvaldo answered my questions about what it is to be a “good” man by telling me that “the Mexican man”...

  7. Section III. Spatiality and Temporality

    • 5. SHIFTING MORAL IDEALS OF AGING IN POLAND: Suffering, Self-Actualization, and the Nation
      (pp. 79-91)
      Jessica C. Robbins

      During the eighteen months from 2008–2010 in which I conducted ethnographic fieldwork among older people in Poland, I had a crash course in Polish history. Many older Poles understand their own life experiences as intimately connected to national history, frequently weaving together personal stories and national narratives. A particularly striking example of reading the personal through the national was offered by Zbigniew, an older man who was then a patient at a rehabilitation center run by Catholic nuns in Wrocław, one of my primary research sites.¹ A retired engineer and recent widower, Zbigniew had come to the institution to...

    • 6. A WINDOW INTO DUTCH LIFE AND DEATH: Euthanasia and End-of-Life in the Public-Private Space of Home
      (pp. 92-106)
      Frances Norwood

      This chapter explores transitions related to space and place as people use, manipulate, embrace, and push against physical and societal constraints, norms, and policies at the end of Dutch life. With the proliferation of life-saving technologies and medical interventions, hospitals and nursing homes around the world have come to dominate as primary end-of-life settings (Brodwin 2000; Gleckman 2009; Kaufman 2005; Lock, Young, and Cambrosio 2000). In the Netherlands, however, home has retained a foothold at the end of life with approximately one quarter of all deaths each year occurring in the home with the aid of an extensive system of...

      (pp. 107-120)
      Jason Danely

      Most days, the main entrance to the Takara Senior Welfare Center is half-hidden behind a line of clean white vans parked beneath a large, concrete staircase. The vans provide transportation each day for a majority of the twenty to thirty older adults, many in their nineties and older, who attend the Adult Day Service Center located on the building’s first floor. Day centers like Takara are common throughout Kyoto City, providing a much needed respite service for children or other relatives caring for older adults and for elders living alone or with limited mobility. Nonetheless, staff at all three of...

  8. Section IV. Families

    • 8. “I HAVE TO STAY HEALTHY”: Elder Caregiving and the Third Age in a Brazilian Community
      (pp. 123-136)
      Diana De G. Brown

      We were sitting at Dona Eulália’s kitchen table talking about her life and her family. I had asked her if her parents were still alive, and she explained that after her father died, her mother had come to live with her, and shortly after, when Eulália was just sixty, her mother got Alzheimer’s and for seven years Eulália cared for her at home. At the beginning, she was still working in domestic service; she would care for her mother in the morning, make her breakfast, give her a bath, wash her clothes and her bedclothes, prepare lunch, and feed her....

    • 9. GRANDMOTHERING IN LIFE-COURSE PERSPECTIVE: A Study of Puerto Rican Grandmothers Raising Grandchildren in the United States
      (pp. 137-150)
      Marta B. Rodríguez-Galán

      An individual’s life course is entrenched in and shaped by the times and places in which the person lives, including the geographical and cultural context (Elder, Johnson, and Crosnoe 2003). As immigrants, Latina grandmothers in the United States are set on a different path from their own cultures of origin, and they are loosely tied to the age norms of the host culture.¹ Moreover, the timing of grandmothering typically starts earlier and takes on different meanings from those of the Anglo majority. To analyze the decisions made by low-income Puerto Rican women to assume their “mother/grandmother” role on the mainland,...

    • 10. CARE WORK AND PROPERTY TRANSFERS: Intergenerational Family Obligations in Sri Lanka
      (pp. 151-168)
      Michele Ruth Gamburd

      Sri Lankans currently face changes in crucial contextual circumstances, including the aging of the population and the prevalence of transnational migration. In demographic terms, Sri Lanka’s total population is stabilizing, but its population structure is changing rapidly, from a pyramid with many younger people and few elders, to the column that characterizes most developed nations (de Silva 2007; World Bank 2008). Simultaneously, Sri Lanka’s global economic integration is growing. Since the late 1970s, increasing numbers of guest laborers have migrated to work in the oil-producing nations in the Gulf (M. Gamburd 2000). In 2009, over 1.8 million Sri Lankans (8...

  9. Section V. Economies

      (pp. 171-187)
      Sarah Lamb

      One late morning in the winter of 2006, my research assistant Hena and I were chatting with Sri Ashok Bose, a warm, articulate man in his early eighties, who had been living in the Ramakrishna Mission Home for Aged People since its inauguration twenty-two years earlier in Kolkata, India.¹ We sat in his modestly furnished private room framed by two capacious windows open to tree-filtered sunlight and a pleasant winter breeze. In the room were a single bed brightly covered by a cotton hand-loomed spread, a desk, two simple wooden chairs, and a tall metal wardrobe. Sri Ashok spoke with...

    • 12. MEMBERSHIP AND MATTERING: Agency and Work in a New England Factory
      (pp. 188-205)
      Caitrin Lynch

      Many Americans want to be engaged in work well past traditional retirement age, whether for financial, social, health, or other reasons (or a combination). At Vita Needle Company, a factory in a Boston, Massachusetts suburb, the shop floor workers are mostly older adults. Though there are some employees in their teens through fifties, the median age of the forty or so production workers at Vita Needle is seventy-four, and the eldest is one hundred and clocks in a thirty-hour, five-day workweek. The Vita Needle story illustrates the importance of mattering and membership for older adults in the United States, where...

      (pp. 206-217)
      Jane I. Guyer and Kabiru K. Salami

      People make financial commitments at several successive stages of life. Each commitment usually has a time horizon: a date or stage of life when it either expires or comes due and is repaid. The further the time horizon into the future, the greater the possibility that the personal situations of the parties will change and repayment will become uncertain. Three temporal horizons coexist in people’s lives: the present moment, with its cultural repertoire of possible commitments; the passing years of the life course, with their varied and unpredictable impact on personal situations; and historical change, with its irreversible shifts in...

  10. Afterword. ON GENERATIONS AND AGING: “Fresh Contact” of a Different Sort
    (pp. 218-230)
    Jennifer Cole

    The essays in this volume are part of an emergent body of work that illuminates contemporary processes of aging. They explore the different ways in which people recognize aging, the opportunities and problems they associate with it, and the solutions they arrange using the cultural and social resources they have at hand. They also use aging as a prism through which to illuminate more general aspects of social and cultural life. Building on sociology’s traditional concern with how people occupy particular social roles, psychology’s concern with life stages, and anthropology’s concern with cultural difference, the essays consider the process of...

  11. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 231-234)
    (pp. 235-254)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 255-270)