The « dreamlife » of aging people?
With the increase of life expectancy in Western societies, aging is progressively becoming a critical issue addressed by social science researchers. By questioning collective constructs, they contribute to go beyond the stereotypical images of slippers and the ever-present soup smell but they also enrich political decisions with some scientific expertise. The collective work carried out under Anastasia Meidani and Stefano Cavalli’s coordination introduces a sociological theory encouraging us to reconsider our approach to aging baby-boomers.
These commonly-held stereotypes which debase old people
Two mechanisms contribute to reinforcing the negative perception of the elderly, viewed as « mentally ill », « useless », « incompetent ». On the one hand, public policies draw both scientists and public opinion’s attention on the most negative aspects of old age. On the other hand, the research fields chosen to investigate old age tend to focus on the most complex, hence potentially the most painful situations.
In both cases, researchers are most often led to study an over 75-year-old population. Yet, at that age, statistics show a concentration of people suffering from health issues, even from disabilities, likely to entail dependency and the need for great peer-helping networks.
But what does « advanced age » refer to? Far from merely being a chronological marker, the last cycle of life reflects a great diversity of life situations, from institutionalisation to home-support services with complex care.
All the research studies gathered in this collective work underline the disparities in old age by relying on a field qualitative methodology, through the analysis of old people’s discourses and the study of their daily life sequences. This methodology also takes into account those who live alongside the interviewees: often their family but also, in many cases, care professionals – health, hygiene, physical and sports care.
The analyses carried out display the rich and complex daily lives of « little old people » as they are sometimes referred to. Old age is far more heterogeneous than one would imagine, but it also keeps changing and is affected by the same social inequalities as during the other periods of life.
Aging people experience doubts, anxiety and are also confronted to the choices they have to make concerning the strategies to be implemented in order to travel through this new period of their life while maintaining what has founded their identity.
Empowering old age
These various movements have been theorised under the concept of « letting go ». The concept was developed by a team from Toulouse (France) in the late 1980s to report on the different means adopted by individuals to gradually replace some of their activities according to the limits set by aging.
Older people who are confronted to the difficulty of maintaining all their spheres of activity at the same pace adopt a strategy of substitution and selection of their daily routines. They must make choices so as to maintain on the day-to-day basis the activities most relevant to who they are and consistent with the personal world they have built throughout their life. Which may mean, for instance, splitting gardening into shorter periods of time throughout the day so as to limit the bodily pain caused by squatting.
Reconsidering one’s activities is bound by both physical changes and the transformations of the human and material environment which necessarily affect the experience of aging.
Letting go, a positive tool to embrace old age
« Letting go » is actually a key to understanding aging. Because old age is never a definite and well-defined period of one’s life, this sociological analysis helps reveal its sudden breakdowns and unexpected twists. It is only when these thresholds become critical and may threaten old people’s individual capacity to control their life that they are led to embrace letting go strategies.
Among these critical stages, are to be mentioned the limitations of the sometimes irreversible effects of illness or of institutionalisation but also the impact of inequalities accumulated throughout life: severe working conditions, isolation due to poverty, physical or mental handicaps etc.
This concept is thus a tool for approaching old age as a time when one has to rearrange oneself and reorganise the world around by adapting to progressive and tenuous changes rather than by losing and giving everything up. It implies that one engages into questioning one’s identity, one’s relatives and one’s own drive so as to make the most relevant choices to carry on.
It is therefore fundamental for the aging person to make really meaningful choices out of respect for their own identity. These negotiations altogether include alterations of personal competences and changes in the previous course of one’s life and in one’s social relationships.
Moreover, letting go may take on a particular meaning according to the triggering factor, which will impact the resulting strategies of adaptation. More broadly, by investigating the diversity of viewpoints and by establishing comparisons taking into account the different fields studied, the concept also enables us to grasp the experiences of peer helpers and of care professionals at various scales.
Letting go, the door to a variety of adaptations
Before developing this notion further, which is essential to understand the process of aging, sociologists have elaborated on a theoretical apparatus. Letting go, in-between possible rebounding and holding back, is then only one phase among other possibilities of action in the course of aging.
More specifically, the process of letting go may come into four distinct modalities: adaptation, substitution, abandonment and delegation. It is worth mentioning that the accumulation of «letting go» phases may lead to « major or ultimate phases » during which some of the fundamental self-defining activities must be abandoned.
But, contrary to an irreversible mechanical process, this approach cannot be defined as a series of predetermined stages whose last stage would necessarily be death. It may bring about rebounds which help the elderly remain in the world thanks to the activities they are maintaining or exploring.
In this work, the aging situations reported are told through the logics of letting go they entail. First of all, according to the degree of dependency, how can these strategies of letting go be carried on when the aging person is losing control over their body? To what extent do multi-partnership homecare or specialised institutionalisation change the way it is experienced?
Then, how can one help people who experience senile dementia to negotiate changes in their activities? Because communication skills are the main drive for relating to others, it is necessary, in such context, to study what kind of activities can these ill elderlies maintain or let go in their lives.
Last of all, studying this notion through the aging person’s relation to their body should also be considered. Being the first to convey the feeling of getting old and the necessity of early negotiations with oneself, corporeity in old age bears witness to declines but also to solidarities organised around new social roles. The last part of the work particularly deals with the different ways of experiencing aging in intersectional and gendered perspectives.
Spreading new norms in the society?
This sociological research work will contribute to complexify the public policies dedicated to these categories of population and will enable their approach to go beyond mere discourses encouraging older people to embark on « healthy, happy aging ». Current political strategies only focus on a biomedical vision while overlooking all individual and societal aspects of aging; they are strongly criticised for their normative goals, so far from field reports.
Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux : CC licence BY-NC-ND. To discover her drawings, https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/
Images credits in CC : Flaticon Freepik, Shmai
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