Tag Archives: future

The Urban Future and the Aging Body

Photograph by author. Please do not reproduce without permission

Photograph by author. Please do not reproduce without permission

On Wednesday morning in February 2013, I rang the doorbell of Leena, a 77 years old woman who lived in the city center of Oulu in northern Finland. She had agreed to take me for a walk from her home to the health center. While we were in a lift, Leena expressed her concerns about her future living arrangements, since there was no room for a wheelchair in the lift. Leena had lived in her house since 1967, and hoped to live many more years.

In Finland, the public discourses on “the problem of aging” circles around how people could continue to live on their own as long as possible. Sometimes this tendency has led to situations where people with dementia have become prisoners in their own homes. The elderly in need of care might not have anyone nearby to look after them, and without sufficient public services, their futures as desired independent citizens doesn’t look very desirable.

Self-sufficient living should include not only the ability to stay at home, but also the ability to move between homes and the other important places in one’s life, like public services and the houses of family members and friends (see Gardner 2011; Penney 2013). In order to understand this part of  everyday life for people like Leena, I walked with Finnish seniors via their everyday routes on nine winter days. I have followed Tim Ingold’s (2011) notion that through the routes and movements, the pasts and futures are carried into the present.

While considering new plans and decisions, we should ask what kind of mobilities and practices do they enable and prevent. How can we ensure that our cities stay liveable to those seniors who wish to live on their own without making them feel like abandoned citizens?

While I walked with Leena, the streets were a bit slippery and there were piles of snow on the pavements, because snow ploughing is usually done first on the roads. The more able-bodied walkers can find detours for their ways, but for citizens like Leena who suffer from severe back problems and asthma, these barriers have long-term effects. To be able to stay as fit as possible, and thus to carry on independent living, she says she needs to walk every day.

There are also year-round material elements in the cities that can prevent or encourage seniors to move (see Freund 2001). In the spring 2013, Oulu was planning to replace the health center many seniors preferred to use with one outside the city center. Leena was “terrified” about this, because: “Then I’d have to take a taxi but I’d anyhow have to walk to get one, so what’s the point?” Being unable to walk to get medical services was perceived as a change that would affect seniors’ sense of independence. This sense might be constructed differently by different generations but what is common, is the need be able to affect one’s own future in a place (see Ylipulli 2015).

The possibility to keep on knowing the city through everyday embodied practices enhances seniors’ feelings of autonomy, and of being valued as competent citizens. Staying on the move is not just a question of keeping oneself fit as an aging citizen, but also a question of urban planning and management. While considering new plans and decisions, we should ask what kind of mobilities and practices do they enable and prevent. How can we ensure that our cities stay liveable to those seniors who wish to live on their own without making them feel like abandoned citizens?
Since in our study, city visits by solitary seniors were mainly about running errands; the urban planners and decision makers should consider how to secure seniors’ routes to health centers, libraries, pharmacists, and grocery stores in the future. For example, preserving the important historical places of the city as well as making places feel safe through sufficient lighting, supports the continuity of seniors’ everyday mobility.

Works cited:

Freund, Peter. 2001. ”Bodies, Disability and Spaces. The Social Model and Disabling Spatial Organisations.” Disability & Society 16:5: 689–706.

Gardner, Paula J. 2011. Natural neighborhood networks – Important social networks in the lives of older adults aging in place. Journal of Aging Studies 25: 263–271.

Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

Penney, Lauren. 2013. The Uncertain Bodies and Spaces of Aging in Place. Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34:3: 113–125.

Ylipulli, Johanna. 2015. A smart and ubiquitous urban future? Contrasting large-scale agendas and street-level dreams. Observation (OBS*) Journal, Media City: Spectacular, Ordinary and Contested Spaces: 85–110.

Tiina Suopajärvi holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and works as a University Lecturer of European Ethnology at the University of Helsinki in Finland. She has studied and published scientific articles on aging in “smart cities.” Her current research focuses on the co-design processes of public services aimed for senior citizens.

Read the companion to this post, Futures Past: Absent Kinships and the Japanese Child Welfare System, by Kathryn E. Goldfarb

 

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Futures Past: Absent Kinships and the Japanese Child Welfare System

Laundry hanging up to dry at a child welfare institution in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

Laundry hanging up to dry at a child welfare institution in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

Assigned to write about “futures” in the context of childhood, I find myself dwelling on the past. Although approaches to childhood often must grapple with how “the child” is seen to signify the future (of a family, of a town, of a nation, of humanity), within child welfare systems, which are the context of my research, my interlocutors’ considerations of the future are inevitably inflected by their understandings of what has come before.

I conduct research in Japan, where children who cannot be cared for in their family of origin are generally cared for in institutions, sometimes for many years. Activists working for child welfare reform in Japan cite international children’s rights discourses and the science of child development and neurology to argue that institutional care indelibly damages state wards. Specifically, they argue that institutional care for infants is tantamount to violence, that children who receive this sort of state care are harmed by the parental state, that children raised in institutions will not be able to form attachment relationships with others (for example, HRW 2014). These arguments circulate as international scientific and popular discourses and are certainly not specific to Japan. They hinge on the understanding that “the child is father of the man”: that within an adult lives the former child, whose body and brain is shaped by caregiver labor. These understandings of child science posit a particular burden of responsibility on caregivers: “‘our’ input literally materializes the child-brain’s neural connections,” a project haunted by the ever-present possibility of failure (Castañeda 2002: 76, 77; see also Rose and Abi-Rached 2013). Underlying reformers’ claims about the developmental harms of institutional care is the logic that children’s pasts shape their future potential, claims authorized by expertise in child development and neuroscience. Despite deeply sympathizing with these child welfare reform efforts, I remain troubled by the pathologizing, deterministic, and often highly normative language that seems to be the only way that activists can gain attention—the ways they must represent past damage as determining a person’s future, using scientific “evidence” to bolster their claims (Goldfarb 2015). Emotional narratives of experience—the experiences of people who received state care—never seem quite compelling enough to induce policy change. Nuance, the complex relationship between past, present, and future, is lost in the shuffle. The meanings of “the future” for former state wards seem prescribed by past deprivation.

In contemporary Japan, social recognition, legal rights, and subjective identity are deeply entangled in a way that complicates simple understandings of the past’s relation to a livable future.

The kōnotori no yurikago” (“cradle of storks”) in Kumamoto, Japan, 2010. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

The kōnotori no yurikago” (“cradle of storks”) in Kumamoto, Japan, 2010. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

The past shows up in considerations of the future in other contexts, as well—particularly, the question of whether knowledge of the past is an important condition for meaningful life. Ethnographic studies of adoption highlight how the idea of a person’s family or nation of origin often exerts undeniable pull on that person, prompting investigations and sometimes visits (for example Howell 2006, Kim 2010, Yngvesson 2010). In Japan, I have been intrigued by one case that epitomizes the culturally specific gravity of origin stories, and the ways attention to origins is institutionalized in the Japanese family registry. In 2007, the Catholic Jikei hospital in the southern city of Kumamoto, Japan implemented the “kōnotori no yurikago” (pictured left)—the “cradle of storks”—or what quickly became known (to the hospital’s chagrin) as the “akachan pōsuto” or “baby drop box.” The yurikago had been publicized as a place where an infant could be anonymously and safely deposited without legal ramifications for the infant’s parents; the infant would later be placed for adoption. The issue of anonymity rapidly became a flashpoint for child welfare scholars and practitioners. While hospital representatives emphasized that anonymity was a crucial way to encourage safe relinquishment rather than infanticide, critical voices argued that anonymity benefited the parents but harmed the child, who would lack the knowledge about his or her origins central to being an “ordinary” person in Japanese society. Thus, while the child would indeed be alive (the counterfactual was, of course, impossible to prove), a child lacking all knowledge of origin—concretely, a child existing outside of a normal family registry—would not be a socially recognized person in some of the ways that matter most in contemporary Japan. So while the proponents of this child welfare mechanism argued that it is life-saving and the very condition of a child’s future, its detractors claimed that this saved life is denied a fundamental form of social being. Notably, children themselves did not contribute to this conversation. To me, this case exemplifies the tensions between understandings of a person’s past—as documented in a family registry, or made invisible and unknowable in the case of anonymous abandonment—and perceptions of a livable present and an imaginable future in Japan. Japanese family registry is sometimes understood as a base for identity (Krogness 2008), and those without knowledge of their family of origin may feel they lack a foundation for moving forward in life.

 

Toothbrushes lined up at a child welfare institution in the Kansai area of Japan. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

Toothbrushes lined up at a child welfare institution in the Kansai area of Japan. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

In contemporary Japan, social recognition, legal rights, and subjective identity are deeply entangled in a way that complicates simple understandings of the past’s relation to a livable future. One of my interlocutors, now a man in his sixties, believed that he could not marry because he lacked knowledge of his origins; marriage, as he told his girlfriend, is between two households, and he did not belong to one. He had spent his entire childhood in a Japanese child welfare institution, and did not have a relationship with either his mother, who had lived in a psychiatric hospital, or his father, of whom he knew nothing. His girlfriend had scoffed at him, calling his thinking old-fashioned. “Marriage doesn’t have to be between two households these days,” she told him. “It is a contract between two people.” So the two decided to get married. My interlocutor, disconnected from a “genealogical grid” (Povinelli 2002), had never imagined himself as able to enter into a marriage precisely because of the lack of kinship network that would make a union of families possible. Unmoored from ancestors, he had been equally unmoored from future generations. However, his own ability to have a son, and foster another, allowed him to develop a new understanding of forward-oriented kinship ties that emerged from present-day intimacies. Self-reflexive attention to the future—the future family that might be made new out of nothing—animates the desires of many of my interlocutors who have decided to foster or adopt children in Japan (Goldfarb forthcoming). Their meditations on a future with children new to their family, children with their own past histories, illustrate how the past is not always a condition for future relational possibilities. For them, present-day investments and caregiving relationships are generative, transformative, and hopeful.

 

Works Cited:

Castañeda, Claudia. 2002. Figurations: Child, Bodies, Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Goldfarb, Kathryn. 2015. “Developmental logics: Brain science, child welfare, and the ethics of engagement in Japan.” Social Science & Medicine 143:271-278.

Goldfarb, Kathryn. 2016. “‘Coming to look alike’: Materializing affinity in Japanese foster and adoptive care.” Social Analysis 60(2) (forthcoming).

Howell, Signe. 2006. The kinning of foreigners: Transnational adoption in a global perspective. New York: Berghahn Books.

Human Rights Watch. 2014. “Without Dreams: Children in Alternative Care in Japan.”

Kim, Eleana J. 2010. Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging. Durham: Duke University Press.

Krogness, Karl Jakob. 2008. The Koseki System and ‘Koseki Consciousness’: An Exploration of the Development and Functions of the Modern Japanese Household Registration System and How it Influences Social Life. PhD dissertation, University of Copenhagen.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2002. Notes on Gridlock: Genealogy, Intimacy, Sexuality. Public Culture 14(1): 215-238.

Rose, Nikolas and Joelle M. Abi-Rached. 2013. Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Yngvesson, Barbara. 2010. Belonging in an adopted world: Race, identity, and transnational adoption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

 

Kathryn E. Goldfarb is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is working on a book manuscript, entitled Relational Futures: Material Ties in Japanese State Care. Her research brings together kinship, medical anthropology, and semiotics to explore the ways that social relationships shape bodily experience.

 

Read the AAGE companion to this post: Staying on the move: The urban future of the aging body, by Tiina Suopajärvi

 

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