Tag Archives: student members

Finding community far from home: A student report of #AAGE2017

By Michelle Bentsman

I arrived at the AAGE conference in Oxford unsure of what to expect. I was a few thousand miles from home, standing likewise on foreign intellectual terrain. Despite my involvement in death studies, I am a comparative religion scholar in training, and I have only recently begun immersing myself in anthropology. However, any initial hesitation was quickly replaced by a mounting eagerness to engage with the ideas and conversations that swirled across our swift and brimming two-day schedule.

The first panel I attended featured fascinating work in religious anthropology and aging, providing an ideal bridge through which I stepped into the proceedings. Professor Uchibori Motomitsu of the Open University of Japan discussed the Iban longhouse communities of Malaysia, describing the practice of providing ngibun, care, to the dying. This includes the mundane, which one community member likened to “feeding a corpse,” leading into post-mortem rites conducted in the open corridor of the longhouse. Hom Shrestha of Laurentian University gave an overview of the Nepalese Bura Janko ceremony, through which the elderly are elevated to the status of gods through a series chariot rides into the divine realm. Shrestha emphasized their power to strongly increase the psychosocial well-being of seniors, urging such practices to become more widely integrated into elder-care. These papers pointed to the influence that imaginative and ritual foregrounding can have on end-of-life processes and attitudes, affirming the potential for further inquiry into aging, dying, and religion.

I was in very good company during my panel, playfully dubbed the “death panel.” Iza Kavedzija of the University of Exeter offered a meditation on gratitude in the lives of Japanese elderly, observing that in conversation, expressions of gratitude were often preceded by a space of silence. She concluded by noting that although gratitude points directionally toward the past, it is experienced in the moment, opening affective possibilities in the present. Heekyoung Kim of Seoul National University expanded on the topic of Japanese aging, discussing the methodical preparations for death undertaken by healthy Japanese adults. This, Kim explained, has the effect of transforming death into a necro-social project with a long process, rather than a singular event. Natashe Lemos Dekker of the University of Amsterdam addressed the legal limitations faced by dementia patients seeking euthanasia in the Netherlands, in which euthanasia is understood as a request rather than a right. She left open the question of whether euthanasia is sought out as an act of desperation, or as a way out of desperation. I was grateful for the enthusiastic feedback I received on my paper about the rising role of death doulas in the aging western world. In addition to having the privilege of meeting a formerly practicing death doula among the attendees, I was pushed to further investigate how such services break down across class lines and in different geographic areas.

[scholars] were immensely helpful, sharing their own experiences in the field and encouraging me to pursue my research further

In a panel focused on intergenerational dynamics, Nancy Burke of University of California, Merced, used the awe-inspiring murals of JR and Jose Parla, depicting the elderly upon crumbling facades in Cuba, to convey its changing healthcare system. These images became the backdrop–or in her Bakhtinian parlance, the chronotype–for the comments of elderly Cuban civilians, such as, “we live like slaves and we die like kings,” or, “I can see the doctor whenever I want. But once I get there, he has nothing to give me.” Fayana Richards of Michigan State University described how African American grandmothers, who often took their personal relationship with God very seriously, regarded church as a seed to be transmitted to their grandchildren. For these women, faith could provide a way out of street life by carrying the possibility of change at any moment.

In addition to some very sobering truths, the AAGE had a great deal to give us, the conference-goers. Alongside coffee-breaks, meals, and a very pleasant wine reception, I was treated to genial company and brilliant conversation. I was impressed and heartened by the scholars I spoke to, all of whom were deeply involved with the issues they studied. They were immensely helpful, sharing their own experiences in the field and encouraging me to pursue my research further. The possibility of future collaborations emerged, as well as suggestions for like-minded journals where I might pursue publication. I left with the sense of having tapped into a network of supportive and passionate people that are leveraging theory and community engagement as a means for social change.

Michelle BentsmanMichelle Bentsman is currently an M.Div. candidate at Harvard Divinity School. Her areas of focus include end-of-life care, ideologies of death and dying, and comparative religion, with a particular emphasis on Judaism and Hinduism. She has worked in a north Indian hospice, where she collaborated with doctors, nurses, and volunteers to develop a spiritual care program, as well as served with an NYC Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society). She recently co-published an article on embodiment and the unknown in the Performance Research Journal.

Who Wouldn’t Want to Retire in Vancouver?: #SfAA2016 Conference Report

AAGEatSfAA16.001
Vancouver is a beautiful city, often topping the list of best cities in the world to live and retire in. It is not surprising that this year’s SfAA meeting was the most well-attended ever. Quite a few of us interested in the anthropology of aging and life course issues were there. While gazing at the gorgeous harbor views and walking in Stanley Park, we enjoyed having a chance to visit and discuss things going on in our field. Beyond the scenic outdoor settings and many cafes where we planted ourselves, we also attended relevant sessions at the conference venue.

AAGEatSfAA4_perkinson
AAGE President Iveris Martinez organized an excellent session co-sponsored by the SMA (Society for Medical Anthropology) and COPAA (Consortium on Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs).The title of this session was “The Value of Applied Anthropology in Gerontology: Imagining alternative career paths at the intersection of anthropology, health, and aging”. Panel participants included Jay Sokolovsky, Sherri Briller, Megan Stamey McAlvain, Nanami Suzuki (below left)and Peggy Perkinson (pictured above left). Session discussants were Jean Schensul & Jay Sokolovsky. This panel explored the intersection between anthropology and gerontology in applied settings. It brought together anthropologists (both senior and junior) who work in a variety of settings seeking to employ anthropology to provide innovative ways of helping health professionals view and respond to health issues in late life. Specific topics covered included graduate medical education in treating older adults at the end of life, Japanese care workers helping older adults after the Great East Japan Earthquake, training staff for a Chinese Continuing Care Retirement Community, anthropological experiences in training physicians and healthcare workers for working with older patients, anthropologically training medical students and physicians about health and late life in cultural context, and teaching at the intersections of anthropology and aging.
AAGEatSfAA3_suzukiSome aging related topics appeared in other sessions including: joint development of health interventions with older adults in senior housing (Schensul, Radda, Reisine & Foster-Bey), discriminatory service delivery and understanding elders in HIV prevention campaigns in South Africa (Darling), power, sexuality and aging (Maynard-Tucker), CBPR physical activity intervention for rural residents (Schoenberg, Hoogland, Bardach & Tarasenko), caring across cultures: Mexicanas shaping eldercare (Kniseley), animal assisted therapy and aging issues (Yonce), museum anthropology and aboriginal seniors (Krmpotich),and generativity and older adult museum volunteering in the US (Shay). A special shout-out to those who gave aging related posters in the student poster session: factors that influence older women’s long term care planning (Corthright) and cultural associations between self-reported well-being and diminished physical performance among older adults (Snodgrass).
AAGEatSfAA9_meeitng
On Saturday morning, we presented ourselves at the International Suite at the Westin Bayshore for our AAGE annual networking breakfast and roundtable event (left). Thanks to Maria Vesperi and Jay Sokolovsky who helped us reserve such a lovely space for our breakfast meeting and to Tom May for making it possible. Thanks to Iveris Martinez and Amy Paul-Ward who helped us forage for the breakfast offerings ahead – there is no shortage of nice things to eat in Vancouver! In this elegant suite, we decided to forego our plan for having separate roundtables and have a larger more free-wheeling group discussion instead. We introduced the topics we had planned for the individual roundtables: preparing and engaging in applied gerontology careers, addressing social and cultural barriers to aging services, building social and health interventions with older adults, teaching about anthropology of aging and the life course, aging in place in Japan, reaching non-academic audiences with news about aging. Going forward, full sessions on any of these topics would likely be welcome for our upcoming conferences.

 

We discovered that nearly half of those who attended the networking breakfast were new to AAGE – a very encouraging finding indeed! Hopefully, all of these folks will become interested in joining our organization and continuing to participate. The breakfast discussion was lively about future directions and opportunities in the field of anthropology of aging and life course studies. One especially exciting development was that several of the students who presented their emerging work at our AAGE health disparities workshop conference in Miami, FL in 2015 gave updates at SfAA on their projects (Stanley and Stamey McAlvain). We are looking forward to hearing more from them and others at the 2017 AAGE conference which Jason Danely is organizing in Oxford, UK.

AAGEatSfAA6_dinner
From this brief report, you can see that lots was going on of interest for those who are interested in the anthropology of aging and the life course. We explored Vancouver and learned more about each other’s important work in the field of aging.  Some of us even had our first Malaysian food at the Banana leaf restaurant in the company of other gerontologists –delicious! In short, it was great to get together with our colleagues, hear about new developments in their work and the field as a whole – and have an excellent time exploring the treasure that is Vancouver.
See you at SfAA in Santa Fe next year!

Sherylyn Briller, SfAA Liaison

AAGEatSfAA5_briller