Ethnologist Åsa Alftberg has studied how people between the ages of 80 and 90 experience life in her thesis “What does it mean to age?
An ethnological study of ageing, the body and materiality”. Cultural norms affect us at all stages of life. Activity and high performance are always valued, and since ageing individuals are considered to be a health risk group, they are automatically assigned a greater responsibility for their health.
“You can’t just enjoy yourself. Ageing is seen as synonymous with disease. There are consequences, thoughts revolve a lot around the idea that one must be useful and active in order to delay the signs of ageing”.
The people interviewed all live at home and manage without home help. This is the case for most 80 to 90 year-olds in Sweden, according to figures from the National Board of Health and Welfare. The majority live at home and manage without any assistance from society.
One thing which surprised Alftberg was how much the elderly are forced to reflect on material things. As the body ages, the person’s view of the world also changes and material things take up more space in everyday life, both as a hindrance and as a help. People often located the problems of ageing outside their own bodies.
“Often it was not the body that was troublesome, but rather objects. It was the staircase that was badly built or the phone book that was printed in too small a font to be readable”.
The people interviewed did not see themselves as particularly old or ill, even though they were between 80 and 90 and had their ailments. They emphasised that they did not sit at home being passive and often used expressions like “you have to keep up” and “keep going”.
For an ethnologist, human beings are largely defined by their habits. In advanced age, well-being is very much determined by the ability to maintain the routines one has had for many years.
“The elderly were very creative and flexible when it came to finding practical solutions to everyday problems. Managing the housework was particularly important, because dirt becomes a yardstick of ageing, a threat to normality”.
Relatives often functioned as dirt wardens, both with regard to clothing and to the home. Dirt is considered as a sign of both spiritual and bodily decay and the elderly felt that as long as one could control the dirt, one’s dignity was intact.
On 21 September, Åsa Alftberg publicly defended her thesis entitled “What does it mean to age? An ethnological study of ageing, the body and materiality” at the Department of Cultural Sciences.
Text: Jenny Loftrup