Aging: Integration

From the Series: Aging

Photo by Cristian Newman, licensed under CC BY.

In his provocative commentary on the place of children in mainstream anthropology, Lawrence Hirschfeld argued that “Children create and inhabit cultures of their own making, cultures that in significant measure are independent of and distinct from those of the adults with whom they live,” but which “significantly constrain and mold not only their own cultural productions but also those of adults” (2002: 613). Rather than viewing children as merely culture’s works-in-progress, anthropologists like Hirschfeld have shown that cultural production flows between generations through tacit and implicit collaborations. This insight interferes with progressive, sequential developmental models of the child as a passive recipient who gradually learns to master the culture of adults, and repositions her as an active producer, albeit one who is routinely marginalized even as she is cared for and indulged.

Many of the assumptions prejudices that Hirschfeld argued diminished the agency and recognition of children in anthropology also hold true for older adults. Older adults have always appeared in ethnographies, and yet few have ventured to ask how aging and old age produces its own cultures (and what that culture has to do with being old) or how older adults shape the culture of other generations. How do we recognize old age as a unique period in the life course while at the same time, emphasizing the ways older adults are integrated into and integral to society?

As Emily Wentzell pointed out in this series, “aging provokes connection” not only to other generations, but also to one's own past selves, and to broader narratives of cultural and national identity. Jordan Lewis locates this connection in cultural models of “successful aging,” such as those that link generations by inspiring Eldership in members of Aleut communities. Lewis' Aleut elders illustrate many of the qualities that Erik H. Erkison (1980) identified as critical to the last phase of life, including wisdom, acceptance of mortality, transmitting one's experiences to younger generations, and acheiving a sense of what Erikson came to call “integrality.”

As Erikson himself noticed in his last years, however, integrality and wisdom become increasingly difficult with advanced old age. Janelle Chirstensen reminds us of the ways in which dramatic increases in longevity over the past century of human history have also increased the likelihood of long periods of physical and cognitive dependence. Culture, in its various forms as nursing institutions, insurance plans, care managers, community organizations, religious groups, and the family caregiver (herself aided or obstructed by various forms of technological, pharamaceutical, and social resources) introduce new ways of integrating the older person once more. Each of these forms of culture enter the chorus of care with their own timbre and tune, and dip in and out of harmony as they adjust or resist each other.

Let me offer an example. Yesterday I spent the morning with a group of eight Japanese women in their 60s, many of them grandmothers, preparing lunchboxes to deliver to homebound older people in the surrounding community. “We don't think of this as a welfare service, it is just about being connected to the community,” explained one of the volunteers, deftly peeling an apple skin to resemble rabbit ears. Another woman, deep frying small cuts of chicken explained that although there are a lot of very large and picturesque homes in the area, they're occupied mainly by older people. City zoning policies for the area restrict buildings over three stories, and so younger people have been moving into apartments elsewhere. The kitchen where we worked was in a building that used to house a preschool, until there were too few children in the area to keep it open. My five-year old son picked up on this after only a few days in Japan, asking me out of the blue, “Why are there only adults in Japan? Where are the kids?” The aging of the community was easy to notice, but less so were the ways this community watched over the elders. As we drove through the narrow streets to deliver the lunches, all of us still wearing our aprons, there was a constant exchange of gossip.

As we drove near one man sitting on the curbside, leaning over his cane, the chorus of care crescendoed: “Looks like K-san's husband,” “Is he alright?” “He hasnt been the same since he stopped coming to drumming practice,” “His poor wife, she can't do anything either,” “Maybe he's a little senile? Should we stop?” The car passed slowly and the women smiled and waved from the windows.

For the rest of the afternoon, I heard all the details of each person we delivered lunch to: whose spouse died, who gets visits from relatives, who drinks too much. The volunteers exchanged this information with each other, injecting levity into their serious task, creating bonds as a cohort even as their lunches created bonds with older or less mobile older adults.

Experiences like these underline the ways aging holds potential to integrate communites by opening new shared spaces, activities, relationships, and identities. They remind me of how integration and integrality comes at the touch of a hand, at the sight of a friend, or at the smell of freshly fried chicken. Integration is both ethical and aesthetic, it is full of imagined pasts and futures.

It is exciting to see so much excellent work on aging and intergenerational relationships in cultural anthropology even in the last year, most of which explore the complex dimensions of care, mutuality, and relationality in the context of uneven global economic and technological transformation and possibility (Han 2012; Kaufman 2013; Lynch and Danely 2013; Mazuz 2013, Suzuki, ed. 2013, e.g.). As these ethnographies show, the fieldsites of aging are not only old persons, but rather the points of integration, whether that is at the bedside in a hospital or in a school kitchen. Here I want to echo Wentzell's call for even more “alternative accounts of aging,” connections, and changes, not only because they enrich our understanding of and respect for older adults, but because they enrich our perspective towards all persons, perhaps allowing us to appreciate the sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant tunes they intone.


Erikson, Erik Homburger. 1980. Identity and the Life Cycle. W. W. Norton & Company.

Han, Clara. 2012. Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hirschfeld, Lawrence 2002 Why Don’t Anthropologists Like Children? American Anthropologist. 104(2): 611-627.

Kaufman, Sharon R. 2013. “Fairness and the Tyranny of Potential in Kidney Transplantation.” Current Anthropology 54 (S7) (October 1): S56–S66. doi:10.1086/670193.

Lynch, Caitrin, and Jason Danely, ed. 2013. Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course. Berghahn Books.

Mazuz, Keren. 2013. “Folding Paper Swans, Modeling Lives.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly (June): n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/maq.12024.

Suzuki, Nanami, ed. 2013. The Anthropology of Aging and Well-Being: Searching for the Space and Time to Cultivate Life Together, No. 80 Senri Ethnological Studies (SES). National Museum of Ethnology: Osaka, Japan.