8th International Conference on Cultural Gerontology, Galway

Dr. Richard Ward recently attended the International Conference on Cultural Gerontology at the National University of Ireland, Galway. The theme was “Meaning and Culture(s): Exploring the Life Course”. Here is his feedback from the event:

“I was recently lucky enough to attend the 8th Annual Conference on Cultural Gerontology in Galway. These conferences take place every 2-3 years and attract an eclectic mix of gerontologists and academics from a range of other disciplines with an interest in ageing. I was part of a session exploring visual methods in social/cultural gerontology alongside Marjorie Silverman who reported on her PhD work using videography to explore the lives of carers and carees in Canada, and a paper by Lorna Warren and Julie Ellis on photography in the context of death and dying.

Overall, it was a fantastic conference and I thought I would use this blog to mention some of the highlights. I was particularly interested in the place and space sessions and those on dementia (obviously!).

Chris Phillipson of Manchester University argued for the reconstruction of social gerontology and our on-going fascination with the life course. Arguing that globalisation has transformed the life course he suggested that many of the key institutions supporting ageing populations are in a process of collapse. Post-war certainty around employment and welfare/pensions is disintegrating and social gerontology needs to identify the new and emerging forms of solidarity that support people as they age in this time of change.

Kate de Medeiros offered a think-piece style paper asking whether the notion of resilience in dementia has become the new euphemism for the now largely discredited notion of successful ageing (‘what does it even mean to age unsuccessfully?!’). She pointed to some parallels between the two discourses, noting that like the idea of successful ageing, resilience is a concept defined by its outcome and hence tells us very little. In a context of neo-liberal notions of individual responsibility for health, she argues that ‘the ‘unsuccessful’ and ‘non-resilient’ indirectly become less deserving, accountable for their ‘failures’’.

In a paper that had some interesting parallels to Fiona Kelly’s work, Sally Chivers of Trent University in Canada explored the scandal that ensued after a family carer left a concealed camera in his mother’s room in a care home and captured images of abuse. Chivers outlined some of the tensions between a narrative of ‘bad apples’ (i.e. a focus on individual workers who need to be removed from the care system) and a wider debate on poor labour conditions for paid carers. Her paper showed how a focus on the abusive conduct of individual workers came to overshadow the endemic issue of poor conditions for all workers. A key point she made was that the current system in Canada does not allow for reform to care other than by further increasing regulation.

Tiina Suopajarvi of the Urban Life Lab at Oulu University in Finland talked about using walking interviews with older people as a method of investigation. Accompanying someone as they walk about the area where they live is a method, she argues, for disclosing the materiality of place. Tiina showed pictures of a very snowy Finnish urban landscape and discussed how street surfaces and weather conditions can shape how people move about. She highlighted the value of getting into a rhythm when walking with someone and how that rhythm can be disturbed by street repairs or even traffic lights. Walking, she argued, is part of a process of place-making and by accompanying someone as they walk it can reveal their in-depth and intimate knowledge of the place where they live.

Chrissy Buse from Kent University gave a wonderful paper on clothing worn by people with dementia and notions of home in care settings. She highlighted the ‘spatial ambiguity’ associated with someone walking about in slippers but still clutching their handbag and, echoing Gill McColgan’s work, highlighted how rummaging through a handbag can be a way of creating a modicum of privacy in the communal environments of the care home.

Finally, a great paper was offered by Nicky Hatton from Royal Holloway, University of London. For her PhD she has been developing the idea of the care home as a performative and sensory space and exploring the ‘everyday creativity’ of care settings using light, sound, smell and other multi-sensory interventions. She described one episode where she joined with residents to use the sounds of a large communal dining room (that people tended to avoid) to create music and alter the environment by tuning in to different noises and then accompanying their rhythm and tempo.

The next Cultural gerontology conference sadly doesn’t take place until 2017 in Austria – I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in creative, arts and humanities-based approaches to the study of ageing.

Congratulations to the team at NUI for such a well-organised and enjoyable conference.”