A Corner of Ageing
00.01.11: The caregiver brings Alice her morning medicine
00.01.35: Swallowing the pills
00.02.05: Lighting a cigarette
00.02.15: Chit-chat with the caregiver
The audio piece “Fading Quietly” was developed as part of a postdoc project conducted by Sofie Rosenlund Lau. Her project explores the widespread use of antidepressants among frail seniors, and our common aim was to compose a shareable sensory impression of the everyday life of those seniors.
Frailty is a dynamic concept. In this context, and taken from Rosenlund Lau’s definition, it refers to elderly people with a reduced level of physical, psychological or social functioning, which places them in the vulnerable position of dependency on the outside world, including their intimate care needs. It is a group of individuals who are especially susceptible to loneliness (Ældreprofilen 2019) and for whom life is often quiet.
As you can hear, Alice’s days are monotonous. Her days are structured around the visits of the caregivers who come twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening. She smokes, drinks coffee, smokes again, eats a little, drinks more coffee, and smokes again. The television and her birds keep her company. Once in a while she receives a phone call or a visit from one of her children.
As is the case with other seniors in Rosenlund Lau’s study, Alice’s ageing seems to be shaped by a deteriorating body and relational loss. She belongs to a segment of the population whose limited socio-economic resources and health problems increase their vulnerability. Alice literally lives her life in the corner of her living room. Additionally – if we consider the underrepresentation of this part of the population in both research and the media – it becomes clear that the group she belongs to is also metaphorically placed in a corner in Denmark, where there is a rich anthropological research field devoted to the topic of ageing but only a limited focus on elderly people living alone in their own homes.
I visited Alice twice at the end of February 2020. The first time together with Sofie, and for my second visit, a few days later, I brought my recorder. At that time, the coronavirus had already spread to several European countries, but in Denmark it was still “just” a thing on the news. Only a few days later the first COVID-19 Danish casualty was confirmed and two weeks later a national lockdown was declared. Throughout the world, every day routines of moving freely and interacting socially were disrupted. The experience of isolation suddenly became familiar to the majority. At this point in time we all face the experience of living with legislatively-restricted bodies.
The sociologist Konstantin Galkin writes: “The changes in habitual practices required by the COVID-19 Pandemic result in a compressed body: a body locked-up in time, space and the self” (Galkin 2020: 188). Galkin examined how the Pandemic has changed the bodily practices of elderly people living in a remote area in Russia.
The social nature of bodily and psychological well-being is largely invisible to individuals, until usual modes of embodiment get violated (Chao 2020), such as when serious illness or permanent disability take hold of the body, and even more so – or anew – in cases of an epidemical threat that enforces a new normality. (Csordas, paraphrased by Galkin 2020: 187).
However, we, the majority, hope and know that this new reality as “compressed bodies” will pass. But to people like Alice, isolation is not limited to emergency situations. It is not a sudden, temporary life condition. Her frailty was part of life before and will persist during and in the aftermath of COVID-19. The primary difference between then and now is that attention for loneliness and isolation amongst elderly people has vastly increased during the pandemic.