My first encounter around gerontological study took place a few years ago when, as a master’s degree student in political sociology, I investigated social relations in a nursing home. Naive and inexperienced as I was, I spent days walking down the isles of a medicalised retirement home under the curious stares of residents. I thought I was like those early 20th century anthropologists observing South American Guarani tribes or some other newly discovered civilizations. I would interview any resident willing to tell me their story. One evening, while packing my research toolkit made of a little notebook and an audio recorder, I met a man that I had never seen in the residence before. He seemed impatient and in a rush. Yet, he accepted to be one of my research subjects! I did not know it would turn out to be one of the most inspiring interviews I would conduct. Inspiring and heartbreaking.
He was a very independent man who had moved in the nursing home to follow and support his now severely demented wife. He taught me of the set-devaluation people can feel by being institutionalised. This mid seventies man had been one of the research brains at Airbus a few years back. His engineering skills had made him a well-respected and successful individual. But here, he had lost all peer recognition. Entering the nursing home had been the last step of a long staircase of declining social recognition since his retirement.
Thinking that his knowledge could be valuable to the community, he had prepared a 50-page report suggesting changed in the air-conditioning system of the building. In dispair, he told me that the director, a converted restaurant manager who, in his own words, “understood nothing about older people”, had pushed the report with the back of his hand and had asked him to go back to being just a resident. He, who had received awards and had been congratulated throughout his life was now in his eyes useless with nothing to expect from the future.
His story is only one example of the painful way down older age that many undergo. It suggested to me that the higher place one had reached in life, the steeper and more unbearable the fall as old age hit was. Where was the graceful ageing some promote? In his eyes, “there was absolutely nothing good about ageing,” as another interviewee stated. This is this process that I found wonderfully depicted in the film “the Iron Lady” that I recommended in a previous post. It is also this process that inspired the title of the research project, voluntarily provoking: “is there life before death?”