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1This book comprises papers from a seminar entitled ‘Penser les Vieillesses’ [Understanding ageing situations and experiences] held at the Free University of Brussels. The objective is to grasp changes in contemporary ageing from a wide range of perspectives: anthropological, sociological, demographic, and geographic. In response to what are often alarmist media discourses and public policies that seek to ‘make individuals take responsibility for their own ageing process’, the authors seek collectively to understand what the notion of ageing refers to today. The book is organized around three major themes: the effects of geographical and social context, changes in solidarity as the baby boomer generation attains old age, and changes in perceptions of the ageing process and body.

2In the first chapter of Part I, Catherine Gucher discusses older people in rural areas in three French regions, showing how these remote geographic spaces may also be socially apart as well. She distinguishes between three groups: natives, many with little capital of any type, who emphasize their belonging to the area and whose retirement life is continuous with their past practices and attachment to it; people who settle in the area relatively late in life and who often experience upward social mobility because they have been able to buy a home at a lower price than in an urban zone; and older people who have returned to the area they came from and who develop a kind of dual culture combining local roots and social relations developed elsewhere during their working lives.

3In a stimulating analysis that combines a sociological approach with an analysis of ageing, Alexandre Pillonel studies a group of wealthy Geneva homeowners. These members of the dominant class suggest in interviews that they aim to distinguish themselves by using their property ‘as an important resource that will facilitate the pursuit of a dual normative objective: autonomy and independence’. From this perspective, a home represents not only economic but also symbolic and social capital. It also enables these people to avoid institutional care and dependence on their children.

4Virginie Villemin has studied the trajectories of older people who have settled in Morocco after retiring. In an analysis similar to Gucher’s, she shows how this choice is determined by attachment to where they came from and/or financial constraints. Villemin brings to light the solidarity recreated by these expatriate communities and the development of a local economy for providing care to older expatriates.

5Estelle Ducom focuses on the population of Japan, which is both ageing and shrinking. Uniform ageing across some neighbourhoods is producing spatial segregation. Older people in residential areas remote from public transportation are particularly isolated. Moreover, increased delinquency among older people attests to their rapid pauperization and a weakening of traditional solidarity.

6Part II covers contemporary types of solidarity in response to ageing. Catherine Bonvalet and Céline Clement discuss the conclusions of a comparative study of Quebec and France that Bonvalet co-authored. They question the relevance of applying the concept of ‘generational set’ (ensemble générationnel) to the baby boomers. While it is true that the members of this pioneer generation have collectively ‘transformed the different stages of the life cycle’ as they attained them, their specificity lies not so much in their having developed new family ties (or bringing about an end to such ties) as their ability to combine work and friendship networks with family solidarity.

7Christophe Capuano looks at how changes in laws and public policy on assistance to older persons in France are related to changes in sociological research findings on family solidarity. Laws in France reflect a constant suspicion that families will use public assistance programs to shirk caring for their older members. The moral injunction that families care for their elders was reinforced by surveys conducted in the 1960s finding a clear trend of decreasing intergenerational cohabitation. Then, as early as the 1970s, researchers began to stress the importance of not confusing older persons’ residential solitude with social isolation. This new discovery—that family solidarity had never ceased to operate—actually led to putting greater responsibility on families: they now had to make up for the insufficiencies of policies aimed at supporting home care, and the financial aid they received was conditioned on state deductions from their inheritances. While that situation improved in the 2000s with the gradual recognition of carer status for family members and the replacement of inheritance deductions with the Personalized Autonomy Allowance (Allocation Personnalisée d’Autonomie or APA), the state’s suspicious attitude toward families of older persons has remained strong.

8Laurent Nisen describes the design of a statistical survey on mistreatment of older persons in Wallonia, Belgium. The survey designers wanted a better definition of mistreatment that would enable them to apprehend how widespread it was and why it occurred. Moving beyond Council of Europe and World Health Organization definitions, they defined mistreatment as a set of acts that older persons experience negatively and that happen in a pre-existing relational context and often involuntarily. Thus defined, mistreatment was found to affect 28% of older persons, a proportion that rises with age and is higher among the single, childless, and/or isolated.

9The last part of the book focuses on the body and gender in the ageing process. Drawing on interviews conducted in the area of Marseille, Enguerran Macia shows that women aged 65 to 75 do not see themselves as caught in a process of losing control, contrary to what is often associated with people that age. On the contrary, they stress that their lives are active and dynamic. Adopting a performative approach to gender, Macia shows how these women are trying to construct a new variety of ageing femininity by rejecting inherited models.

10Cécile Charlap seeks to ‘denaturalize’ menopause, defining it as ‘the product of a culture and social relations’ since it is apprehended differently from one society to the next. Among the Baruya, the subjects of a renowned study by Maurice Godelier, menopause constitutes a break from femininity that, in turn, enables women to assume power. The Japanese are largely indifferent to menopause and do not even have a word for it. This anthropological detour prepares the way for a discussion of menopause in France that is wary of medical discourse, said to ‘derive from a biologistic vision of the category “female”… rooted in fertility’ and to ‘pathologize’ women with a lexicon of deficit, risk, and disease. Charlap shows that whereas in well-to-do urban contexts menopause is thought of as a stigma to be concealed, among working-class women it is experienced as a natural ordeal that they must show they can cope with or overcome.

11Cécile Plaus and Béatrice Sommier take up the subject of sexuality among widows over age 60, a group that society enjoins to limit its sexuality. While some respondents follow this model, reporting that their fidelity to their partner extends beyond his death, the authors also find two other profiles. For some women, widowhood is a way to experience a type or degree of sexual freedom theretofore inaccessible. For others, particularly women of little means, sexual activity may be a way to meet a partner who will take care of their material needs; they thereby help reproduce masculine domination. It would have been worthwhile to identify the social determinants—in addition to religion—correlated with each of these profiles.

12The closing chapter, by Raymonde Feillet, shows how television shows and magazines targeting older persons develop a particular representation of old age. In the 1970s, a representational shift began from ‘the art of ageing well, where the point was to have a gratifying old age, to a scientific, individual, and collective representation of well-being’. Scientific specialists and medical experts are omnipresent in the above-mentioned types of media, and what emanates from them is the imperative to live an active old age; the idea of rest or ‘taking it easy’ is rejected. This in turn means that individuals feel responsible for having a successful old age by keeping themselves physically fit.

13The book does seem to attain its stated objective. While the contributions may seem extremely diverse in terms of discipline, methodology, and subject, they bring to light a coherent image of a new ‘older generation’ that has changed the meaning we ascribe to old age. Beyond the conclusions reached by individual authors, the reader readily perceives the relevance of presenting different social scientific perspectives to understand the phenomenon of ageing. The initial research seminar format also made it possible to present both theoretical and more empirical studies that work together in a stimulating way to renew our knowledge of ageing today.

Pierre-Antoine Bilbaut
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Uploaded on on 31/10/2019
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