One of the great things about living in downtown Montreal is I always pass by at least a dozen galleries on the way home, and one of these is FOFA Gallery at Concordia University. Earlier this week, I decided to take a look at some of the new work being showcased as part of the annual exhibition of the university’s Fine Arts undergraduates. Most of the work was interesting, but nothing really stood out to me until I saw the photo series ‘Survivors‘ by Yulia Grebneva and frankly — they stopped me, then moved me– emotionally and intellectually.
*Click on photo to see original photograph & here to see full photo series
Once I’d taken a close look at the series I read about the piece from the writer Greg Mattigetz. Here’s an excerpt:
“Survivors is a photographic series that reflects experiences of both the solitude and disregard, as well as steadfastness and persistence of elderly women living in urban environments… This series is based on Yulia Grebneva’s observation that these elderly women are lonely and forgotten within the context of the city. By removing the figures from the cityscape and placing them into harsh landscapes, the artist calls attention to how these women experience everyday city life by trying to keep up with the fast-paced and sprawling nature of the urban sphere.”
Two years ago I did a project asking whether there were any social risk factors that put elderly people living in cities at risk of death during heat waves. One of the factors that I identified in literature was social isolation. In the 2003 heat wave in Paris, which I was using as a case-study, the social isolation of elderly during heat waves was associated with a sixfold increase in the risk of death. This was not an issue that I had thought about before, and learning about the extent of it genuinely surprised me.
Since then, I’ve been paying more attention and every so often will read a story or a paper that mentions the same phenomenon. For example, a story in the BBC earlier this year described that “A study of 6,500 UK men and women aged over 52 found that being isolated from family and friends was linked with a 26% higher death risk over seven years.” The research accounted for other confounding factors and found that “after adjusting for factors such as underlying health conditions, only social isolation remained important.”
In every discussion of public health, the issue of aging populations in developing countries invariably comes up. This issues is often framed as a “demographic time-bomb” that will send the health-care costs in Canada and other countries (the UK, Ireland, China, Russia… ) out of orbit, an apocalyptic image has been well-disputed. Nevertheless, the fact is populations are aging, and as described in this Canadian Medical Association piece “Health promotion/prevention… can contribute to offsetting the impact of the aging population on the health care system.”
But what exactly is prevention in this context? I was reading a story earlier this year about climbing suicide rates among elderly here in Canada, and I found some of the comments unsettling. There was some discussion on how people are living longer than years before, often coping with severe illness in their final years, and should have the choice to depart their way. That’s a discussion worth having. But at the same time, we should acknowledge that we’ve created environments where growing old and requiring care is seen as a burden on families and society, rather than an obligation as it was in the past, and the life of elderly, their wisdom and their experience has become devalued.
What elderly populations face today are what most of us will eventually face, should we be lucky to live for so long. The seriousness of these issues really hit me when I volunteered for a short period in a geriatric care facility where I saw a lovely woman of about seventy-five years break down into tears at the loss of her autonomy, because she had been told she couldn’t go home for Christmas. Or an elderly gentleman relay his deep worry that he was a burden to his children who visited him once or twice a week. We are slowly beginning to take depression, loneliness, isolation, and vulnerability seriously in youth. But when it comes to the elderly, these psychological and social issues treated as inevitable parts of aging– and the public health discussions become about how can we can best manage the physical symptoms of aging, spending the least money. I think that’s a shortsighted and callous approach. Aging may be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be undignified suffering.
In a world where extended familial ties are waning, it is increasingly important for all of us to look after each other, and treat each life with respect. I think that providing support for home care and caregivers, supporting social programs that promote caring and cohesion (such as the Yellow Door here in Montreal), ensuring that there is good infrustructure that doesn’t inhibit mobility (i.e. Montreal’s winter street ice-rinks) may all help alleviate loneliness and isolation among our elderly –with positive health ramifications– and preserve that dignity so beautifully captured in Grebneva’s photo series.Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi