Episode 3: Putting Age in its Place
In this episode, putting age in its place, with the help of literature and the imagination.
- how space and place change who we are as we age
- nursing home escape stories
- age segregation and long-term care
- King Lear
- where we want to grow old
- reading literature to fight age panic
Watch out for Ulla Kriebernegg’s new book:
Read Sally Chivers’s first book:
- From Old Woman to Older Women: Contemporary Culture and Women's Narratives (Open Access / Free PDF)
Read Margaret Atwood’s poem King Lear in Respite Care
Find Margaret Gullette’s article Losing Lear, Finding Ageism (paywalled)
Watch Simon Russell Beale talking about Lear with dementia:
Ulla Kriebernegg 00:04
The nursing home is a space of exclusion, and it's designed to contain, in a way, those burdensome and deviant aspects of life, which is old age. Old people should not be over the hill and in the poorhouse somewhere. They should be at the center of social life because this matters. Where you are when you're old, also determines who you are. Ageism is manifested, I think, in spatial segregation.
Sally Chivers 00:34
Welcome to Wrinkle Radio, where the stories we tell about aging matter. I'm your Host Sally Chivers, and I am so glad you're here. I'm joined this episode by special guest, Ulla Kriebernegg. We are going to put age in its place, with the help of literature and the imagination.
Sally Chivers 01:01
I grew up before the internet, and my parents were into racquet sports, like, tournament style. We went to tournaments on weekends, and the options for offspring were playing our own made-up sports and games or bringing a big book. I was on team book. In fact, I was team book. It was a solo sport, and I was the only one playing it. The other kids and even some of the adults mocked me for it. But I didn't care or even always notice because I was in another world, sitting at the side of a squash court or a tennis court, reading about the plantagenets or getting back to Tara or the Bridge to Terabithia. Reading fiction taught me early how to get to another place, in another body, without anything but the simplest technology available: a reader's imagination joining a creative writer's. It's magic.
Sally Chivers 02:05
What does this have to do with ageing? Well, in episode one of Wrinkle Radio, Andrea Charise explained that we have to train our imaginations if we're going to get to a better older age. And it is nigh time that we collectively and culturally get to a better older age. Artful stories in the form of literature and film are one way that we can train our imaginations, and they can also help us to understand what a culture hopes and fears an older age will be.
Sally Chivers 02:35
When I was 17, I went to the public library looking for yet another new novel to read. Completely at random. I picked Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel off a rack of novels that you didn't have to reserve, but you could only take out for one week. This 1964 Canadian novel used to be assigned widely in schools, so people had learned to hate it. Or maybe they hated how they were put in close proximity for 300 pages with Hager Shipley, a 90-something, cantankerous, bulging woman who reflects on a lifetime of having been quite a jerk. She wistfully remembers thinner, if not happier, youthful times. I was transfixed. And it's not a stretch to say that not only did I read it in half the time that I was allowed to have it out of the library, I also never looked at an older person the same way again.
Sally Chivers 03:37
Reading The Stone Angel stretched my imagination and changed what I thought older age could and should be. And it didn't do this by offering a perfect example of aging well, or being kind, or growing in wisdom. Not that there's anything wrong with any of those things. But that's not what I learned from my time with Hager Shipley. In my teens, I hadn't yet thought of older adults as having a rich interior life full of regret or satisfaction, self loathing or love, and deep, ongoing desires. As an awkward, angry teenager, I could see how Hagar both was and wasn't me. And through that, I could see how older people I sat next to on the bus or saw at the grocery store, both were and weren't like me, I suddenly got that it wasn't all bad or all good. It was just entirely a continuation of the messiness of human existence.
Sally Chivers 04:40
I didn't know it yet. But reading The Stone Angel offered me a lesson in Age Studies and in the transformational power of a good novel. Here to talk more with us about both of those things this episode is Ulla Kriebernegg, Fullf Professor of Cultural Aging and Care Research and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Aging and Care at the University of Graz, Austria. Her research on the transformational power of fiction about aging has made her an expert on, among other things, space, place and care. Ulla has a book coming out soon called Putting Age in its Place: Long-term Residential Care in Contemporary Film and Fiction. I absolutely love this book title, which is why, with her permission, it's the title of this episode. Here's what Ulla told me about what she means by "putting age in its place,"
Ulla Kriebernegg 05:42
I was thinking about the phrase to put somebody in their place, which I assume means that you show them where they belong. So to put them down in a way, but you also tell them: hey, this is not your place; you should be somewhere else. This is not who you're supposed to be; not what you're supposed to be. And then of course, it also combined age and place, which was exactly the point that I wanted to make. In the book, I wanted to explore the marginalization. Marginalization is also a spatial metaphor: if you put somebody to the margins. And so I wanted to explore about how age gets segregated, how age gets marginalized, also in terms of space, and so I thought the title would be quite fitting. We put people into nursing homes, into care facilities, and we put them in their place. And that's where they're supposed to be. And again, it resonates with one of your titles, Sally "Move, you're in the way," you know? There's also a spatial component there. And I really have to say, and I hope you will leave this in, I know that I'm really standing on your shoulders with my research on aging in place, and it was your chapter in From Old Woman to Older Women that inspired that.
Sally Chivers 06:43
It's so gracious of Ulla to gesture to my own research. I hadn't realized it back when I was 17 years old. But I went back to The Stone Angel when I was writing my dissertation, the one that became my first book. And when I did that, I discovered that the plot of The Stone Angel is typical, maybe even prototypical, of a lot of Canadian fiction about aging. We first meet Hagar Shipley when she's moved from living on her own to living with her family. And while she's living with her family, she discovers they have a treacherous plan to move her into the ominously named nursing home Silver Threads. So she runs away and ends up on the beach; she gets very drunk and out of her spills the story of her life. And it's that story of her life that makes up a lot of the novel. The book came out in 1964, but Ulla explained how it's become more and more common within fiction and film for the nursing home to be this dreaded space of containment that people need to escape.
Ulla Kriebernegg 07:45
There are some stories that come up again and again with regard to aging and space. And that's what I think is the new genre: the care home escape story. And these stories are mushrooming on the market. And I think we haven't seen the end of it yet. There's more and more coming out. And I keep searching for new novels again and again, and people who run away from care homes: that seems to be a genre, a trope, a topic. So it seems like old people who are in these locked away in a way --Age segregation,Segregated or simply locked away in retirement homes / care homes--usually they wouldn't be able to climb out of windows like the 100-year-old man who climbs out of a window and disappears. How can you climb out the window? Usually you can't when you're in there. But I think it's about social participation. These texts,for me, they represent the wish of people to be part of life and not be segregated with a bunch of other old people. So that seems to me, a trope or something that says a lot about how we treat old people: that they want to participate. Old people should not be over the hill, in the poorhouse somewhere, but they should be part and parcel of society; they should be at the center of social life. And perhaps that's what these stories express.
Sally Chivers 08:59
Ulla shows us here the power of fiction in depicting nursing homes, and it's not in depicting realistic nursing homes. These nursing homes may or may not be realistic. That doesn't matter as much. These escape stories explore cultural fears and desires about aging. They reveal how the nursing home encapsulates and captures our fears about aging. That's fiction's power here, and it's one way that it can train the imagination.
Sally Chivers 09:30
You might have expected in talking about literature and aging that we would talk about time: time passing, the winter season, figures of clocks, the character of Father Time. He's an older man carrying a scythe and an hourglass. This is important, and that sense of running out of time is of course important, but so too are spaces and places for care, and that's why I was so excited to talk to Ulla because she has always put those topics at the center of her research.
Ulla Kriebernegg 10:01
Space and place constitute our aging. Yeah, time of course. But also space is really relevant to who we are, who we become, who we can be when we grow old. It's relevant for the constitution of our identity, for ourselves, for our borders, for our limitations, and social relations. And that's what the spatial turn is all about. It's all about the constitution of social relations through space.
Ulla Kriebernegg 10:25
There's this essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, where he says, youth is everywhere in place; age, like woman, requires fit surroundings. I thought it was quite funny that age requires fit surroundings. And he thinks fit surroundings for age: that's the church, that's the city chambers, but definitely not public space because public space is actually reserved for youth. So what is fit surroundings? The care home? an age-friendly city? and I know you have a lot to say about Age Friendly Cities too. In a way, space is a category of investigation, just like time, and we know that all sorts of cultural norms and social practices and also care practices are revealed through space, because space matters. Where you are when you're old also determines who you are too. Think of, for instance, a retirement community or a nursing home. The way it is designed, its plan, its floor maps. And I think architecture in a way is a cultural representation. It's a cultural way of expressing how we think about old age when we think of, for instance, long term care facility. The colors, the way the pastel colors are all over the place, for instance. They totally determine how you can live there. The nursing home is a space of exclusion. And it's designed to contain, in a way, those burdensome and deviant aspects of life, which is old age. It's not only the material environment; it's also the discursively shaped or discursively constructed environment. How we think about the place how we talk about the place that we live in, also determines who we can be there.
Sally Chivers 12:01
This all feels so current, and it is so current and relevant. It feels that way partly because the coronavirus pandemic put long-term care into the forefront of the minds even of those of us who weren't already thinking about it a lot. But, it's a cliche to say it, these ways of talking about care have a long history, and they even have a long literary history. When Andrea Charise, in a past episode of Wrinkle Radio, talked about what she feared about later life based on all that she knows from her research on Aging, she talked about fearing long term care, and she made a joke, you might remember it, she said,
Andrea Charise 12:43
I don't have children. And so while we all know that that is not the recipe for a happy old age by any stretch, Ask King Lear!
Sally Chivers 12:43
Whether we always realize it or not, and whether we're familiar in depth or even in a surface way with the Shakespearean play King Lear, King Lear is part of the discursive construction of aging and care that surrounds us. And so I wanted to ask Ulla Kriebernegg about recent research she's done into productions of King Lear because it's such an important reference that I think a lot of us could use a bit of a reminder about. You'll notice in her answer that a lot of the things that we talk about in this episode start to come full circle. Just as my pathway into age studies came through the Canadian novel, The Stone Angel, Ulla Kriebernegg's way into studying King Lear came through Canadian literature.
Ulla Kriebernegg 13:45
What brought me to King Lear again, a play that I never read--I studied English and American Studies. I never read Lear during my studies--but I came to King Lear to the Shakespearean King via Margaret Atwood's poem, King Lear in Respite Care. This short poem by Atwood, where this old guy sits in a nursing home, and he definitely is a bit confused. He might have dementia. And of his daughters comes and visits, and he says, or, he wants to say "take me home with you." But he can't. He wants to say "please." And he can't. And it's about their relationship. There is some love. There is care. But also she has a bad conscience. She can't really take him home, and she struggles with putting her father in a nursing home.
Sally Chivers 14:26
I hope at this point in the episode, that phrase jumped out at you: putting him in a nursing home. 0utting Lear's aging in place. Isn't it fascinating how these common phrases reveal our cultural norms, values and practices?
Ulla Kriebernegg 14:41
That's how I found out about King Lear again, and then I started reading the play. And I researched and i found Margaret Gullette's article Losing Lear, Finding Ageism, where she had researched programme booklets and she realized that 400 years ago Lear was not a play about aging that much. It really was about vulnerability and making bad decisions at the end of your life. So she goes all the way until 2007 or so. And I then thought, Okay, let's see what people have made of Lear in stage productions in the BBC, in the Globe Theatre and so on. And I realized that suddenly Lear, who divides his kingdom among his three daughters, and he wants them to say how much they love him. And the older ones suck up to him. And they tell him all sorts of stories about how they love him to ... get the most. And the youngest daughter is honest. And she says, I love you as it is sort of my duty to love you as a daughter. And he chases her away. He disinherits her. He doesn't understand that she's being honest. And then of course, the two older daughters get half of the kingdom, and they start plotting against him. And eventually they kick him out. He moves between the two parts back and forth, back and forth with 100 Nights at first and then he can only bring 15 nights and then he can only bring 25, and eventually he can only bring one. And then they close the door on him, and he's chased out into the storm, and he has this fit of madness. There is no dementia in that play. Not at all. But recently, Lear appears as a dictator, first of all, a Kim Il-Sung-like, North Korean style dictator who has Lewy body dementia, as one of the most important actors, Simon Russell Beale now said. He had recently — Some of his relatives is a doctor, a medical doctor and he said, "You know what! Now I know why he is misbehaving. Now I know why he's irritated, why he is so grumpy, why he starts shouting, and why he has all these fits of madness. He has Lewy body dementia, and ever since Lear has dementia onstage in lots of productions, which I think is not ... I mean, it's stupid. But it's shorthand. As you also said, at some point, dementia, sometimes it's shorthand for aging. And it's just in a nutshell, the fears of old age that we seem to have are brought out now in Lear, via the shorthand, via dementia. So now suddenly, the viewers understand his daughters. They say, Hey, okay, we know how hard it is to take care of someone with dementia? Can't we understand the daughters? Shouldn't we feel pity for them. This grumpy old geezer, you know, it's really hard. So we understand that, that they become fed up with him. And that's one of the issues, but I also think it's nonsense to think about Lear having dementia because what does that ... does it help? Does it help us understand the play? I think it makes the play a totally different play. Lear is not about dementia. Lear is about an old man and his vulnerability at the end of life where he realizes he has made a decision that he can't change. He's sad, he's betrayed, he feels betrayed by his daughters, he has chased away the one he loved most. And so what can you do about that? He's no longer in power. It's also about giving up power and he's powerless, suddenly. He doesn't have a corrective anymore, just the fool who tells him the truth, but it's really about vulnerability at the end of life, I think. And it's not about dementia. And just using modern diagnosis now to talk about the play that's more than 400 years old is, I think, doesn't do justice to play.
Sally Chivers 18:12
It doesn't do justice to the play. And it doesn't do justice to audiences of the play either, by forcing them into such a narrow way of thinking about what vulnerability can look like. It's silly to imagine that Lear has dementia, not because it isn't realistic. Lesr's not a person. He's words on a page, a figment of the imagination brought to life by an actor. And the actor could have dementia. That'd be an intriguing performance context we could and should talk about in another episode of Wrinkle Radio. Ulla brings out the vulnerability Lear experiences later in life, especially when he needs care. Contemporary audiences are thought to need that vulnerability exaggerated in the form of a character with dementia. And that says more about the current cultural moment and how we're all thought or taught to think about aging than it does about dementia, or about Shakespeare. Lear's fears, and these are fears that a lot of older people have, that they might lose their power: those are very durable. allowing Allowing an audience to believe, or even pressuring an audience to believe that that can only happen in the face of cognitive decline, when someone has dementia: maybe that's supposed to be both terrifying and reassuring. But what we definitely see in Lear is that every time we retell an old story, it tells us a lot about our contemporary moment.
Ulla Kriebernegg 19:42
And interestingly, there's this, you know, the project where Shakespearean plays are being rewritten for contemporary authors?
Sally Chivers 19:48
Ulla Kriebernegg 19:49
Do you know about that project? There is one of course on Lear. Edward St. Aubyn. It's called Dunbar and in Dunbar also Lear is in a care home. And he runs away. So in a way, it is like full circle. Yeah, and in that story also he runs away.
Sally Chivers 20:06
For the tape, my jaw just dropped, when you said that because you can't see our facial expressions
Sally Chivers 20:11
Lear is everywhere, whether we know it or not. And whether we like it or not.
Ulla Kriebernegg 20:12
So Lear is everywhere
Sally Chivers 20:23
On Wrinkle Radio, I bring you findings from Age Studies research, and I also invite Age Studies researchers to talk about their own aging. We're part of this process we study, and this process we study is part of us. But we don't often have the opportunity to talk about that. So as a final question, for this episode, I invited Ulla to put her aging in place.
Ulla Kriebernegg 20:44
This is such a difficult question: where do i picture myself? Honestly, I can't. I don't know why I can't picture myself. If I have to see myself on a -- what do you call these? --lifts that take you up the stairs A Stair lift. In your own home? I see myself ... maybe that's inspired as an advertisement ... I see myself sitting on one of these stair lifts, being taken up on the first floor where my bedroom is. I wish I could live in my own house together with my husband, with Sepp. I hope that I will be that lucky. I would also be happy in an assisted living facility. I wouldn't mind as long as ... now being a University Professor, I'm assuming I will be affluent enough that we'll be able to afford it. And of course, it's a class issue. That's what we haven't mentioned so far. How you age? I mean, class is really, really important. But I hope I could be in a nice assisted living facility. Other than that, I hope I can be my own house, although I'm not so connected to that house. But I do like it. I like the patio. I like going out. Interestingly, I seem to be seeing myself in Graz, in Austria, where I am now. I'm not thinking of moving anywhere. So I'm not picturing myself in Thailand, or at the seaside or anywhere. No, I think it will be ... I hope I'll be at home wherever I am. Whatever that means. But it's so difficult to picture myself when I'm old. I ask that question to my students all the time. I asked them to tell me who are you when you're 85? And where are you? They seem to find it easy. I find it extremely hard. What do you think about that? Where do you see yourself? in your house?
Sally Chivers 22:25
I think I'm influenced by an exercise I did at the Create Change Institute. That Anne Basting ran. She had us close our eyes and start with our senses. So the smell. I'm smelling baking bread, okay, I'm somewhere where food can be made in the space. And then I very quickly go into panic mode. This is obviously a protective mechanism. But when I worry about long-term residential care, which I think I have a really strong chance of being in, my fear is the really lousy music. My fear is them coming in, me going from having lsung at Carnegie Hall with my choir to banging meaninglessly on a tambourine. That's not that bad compared to the other things that could be bad about food, or my bed, or you know, privacy or violence. But that's the part that I think about, it's just where ... where will I find meaning? Will I be able to write? That, to mem is one of the things that I think about. But it's obviously a way that my brain is protecting me from thinking about the actual space and what it'll look like. It's a difficult question. It's good that you asked me back.
Sally Chivers 23:35
Such a perfect introduction to Ulla Kriebernegg and her characteristic generosity. Turning the tables. Asking me my own question. Making sure I'm included in the conversation. She has put me in my place in the best possible way.
Sally Chivers 23:56
And I hope she's put you in your place as well, in this episode about literature, the imagination, and what they teach us about space and place. WHat they teach us about the fear that surrounds older age right now, like the nursing home. Hagar Shipley knows that the only way she'll escape Silver Threads is, in her words, "feet first in a wooden box," so she runs away. Her fears are not real because, like Lear, she is words on a page. But, like Lear has for so many audiences, Hager Shipley has taken shape in my imagination and knowing her has helped me notice what I think and believe. Reading has the potential to help us recognize and reimagine what might be possible at any age. And as Andrea Charise put it so well, Without imagination, we stop exactly where we are. Literary scholars like Andrea, myself and Ulla, take this responsibility very seriously.
Ulla Kriebernegg 25:02
So what we as literary studies scholars, scholars of age/aging in literature can contribute--because sometimes we think we have to legitimize working with literature who's interested in that, you know--but I think what we can bring to the table is exactly this kind of resistant reading. This kind of reading against the grain: not only a play like Lear, but also its interpretations and stories about Lear and the pathologization of Shakespearean characters. Looking at it from a literary historical point of view with aging studies as a lens, I think, helps deconstruct age stereotypes and that's what current productions are still caught in them and it's still very ageist what they do with Lear. I think that's what we can do. That's what we can bring to the table. It's our responsibility as literary studies scholars to sort of push back.
Sally Chivers 25:54
That is Professor Ulla Kriebernegg from the University of Graz, Austria, and this has been Wrinkle Radio, where the stories we tell about aging matter and so too do the ways we read them. I'm your host, Sally Chivers. Thank you for listening. I hope you'll tell your friends, your colleagues, your children, your parents, your neighbors, and ... if you liked what you heard, can I ask you to do me a favor? Could you leave a review on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen to your podcast? It would really help us out here at Wrinkle radio and remember: Don't panic! It's just aging.