Staying on the move: The urban future with aging body

by Tiina Suopajärvi

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Life Course Collaborative Research Network blog exchange, also available on the website of AAGE. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

On Wednesday morning in February 2013, I rang the doorbell of Leena, a 77 years old woman who lived in the city center of Oulu in northern Finland. She had agreed to take me for a walk from her home to the health center. While we were in a lift, Leena expressed her concerns about her future living arrangements, since there was no room for a wheel chair in the lift. Leena had lived in her house since 1967, and hoped to live many more years.

In Finland, the public discourses on “the problem of aging” circle around how people could continue to live on their own as long as possible. Sometimes this tendency has led to situations where people with dementia have become prisoners in their own homes. The elderly in need for care, might not have anyone nearby to look after them, and without sufficient public services, their futures as desired independent citizens doesn’t look too desirable.

Self-sufficient living should include not only the ability to stay at home, but also the ability to move between homes and the other important places in their lives, like public services, and the houses of family members and friends (see Gardner 2011; Penney 2013). In order to understand this part of their everyday life, I walked with seniors via their everyday routes on nine winter days. I have followed Tim Ingold’s (2011) notion that through the routes and movements, the pasts and futures are carried into the present.

While I walked with Leena, the streets were a bit slippery and there were piles of snow on the pavements, because snow ploughing is usually done first on the roads. The more able-bodied walkers can find detours for their ways, but for citizens like Leena who suffer from severe back problems and asthma, these barriers have long-term effects. To be able to stay as fit as possible, and thus to carry on independent living, she says she needs to walk every day. This is why Leena has continued to visit the city library located 1 km from her house with a rucksack in her back, walking sticks on her hands and having a coffee break on her way back home. This practice unfolds the multiple temporality of walking: reading is Leena’s lifelong interest, her way of moving depends on her current physical condition, and through walking she plans to stay self-sufficient in the future.

There are also year-round material elements in the cities that can prevent or encourage seniors to move (see Freund 2001). In the spring 2013, Oulu was planning to replace the health center many seniors preferred to use with one outside the city center. Leena was “terrified” about this, because: “Then I’d have to take a taxi but I’d anyhow have to walk to get one, so what’s the point?” Being unable to walk to get medical services was perceived as a change that would affect seniors’ sense of independence. This sense might be constructed differently by different generations but what is common, is the need be able to affect one’s own future in a place (see Ylipulli 2015).

The possibility to keep on knowing the city through everyday embodied practices enhances seniors’ feelings of autonomy, and of being valued as competent citizens. Staying on the move is not just a question of keeping oneself fit as an aging citizen, but also a question of urban planning and management. While considering new plans and decisions, we should ask what kind of mobilities and practices do they enable and prevent. How to ensure that our cities stay livable also to those seniors who wish to live on their own without making them feel like abandoned citizens?

Since in our study, city visits by solitary seniors were mainly about running errands; the urban planners and decision makers should consider how to secure seniors’ routes to health centers, libraries, pharmacists, and grocery stores in the future. For example, preserving the important historical places of the city as well as making places feel safe through sufficient lighting, supports the continuity of seniors’ everyday mobility. By understanding that aging is interwoven with multiple continuities and socio-material practices, societies could make better choices in supporting the highly valued independence of senior citizens.

Works cited

Freund, Peter. 2001. ”Bodies, Disability and Spaces. The Social Model and Disabling Spatial Organisations.” Disability & Society 16:5: 689–706.

Gardner, Paula J. 2011. Natural neighborhood networks – Important social networks in the lives of older adults aging in place. Journal of Aging Studies 25: 263–271.

Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

Penney, Lauren. 2013. The Uncertain Bodies and Spaces of Aging in Place. Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34:3: 113–125.

Ylipulli, Johanna. 2015. A smart and ubiquitous urban future? Contrasting large-scale agendas and street-level dreams. Observation (OBS*) Journal, Media City: Spectacular, Ordinary and Contested Spaces: 85–110.

Tiina Suopajärvi holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and works as a University Lecturer of European Ethnology at the University of Helsinki in Finland. She has studied and published scientific articles on aging in “smart cities.” Her current research focuses on the co-design processes of public services aimed for senior citizens.