The Gifts of Elders

Soon after moving to the U.S. from Japan in 1976, I became very intrigued by the differences between American and Japanese outlooks on aging. I wrote my graduate thesis in anthropology on the subject in 1991, but the project would ultimately carry through my whole life, having just recently published a book on the topic at age 72.

Woman with pink sweater vest and white shirtBut back in 1987, at the age of 39, I went to a senior center every day for 18 months and engaged in the anthropological method of participant observation. I did whatever the elders were doing: painting, knitting, singing and so on. I became an “insider,” even though I was teased for my age—“a young chicken,” they would say.

After this initial fieldwork, I kept in touch with many elders by dropping in at the center, phoning or visiting them at homes or hospitals. I continued my research in this way for more than three decades, but my book was repeatedly put on hold due to my husband’s long battle with cancer and eventual death, as well as trips to Japan to look after my mother until her death. Those years of delay, however, enabled me to deepen my understanding of the illnesses and bereavement the elders endured as I, too, experienced them. Hearing elders’ hospitalization experiences helped me to cope with my husband’s cancer. I found solace with other widows, and we became closer by sharing memories of our husbands. When my book, Through Japanese Eyes: Thirty Years of Studying Aging in America, was published in 2020, all but one elder was deceased, and I was a senior citizen. My research had become a personal journey.

Book cover, Through Japanese EyesThese years yielded important aspects of aging that might not have been obvious in a short-term study. For instance, old age is a very dynamic period of life in which major changes occur, not only illnesses and deaths but also moving through different types of housing and experiencing divorce and sometimes marriage. Seven elderly couples married during my research. This discovery defies the prevailing image of old age as a static period, a kind of “existential purgatory” between life and death. Life goes on, no matter how old one becomes.

Yet aging does present challenges, especially in taking care of oneself despite diminishing self-sufficiency. This is particularly arduous for elders in America, where independence is so highly valued. But with ingenuity, elders can complement each other’s missing resources. One octogenarian who could not walk but still drove, gave rides to her friend, who could not drive but did the pedestrian tasks for them both. Being able to observe my elders’ endeavors like this was an unexpected gift from them, offering me courage and optimism to face unknowns in my own life.

I recall one day when I and other elders were making Raggedy Ann dolls. A widow shared her grandson’s question during a recent visit: “Grandma, do your wrinkles hurt?” The boy’s innocence and curiosity amused everyone. To my relief, he had not yet associated old age with death, like the relative of another elder who had asked, “Great-grandma, are you dying?” Yet, many in the U.S. make that association at any age. From my Japanese eyes, it is a general lack of knowledge about old age that leads many people to fear, loathe or even deny it. This gave me incentive to finish the book—a desire and sense of duty to make the reality of elders’ lives widely known, along with showing my deep gratitude toward them. And to show that, no, wrinkles do not hurt.

 

Yohko Tsuji ’80 is an adjunct associate professor of anthropology at Cornell University (yt33@cornell.edu). She no longer teaches but continues her research and writing.