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Apr 21 / Wendy Bartlo

“Good” Cities and “Successful” Aging: the Anthropology of Aging in Detroit Neighborhoods

wendy bartloAs I was in the final stages of collecting the data for my dissertation, a relative at a family event asked me what I was researching.  After I responded, “Older people in Detroit neighborhoods,” she looked at me and asked, “Is that as bleak as it sounds?”  In her mind I was examining the intersection of two miserable topics, both focused on despair, decline, and isolation.  She was surprised when I assured her, that at least for my study participants, it was not as bleak as she imagined.  “What could make aging in Detroit good?” she asked me.  She was surprised when I explained that their social networks, friendships, and active participation with community service organizations made Detroit a good place to be an older person.

Gerontology related research in the contemporary United States is focused on aging well and threats to aging well, with social isolation as a critical component of aging experiences deemed unsatisfactory.    The essential tenet that guides this research is the idea of “successful aging” first put forth by Rowe and Kahn (1987). Successful aging differs from “usual” or expected ideas about aging that focus on decline and loss of function. This effort to rebrand the aging experience as something to be controlled through individual agency has been heavily critiqued, most recently by Rubinstein and de Medeiros (2015) who link the concept of “successful aging” to the neoliberal political milieu under which it was conceived.  They consider the potentially harmful impacts of this association which suggest that society is not responsible for offering assistance to those who “unsuccessfully” age as they have done so through their own fault.

As a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology and former Institute of Gerontology Pre-Doctoral trainee,  I am in interested in exploring ideas about “successful aging” in spaces widely deemed “unsuccessful” like the city of Detroit. Conversations about “successful aging” and the older person often mirror rhetoric and media representations of “good cities” (Zukin 2009) where individuals are responsible for their own individual health and maintenance. Under the gaze of a neoliberal ideology society is not responsible for bankrupt, declining cities who fail to attract businesses, residents, or visitors.  Through the same gaze of neoliberal “successful aging,” society is not responsible for older individuals who fail to maintain their own finances, physical health, or personal happiness.

For the past two years I have been engaged in conducting ethnographic research with older Detroit residents about their experiences of aging in the city.  Many older Detroit residents expressed that although there were challenges to aging in Detroit, it was still a good place to grow old and they would not be happy leaving for suburban or retirement communities. Rebecca, age 77 and a long-time resident of the Detroit neighborhood of Lafayette Park, expressed to me:

I would not leave Lafayette Park, I cannot think of anywhere else that I would want to live, it’s my neighborhood, it’s my kibbutz, my support structure and I think we have contributed to it as well.  I would not leave Detroit, although there are times when I am absolutely worn out and overwhelmed by the difficulties and the problems that it has, but I have a strong belief that I have a responsibility to participate in doing what I can to improve it.”  

Anthropologists have long contended that aging is both an embodied and cultural experience, one that is unique to all individuals.  Based on the criteria set forth by Rowe and Kahn, only 12% of older adults age “successfully” in any one given year in the United States (McLaughlin et al 2010); I contend that the Rowe and Kahn notion of “usual” aging has little utility for examining the lives of older adults, as every older person experiences later life differently based on a variety of factors.  My research with older adults in Detroit maintains that we not only need to consider individual metrics for aging well, but that different and often stigmatized environments provide opportunities for social lives and community participation that may be sources of great satisfaction, happiness, and support in old age.



McLaughlin, S.J., et al.

2010       Successful Aging in the United States: Prevalence estimates from a national sample of older adults. The Journal of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences             65:216-226.

Rowe, John W, and Robert L Kahn

1987       Human aging: usual and successful. Science 237(4811):143-149.

Rubinstein, Robert L, and Kate de Medeiros

2015       “Successful Aging,” Gerontological Theory and Neoliberalism: A Qualitative Critique. The Gerontologist 55(1).

Zukin, Sharon

2009       Changing landscapes of power: opulence and the urge for authenticity. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33(2):543-553.

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  1. Susie Lawrence / May 29 2015

    YES! I have always taken issue with R&K’s successful aging because of several factors: it is a male, middle-class medical model; it imposes an external measure of success; and measuring it simply collects discrete data, with no consideration of the lived phenomenological experience of the aging individual. AND it is largely based on our western focus on ‘productivity’ (largely measured by economic value to society) rather than something more ‘suqishy’ like self-actualization. In my opinion, upheld by informal discussions with older adults for more than 25 years, success in aging, as in other things is, to a large extent, an internal analysis/conclusion drawn by each individual. Moreover according to R&K’s model someone in a wheelchair, who is socially isolated CANNOT be aging successfully. That same person may be temperamentally disposed to be alone, and may have lived in a wheelchair for 30 years, but still maintains his/her function, is healthy given medical condition and in his/her own mind feel VERY successful. Who are we, as researchers to assign ‘non-success’ to this individual? – Sorry to go on, but you struck a chord.

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