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Aging and Personhood: The Immigrant Experience

Aging and death are inescapable parts of the human condition. However, as Anthropologist Elana D. Buch states, aging is “not a uniform process, but rather one profoundly shaped by local environments, access to resources, and social relations”. (Buch, 2015: 278). Aging is traditionally framed in a nostalgic or orientalist manner with a yearning for simpler pre-capitalist age, a time when families used to care for their elders; however, that is no longer the reality in North American societies. Thus, many seniors come to perceive aging as a traumatic experience and as the ultimate betrayal. This is especially pertinent among seniors who were immigrants to North America, where aging further threatens their sense of personhood. The fragility of their bodies and dependency on care (from their kin, the state, and other institutions) intensifies cultural tensions many immigrants embody between the neoliberal self, which belongs to the American dream, and the collective self, the self in relation to one’s family or community of their upbringing.


According to French Sociologist Marcel Mauss (1979), “personhood here refers to people’s (human or nonhuman) membership, roles or status in society that are conferred in and through social relations” (as cited in Buch, 2015: 280-281). Personhood is continuously negotiated throughout an individual’s life and is most contested at the beginning and end stages when community membership and recognition are most disputed. Practices of care (within moral or political economies) also constitute personhood, enabling specific individuals to remain social persons, while abandoning others (Ibid.). Thus, everyday care practices for elders are a dominant framework for understanding their personhood and are a charged topic in the current neoliberal climate.


A migrant family landing in the United States. The father points his finger toward the American dream
Figure 1: A migrant family landing in the United States. The father points his finger toward the American dream

The neoliberal subject is a shift from the liberal subject, which understands their bodies as something they own and their capacity to labor as sellable. The neoliberal subject instead perceives themselves as business, a collection of assets, skills and traits that are constantly being curated, invested and managed like a corporation using end–means calculation (Gershon, 2011: 539). The neoliberal framework affects personhood because it redefines relationships among people. Personhood here is conceived not as the element that fully constitutes the person, but that comes after the reflexive self. The reflexive self is needed to decide how to engage with other people or institutions, rendering the self both autonomous and social. When neoliberal subjects engage in relationships, they are tactile business alliances based on marketable capacities (Ibid: 539-540). Thus, neoliberalism restructures traditional dynamics of care and re-imagines kinship as a network of entrepreneurs, which has contributed to rethinking aging, creating a dimension denominated “the third age”.


The third age, also called “the successful aging”, originates in Europe and the United States, and it is defined as a healthy, active, and engaged older person in a new phase of their life. It acts as a counter-narrative to ageism in North America and the stereotype of the disabled and dependent seniors (Buch, 2015: 282).


An older, joyful woman spending time outdoor
Figure 2: An older, joyful woman spending time outdoor

Positive aging is founded on the Foucauldian notion of “biopolitics” or “governing the body” (Foucault, 2019), but it is self-regulated, rather than institutionally managed, hence the neoliberal attunement (Lamb, 2014; Rudman, 2015). Positive aging indeed encourages individuals to plan for their retirement financially and physically through body management techniques, such as exercise, balanced diets, active lifestyle and consuming anti-aging products. The successful aging discourse is embedded in a notion that has been defined as "permanent personhood" (Lamb, 2014: 45), that is "a vision of the ideal person as not really aging at all in late life but rather maintaining the self of one's earlier years while avoiding or denying processes of decline, mortality and human transience” (Ibid.). By responsibilizing the individual to take care of their bodies through risk management practices, it alleviates the state from providing the conditions needed for a long, independent, and healthy life. Those who are unable to achieve the third age are considered, in typical neoliberal fashion, morally lax, irresponsible citizens with no self-control with only their laziness to blame (Rudman, 2015: 12). Thus, positive aging is not a way to embrace old age but rather a method to control the aging processes and prove to be a good neoliberal citizen (i.e., a self-sufficient and productive individual).


Aging in Diaspora: A Case Study about the Indian Community

Anthropologist Sarah Lamb’s ethnographic study of the Indian diaspora in the United States (Lamb, 2017) captures the tension within the conflicting values of senior care expectations caused by the pursuit of the American dream. Lamb questions the shear possibility of aging and its implications for families and cultural reproduction when family members are dispersed around the country or world for professional aspirations “and where the values of materialism, consumerism, and individualism, often associated with the West, modernity, or globalization, have taken center stage” (Lamb, 2007: 133). Lamb proposes a counter-narrative by stating that “old people themselves are not all simply passive victims of modernity and global living, though many actively participate in its making”, challenging tropes of seniors as pillars of tradition and tension-free nostalgic intergenerational care (Ibid: 134-135). For instance, the children of these Indian migrants are aware of the irony that their parent’s effort to help them to achieve the American dream has rendered them unable to care for their parents in old age (Ibid: 141). Thus, the children can materially support their elderly parents but cannot provide the intimacy and time cherished in Indian culture and in many immigrant communities. Therefore, in the North American Anglo-Saxon culture, care for aging parents is commonly delegated to the state or to the private service sector since parents strive not to burden their children or hinder their children’s freedom (Ibid: 144). Furthermore, dependency on care associated with bodily frailty or disability poses “deep threats to personhood both for older adults and those who care for them” (as cited in Buch, 2015: 280-281). Whereas for Indian and many other immigrant parents living in the North American diaspora, the threat to their personhood lies in their kin’s unreciprocated care, challenging the collective notion of the self.


An older woman braiding her hair in solitude
Figure 3: An older woman braiding her hair in solitude

Discussions surrounding aging typically focus on the visible signs and lifestyle changes such as wrinkles, joint pains and retirement homes; however, much more is at stake regarding one’s personhood and care practices. For many immigrants to North America who left societies grounded in the collective self in pursuit of the American dream, the question remains: “who will care for me in old age?” Further threatening the fragility of personhood is the immigrant elder’s unmet care expectations from their close kin who are busy pursuing the life that they themselves sacrificed to make a possibility. The Neoliberalist, with their third age mentality, attempts to provide a simple solution to this cultural tension, redirecting care away from the kin and the state and placing it in the hands of the individual, neglecting the fundamental principle of personhood-relations.


Bibliographical References

Buch, E. (2015). Anthropology of Aging and Care. Annual review of anthropology 44 (1), 277–293.


Foucault, M. (2019).The History of Sexuality: 1: The Will To Knowledge. Penguin UK.


Gershon, I. (2011). Neoliberal Agency. Current Anthropology 52 (4), 537-555.


Lamb S. (2007). Aging Across Worlds: Modern Seniors in an Indian Diaspora. In J. Cole, and D. Durham (Eds.), Generations and Globalization: Youth, Age, and Family in the New World Economy (pp.132– 63). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Lamb, S. (2014). Permanent Personhood or Meaningful Decline? Toward a Critical Anthropology of Successful Aging. Journal of Aging Studies 29, (41–52). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaging.2013.12.006.


Mauss, M. (1979). Sociology and Psychology: Essays (B. Brewster, Trans.). London: Routledge.


Rudman, D.L. (2015). Embodying Positive Aging and Neoliberal Rationality: Talking About the Aging Body Within Narratives of Retirement. Journal of Aging Studies 34, 10–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaging.2015.03.005.


Taylor, J. 2017. “Friendship, Citizenship, & Abandonment.” in J. E. Davis & P. Scherz (Eds.), The Evening of Life: The Challenges of Aging and Dying Well (pp. 225-246). Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.


Zhou, Y. R. (2012). Space, Time, and Self: Rethinking Aging in the Contexts of Immigration and Transnationalism. Journal of Aging Studies 26 (3), 232–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaging.2012.02.002.


Zontini, E. (2015). Growing Old in A Transnational Social Field: Belonging, Mobility and Identity Among Italian Migrants. Ethnic and Racial Studies 38 (2), 326-341. DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2014.885543.


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