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Accepted Paper:

Valuing Life's Ends: Old Age in Postsocialist Poland   
Jessica Robbins-Ruszkowski (Wayne State University)

Paper short abstract:

Gerontological and popular visions of aging oppose a normative “third age” of health and independence to a “fourth age” of illness and dependence. However, ethnographic research in Poland that attends to practices of care, relatedness, and memory shows that other values emerge at life’s ends.

Paper long abstract:

Gerontological and popular visions of old age oppose a normative "third age" of health and independence to a "fourth age" of illness and dependence. Like concepts of "successful," "active," "healthy," or "productive" aging, the "third age" is underpinned by modernist visions of the life course. In contemporary Poland, educational institutions for older adults, or Universities of the Third Age (UTAs), are the most visible example of this increasingly valued form of late life. Older Poles who participate in UTAs often understand such experiences in political-economic and spatiotemporal terms; attending UTAs is associated with living in a world reshaped by postsocialist transformations and EU membership. Certain activities indexical of the new world order provide the most potential for older Poles to become what one institutional leader has called "Euroseniors." Yet this focus on the new (e.g., English, computers) ignores other "traditional" practices (e.g., embroidery, gardening, religious practices) through which Poles—even those in the so-called "fourth age"—achieve a worthy old age.

Indeed, twenty-two months of ethnographic research shows that similar practices of sociality occur among diverse groups of older Poles, demonstrating that moral personhood is possible for people who fall outside normative models of old age. This finding suggests that: 1) normative gerontological and postsocialist analytic frameworks cannot fully explain the complexities of experiences and imaginations of old age in Poland, and 2) attending to practices of care, relatedness, and memory can help to overcome normative modes of producing knowledge about the values that emerge at life's ends.

Panel T049
STS and normativity: analyzing and enacting values
  Session 1 Friday 2 September, 2016, -