Researchers and policymakers should pay more attention to everyday events in the lives of the elderly. An eye for detail could help improve their wellbeing. This has been stated by cultural geographer Dr Bettina van Hoven of the University of Groningen. ‘It may not sound spectacular or earth-shattering, but in-depth interviews and walks with elderly people could result in very valuable and academically extremely relevant insights.’
How can we all grow old healthily and happily? The population is ageing and more and more researchers are concentrating on this issue. ‘Healthy Ageing’ is even one of the University of Groningen spearheads. Researchers are developing technological tours de force, for example robots that help the elderly to live independently, and are charting the biological and genetic foundations of ageing. However, less spectacular research can also make an important contribution, states Van Hoven. She is using qualitative research to chart the importance of the feeling of belonging somewhere for the elderly, i.e. the attachment to their own home area.
A mother or grandmother who refuses point blank to move to a granny flat or a care home; an elderly couple insisting on remaining in a rundown area while younger neighbours move elsewhere – these are images and stories that will be familiar to many. But why are the elderly so attached to where they live? Van Hoven: ‘The elderly prefer to ignore the fact that they are less well able to function and that they are becoming dependent on others for help. By staying in their homes they are retaining as much control as possible over their lives. They know where the obstacles in their neighbourhood are, and how to avoid them. That gives them a sense of security.’
Too often the elementary needs of the elderly are simply ignored, according to Van Hoven. ‘By filing our elderly away in care homes we may provide them with tools to help them move around independently but we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about their vitality and needs.’ For example, the elderly are much more concerned with the impression they’re making than is usually assumed, says Van Hoven. ‘We think that a Zimmer frame helps someone to move and is a functional object. We spend hardly any time at all considering how ugly it is, and what it feels like to have to move so jerkily. And it’s that sort of visual aspect that is very important to the elderly.’
By holding in-depth interviews with the elderly and accompanying them during their daily rituals, Van Hoven is developing an insight into their identity. ‘When you experience the elderly during their daily lives, in interaction with their environment, you get a much better impression of what concerns them than if you simply let them fill in a questionnaire. If you invite elderly people to take photos of the things they think are important in their daily lives, you can then use the photos as a basis for an interview. That way you learn much more about them than in a standard interview situation.’
It’s an intensive way of working, but Van Hoven has a lot of confidence in her research. ‘Social scientists are becoming better at spotting the wealth of information that qualitative research can provide, and the limitations of quantitative research. You can get large groups of the elderly to fill in questionnaires, but then you end up with a list of percentages and significances. In my view, lists like this don’t say very much about the wellbeing of the elderly. I also think that researchers have an overinflated view of their importance and let too large a gap grow between themselves and the people around whom their research revolves.’
Bettina van Hoven (Germany, 1972) studied biology and geography in Osnabrück and Plymouth, where she gained her PhD with a thesis on social change in East Germany after the fall of the Wall. She has been a researcher at the University of Groningen since 1999, where her research in recent years has concentrated on the feeling of belonging, the attachment of various population groups to the place where they live. Van Hoven is the founder of the Herta Macht thesis prize, a prize in honour of and named after her grandmother, intended to stimulate young research talent.
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