8th International Conference on Cultural Gerontology.

More than the theatre but not as much as films I love attending lectures given by academics. I appreciate their enthusiasm with the subject and enjoy good performances and communication skills. So where else to go this April but to the 8th International Conference on Cultural Gerontology in Galway.  What a feast it was for me who is often derided for my interest in Ageing.  There was 164 presentations in such diverse categories as Health and The Life Course, Ageing and Care, Arts and Humanities, Ageing in Diverse Cultural Settings, Place and Space, Meaning and Ageing, Theoretical Perspectives, Ageing and Technology, Ageing and Culture, Ageing and the Media, Policy and Ageing, Ageing and Sexuality, Ageing and the Body, Ageing and Aesthetics, Ageing and Ideology, Ageing and Performativity, Age and Ageism, Ageing and Identities, Work and Retirement, Arts and Health, Ageing and Photography/Video, Perceptions of Ageing.

I attended two of the three Plenaries and the performances of the two speakers were great. H. Moody gave a fiery performance in “Gray is Green: Elders and the Care for the Earth”  on the urgent need for our generation to engage in the fight to combat climate change. He argued that this is the main intergenerational project that we as the elders should engage in.  He knew exactly the two extreme positions that people our age tend to:  one of denial and dismissal and the other of despair and the “I am glad I will not be there” feelings.  He suggested to concentrate on some of the successes achieved to empower us to act and campaign.

On a completely different subject, Aagje Swinnen from the Netherlands gave us “Healing Words” and practical demonstration when she reported on poetry intervention in Dementia Care. She was as passionate and engaging about her subject as Moody. I felt grateful that there are some places where people suffering from Alzheimer’s are given some chance to communicate. And that there are people who dedicate themselves to this purpose.

Of the other 164 or so presentations  there were many I would have liked to attend. Some timings clashed and I wanted to have a day off to visit this part of Ireland which is so picturesque. I attended 12 presentations but will only report on three of them that I was particularly interested in as a lay person.

I often think that in the public arena the campaigns, projects and workshops about ‘positive ageing’ often ignore the  inevitability of disability. I have been to conferences for old people and community projects where accessibility and sound was very poor. I was delighted to hear Leni Marshall on this subject and can do no better that quote from her abstract :  “Conscious Aging is aging with an awareness of age studies and an activist response, with an understanding of individual identity as adaptable, capable of remaining intact even as it changes…. Combining conscious aging with a similar understanding about disability and ableism leads to a new awareness – that is, to conscious ageility”.

I met Pamela Gravagne whose book “The Becoming of Age”  on films I so admired. She tackled a completely different subject, one that bothers me when I read newspaper reports about brain imaging and the latest findings, lavishly illustrated with coloured pictures. Her talk “The (MIs)measure of Age: The constructions of Difference from Phrenology to Neurosciences” delighted me.  I kept thinking : yes , yes during her talk. She said how some neuroscientific findings often show in images the decrease in size of ‘older’ brains and justify a negative perception of old people. Having worked in a neurophysiology lab I know very well that brain function is highly plastic and depends, on physiology but also on environment and experience. I also know that imaging signals are often difficult to interpret and open to bias.  I felt I was justified in my scepticism of the general press reports .

Finally I attended the session on Ageing and Sexualities. I wanted to learn the results of Rhiannon Jones “The Experiences, Meanings, and Challenges of Older Women’s Sexualities”. Years ago I was one of her subjects and was interviewed on the phone on two occasions. I liked her approach of asking me how I thought the research should be carried out and how I felt about sex and sexual practices. I was delighted to hear that she used a wide definition of sexuality. I can only agree fully with her conclusion that “the fluidity and diversity of experiences that the older women participants narrated with this  study not only make a generalised statement about sexuality with the context of ageing impossible but also undesirable. “

This is a meagre report on a fascinating conference. There was such a lot to satisfy the interest of anybody old or young. Given the invisibility of old women in the public sphere I was excited to see that there is such a lot going on. It is a whole culture out there that most of us know little about and I fully agree with Leni Marshall. I feel I need to be aware of ageing and disability studies in order to achieve conscious ageing and consequent activism.

I enjoyed being there. Very conscious of the pressures that the participants were under, giving papers, making contacts, and worrying about funding and jobs. I had no idea how I was perceived. With the confidence that I have acquired through the responses to my film blog and the support of my film group, I felt free. So free that I decided to miss the last day and went sightseeing. But as an aside, even in this environment of 400 delegates engaged in ageing studies I was dumbfounded when one of the participants, aged 65, that I occasionally see at conferences exclaimed: “Oh you are here. You look tired, shall I get you a chair? ” . I assure you that I was full of beans, relaxed,  and not at all in need of assistance.