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Book Review: Transnational Migration and Home in Older Age



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Guest post by Heike Drotbohm, Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Department of Anthropology and African Studies, University of Mainz, Germany. Heike's research explores the intersection between kinship and care practices in transnational social fields, with special attention to migration law and the outcome of deportation on transnational family lives.

Review of Transnational Migration and Home in Older Age edited by Katie Walsh and Lena Näre (Routledge, 2016)

Both transnational migration and population aging constitute dominant processes that currently transform world society in significant ways. While both topics have received considerable attention from various academic disciplines, understanding the linkages between the two will certainly become more important in the future, as both will continue, or increase. The notion of ‘home’ offers the chance to bring both together and reflect on the distinctive needs, subjectivities and activities of elderly people who live in transnational social fields. A revised understanding of home goes beyond a singular, sedentary, idealized notion and invites us to think about spaces, places and networks of accommodation, about efforts of emplacement and connectivity that are co-constitutive of migrants’ realities and are experienced in particular ways by elderly people whose everyday-lives are shaped by shifts in health or physical capabilities, by changing social needs and emerging self-perceptions that relate to this late, or last, phase in life, which is marginalized or completely ignored in mainstream transnational studies.

In their edited volume ’Transnational migration and home in older age’ Katie Walsh and Lena Näre recognize the multifaceted and multiscalar dimensions of transnational aging, by bringing together 17 case studies, structured into five sections. The first section, “Intergenerational transnational homes”, concentrates on the relational dimension of households that stretch beyond national borders and (try to) embrace multigenerational relations of care and support. Two chapters by Tiaynen-Quadir and Vullnetari include not only old migrants and their efforts of reconstructing homes abroad, but also old people who remain behind, whose homes are both full (filled by remittances) and empty (due to the absence of their relatives). Maintaining homes in two countries, India and the UK, proves to be a challenge in Näre’s chapter on ageing Gujaraties in London, who have to cope with their increasing need for institutionalized care and their weakening health and physical mobility.

Multiscalarity – a dimension of home that is stressed in several chapters – becomes most obvious in Buffel’s and Phillipson’s chapter, which opens the book’s second section “Home strategies of ageing and mobility”. Not only countries and cities, but also neighborhoods, tea houses, ethnic businesses and churches can provide a sense of home among migrants in Brussels, Liverpool and Manchester; here home means feelings of belonging and emotional attachment in spite of urban deprivation and poor housing conditions. Hunter’s insightful chapter additionally concentrates both on affective and pragmatic aspects of homes created and reflected by senior African migrant hostel residents who did not accomplish family reunification, who continue to postpone their (planned) return and prefer to circulate regularly between the hostel in France and their country of origin in order to keep their eligibility to health care regulations and old-age income benefits. Subsequently, Kordel and Botterill reflect in both their chapters on so-called lifestyle migrants, Europeans, who are relatively wealthy and migrate to ‘southern homes’ (Spain or Thailand in these cases), in order to find a better, healthier, warmer or more peaceful way of life. Making home in such a place is related to a sense of elite entitlement and often goes along with diminishing transnational attachments, when family and political loyalties to the country of origin fade in the course of time.

The third section “Returning ‘home’ in older age” captures the contradictions between imaginations or plans of return and lived realities, in which return migration is experienced in often ambivalent ways. Fesenmyer in her chapter about Kenyan women living in London (chapter by) explains how they consider return as inevitable, always postpone their retirement and disregard their integration into social activities in London, which would help them to feel more at home. In Sun’s chapter, expatriates who returned to Taiwan from the US after retirement considered themselves as ‘falling leaves returning to their roots’ and found new ways of engaging with Taiwanese culture through modernization projects. In the next chapter, Walsh concentrates on material dimensions of belonging by means of using photo elicitation for understanding the transnational memories stored in objects.

The fourth section, “Ageing in transnational space”, concentrates more than the other chapters on the diversity of emotional aspects. Interestingly, they do not confirm typical understandings of older migrants who would be expected to long for return or for earlier life phases and experience shrinking horizons. Rather, the experiences of different types of migrants in Ireland (Walsh), Spanish migrants in Germany (Meier), Jewish and Greek migrants in the USA (Christou) and British migrants in Spain (Olivier) reveal a large variety of ambitious forward-looking, emotional revisions of self and belonging and the capability to accommodate unforeseen circumstances.

The fifth and final section is titled “Transforming conceptions of care at home” and concentrates on care practices not only as physical and bodily dimensions of ageing, but also as financial, emotional, organizational or moral dimensions of support. Escrivá’s chapter on Moroccan and Peruvian migrants in Spain makes clear that the social norms about caregiving don’t remain fixed, but are adapted to cross-border living arrangements. Although spatial proximity may be desirable, the offspring’s houses can be crowded, lonely, or foreign and hence, not a realistic solution. Institutional constructions of the ideal home also stand both at the centre of Olakivi and Niska’s chapter on senior care professionals in Finland and the chapter by England and Dyck on older people’s care in Toronto, where the so-called ‘redomestication’ of care for older people is currently reinvented, as more pleasing, healthy and dynamic way of ageing. Interestingly, the authors show that this type of appealing rhetoric of ‘activation’ also claims the ideal migrant care worker, who is ‘culturally fit’ for activating the self-managing old client. In order to understand the power dynamics in home care arrangements, these chapters make clear, not only the care recipients, but also the institutional and racialized dimension of their professional activity needs to be taken into account.

In his constructive and critical afterword, Russell King revises the 17 chapters, offers alternatives avenues of interpretation and compilation and then concentrates on the diversity of methods applied in these different cases studies. As it became obvious in the course of this detailed summary, the regional scope and the diversity of phenomena and problems addressed are impressive. Therefore, it may seem contradictory to identify certain gaps or shortcomings.

One lesson to be drawn from these chapters could be that older people’s lives, their routines and challenges do not differ much from those of the younger generations. This would be a valuable argument against the victimization and exoticization of a particular age group. Eventually, however, the identification of particular older people’s needs constitutes an ethnographic challenge that raises a number of questions: Even if age-related norms and expectations can be adapted in transnational settings, iIs a transnational life not a different one when its realistic end seems to be closer than ever before? If cohabitation is an important need of older people, how can it be realized in transnational contexts? How do institutional homes for elderly people cope with cultural(ized) differences? How do the old manage to care for their grandchildren when travelling becomes a physical adventure? Are the legal aspects of a family reunification the same for older people? And in which way does the body’s particularities and limits need to be considered? How do old people manage a transnational communication when their hands or ears or their eyes lose their function? How do migrant families cope with their parent’s loss of memory when they realize their expected visit only once a year? How will they manage to provide adequate care for the weak, or dying, person? Does gender make a difference in this regard?

These open questions I hope will be dealt with in future studies on old age in transnational contexts, which will build on the theoretical, conceptual and empirical grounds laid in this highly welcomed edited volume. Together with Transnational Aging: Current Insights and Future Challenges edited by Vincent Horn and Cornelia Schweppe, which appeared in the same Routledge Series, this volume offers insights into an impressive and inspiring variety of social and cultural configurations. It closes a major research gap and should be a must-read for anybody dealing with gerontology, sociology and anthropology of the life course, ageing and the increasing transnationalization of home. One can only hope that in the future these books might be become available as affordable paperbacks.

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