With COVID-19, what scholars and activists of aging have long feared and warned about has come about. Global supply chains are indeed too easily choked off, leaving both the rich and poor poorer, though still not to the same extent. The stealthy and overt privatization of health care, particularly in the long-term care sector, means undervalued and underpaid precarious workers contract the virus that spreads through nursing homes “like wildfire” (Armstrong and Armstrong; Pedersen et al.). Speculative fiction appears to be coming true all around us.
Perhaps more than ever, the ability to understand the work that a story does in the world is vital. Amidst rapidly circulating stories and slanted messaging, trying to be heartened rather than discouraged by the elusiveness of definitive information, I turn here to deliberately aesthetic fiction in the form of a short animated film for what it can tell us about humanity in times of crisis, about how to thrive in solitude, and about what we are missing when we look around us through panicked lenses.
The Blanket of Vulnerability
As often happens during a crisis, media commentators and public health units alike admonish us to check on our “elderly neighbors,” as though we ourselves are never the elderly and as though we are better equipped than they are to understand and manage this situation (Chivers). A blanket designation of vulnerability obscures the diversity of a group of older people—a few generations of them—who collectively and individually possess considerable expertise and the potential to offer at least mutual support to those of us who are new to being pushed to remain at home, no longer able to do what we choose when we choose.
This discursive blanket hides that some seniors are being called out of retirement to work on the frontlines. The blanket designation also cloaks actual vulnerabilities, vulnerabilities that are intensifying almost as exponentially as the spread of the novel coronavirus and will continue to do so at a more rapid pace than prior to this pandemic. Oddly, the most vulnerable older adults, those living in long-term care, are not included in the neighbors we are called to check in on.
So many stories and charts tracking COVID-19 offer measuring sticks to either justify the deep feeling of panic in the pit of our stomachs or reassure us that there is someone else in graver danger than us and that we are the helpers rather than the ones in need of help. We seek them out, we create them, and we repeat them because we want to escape what this global situation reveals about our own vulnerabilities. We are all at risk not only because a virus apparently leapt from animal to human, but because we cannot or will not stop the modes of production and consumption that accelerate the spread of an illness that differentially affects people with underlying conditions, conditions that are more likely the older a person becomes. While COVID-19 may itself not discriminate, it has differential effects based on the very accumulation of advantage and disadvantage that social gerontology has pointed to for decades (Buffel and Phillipson). But I am not raising this to point out a research opportunity. Quite the opposite, in fact.
From the Pivot to the Pirouette
As legions of academics scramble across continents to “pivot” to remote delivery of their teaching, maintain their work lives amid cancellation of myriad necessary structures (including but not only external childcare), and justify their significance to a broader world, their research agendas lurk in the background. Established methods involving face-to-face interviews, field observation, and international travel will have to be at least temporarily set aside and mostly likely rethought for the longer term. People joke online that this will be the year of the literature review. That could turn out to be a good thing. This would also be a perfect time to go back to findings that predict the current situation along with its ramifications for older populations and find better ways to communicate them (Armstrong et al.).
For text-based scholars, current work limits are less tied to the material practices of conducting research and more to the devastating effects of COVID-19 and physical distancing measures on day-to-day lives as well as on attention span (see above re childcare). At the same time, as people across the globe are exhorted and sometimes forced to remain in their homes, arias spill over Italian balconies, online dance classes stream into living rooms, and creatives develop online art hubs. Desperate for a sense of purpose and meaning, many of those least affected by the virus itself are rediscovering art, culture, joy, and connection amidst fear, hunger, solitude, and uncertainty. As such, this could be the humanities’ time to shine, not only for the forms of knowledge that we bring but also for how we produce knowledge without requiring human contact, without fancy equipment, with need for little else besides time, books, essays, and a decent pencil/laptop/fountain pen, and, these days, a reliable Internet connection—and, I guess, a room of one’s own would be ideal (see above re childcare).
The House of Small Cubes
I have found myself thinking back on the 2008 Academy Award-winning short animated Japanese film “The House of Small Cubes” to find hope and another perspective on older neighbors during difficult times. The film was created after artist Kunio Katō showed paintings to screenwriter Kenya Hirata. They collaborated with composer Kenji Kondo to produce this multilayered evocation of solitude, resolve, and memory amidst natural disaster, pinning their hopes and fears for the future on a solitary older man. The well-weathered central character lives alone on the top floor of his increasingly flooded family home. As the floods rise, he lays the bricks to build yet more cubes so that he can keep his living space out of the reach of the sea, even as fish inhabit his past living spaces.
The flood literally symbolizes climate disaster, connotes time gobbling up our past experiences, and illustrates what dementia can do to our pasts. During COVID-19, the flood also evokes an external, slow, yet predictable threat to which people respond according to their desires, hopes, and past experiences. This external circumstance has separated the old man from most other people but not from a rich past in which he revels. Unlike his neighbors, who appear to have moved away rather than build any higher, this man has what he needs and desires. He stays quietly put, doing what he seems to have done for decades: accept change, build new habitats, and sustain himself on little.
Commerce continues, but the protagonist is alone with only the comfort and companionship of family photos, the television, and his pipe. When he drops that beloved pipe through a trapdoor that connects the floors of his topsy-turvy home, he toys with buying a new pipe, but then sees that he can buy diving equipment instead. Donning this new outfit, he expertly back rolls through the trap door and into the lower layers of his home. He concurrently travels through memories of the storied eras of his family life. The water offers an opportunity for the illustrators to convey the present day dive scenes in cool tints that give way to sepia to signify flashbacks to his past experiences in each room. He continues to dive even after he has retrieved his pipe. The flashbacks move sequentially back in time, through him caring for his ailing wife in bed, having his grandchildren visit, meeting his son-in-law to be, raising his child, and meeting his wife. They tell his family-focused life story in disjointed reverse.
Above all, this dive through the wreck emphasizes his warm connection to his wife, whom he remembers handing him his pipe, sharing laughs over wine, and putting up the wedding photo of their offspring. After he floats back up to his current top floor abode, he once again sits down to eat in front of the television. No laugh track emanates from the TV. He sets the table for two and clinks the glass he has set out for his absent wife, as we have just seen him do in a flashback. Rather than deluded, desolate, and abandoned, he appears content in the company he has chosen, even if it is only imagined or remembered. Rather than symbolize impending disaster, this solitary old man appears to embrace solitude buoyed by the life he has built.
The protagonist is not the picture of active aging all too common in public media, nor is he the dangerously socially isolated senior whose choices condemn him to poor health and unhappiness. Public officials do not appear to admonish neighbors and family to check up on him, though the question lingers of why his offspring doesn’t visit. Isolated, dangerously separated from services, but still managing to age-in-place happily enough, the protagonist presents a meaningful late-life agency relatively free from, and even in resistance to, the neoliberal structures that pressure people to sacrifice themselves to the good of the economic whole, opting out once they are no longer economically useful. Amid COVID-19, his tale speaks to the hidden layers obscured when we render generations of adults as in need rather than imagining the reciprocal connections that have newly become visible and more possible.
Prior to COVID-19, public discourse, social media, research calls, and gerontological scholarship worked collectively to emphasize the dangers of social isolation. Now, the very group of older adults who had been publicly exhorted to resist social isolation are publicly mandated to self-isolate. Instead of casting this group as helpless, we should be thinking of this faceless throng of “elderly neighbors” as a massive source of knowledge about how to navigate solitude and what it means to inhabit a world where you can no longer do exactly what you want, when you want, almost but not quite regardless of your wealth and station. This is not a suggestion to launch research projects that get people interviewing their neighbors, but an appeal to listen and learn while we have the chance.
Contributor bio: Sally Chivers is a Full Professor of English and Gender & Women’s Studies at Trent University, where she teaches about illness, disability, and aging in literature, film, and popular culture. Her ongoing research focuses on the cultural politics of aging and disability, committed to telling new and better stories about aging, disability, and care that celebrate and interrogate the possibilities that come with an aging population.
Cover image: Screenshot from Tsumiki No Ie (The House of Small Cubes), Kunio Katō, dir.
Armstrong, Pat, et al. Re-Imagining Long-Term Residential Care in the COVID-19 Crisis. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2020. Open WorldCat, https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/re-imagining-long-term-residential-care-covid-19-crisis.
Armstrong, Pat, and Hugh Armstrong. “Privatizing Care: Setting the Stage.” The Privatization of Care, Routledge, 2019, pp. 17–37.
Buffel, Tine, and Chris Phillipson. “A Manifesto for the Age-Friendly Movement: Developing a New Urban Agenda.” Journal of Aging & Social Policy, vol. 30, no. 2, Taylor & Francis, 2018, pp. 173–192.
Chivers, Sally. “Straining the Media: The CBC’s” Voices of the Vulnerable”.” Tessera, 1999, pp. 113–19.
Katō, Kunio. Tsumiki No Ie (The House of Small Cubes). Oh! Production, 2008. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0YSFvPTm2A.
Pedersen, Katie, et al. “‘Spreads like Wildfire’: More than Half of COVID-19 Deaths in Canada Have Been Seniors’ Home Residents | CBC News.” CBC, 26 Mar. 2020. http://www.cbc.ca, https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/covid-19-nursing-home-elderly-1.5509915.