This blog is one in a series of blogs on the Future of Ageing, published in the lead up to the ILC-UK Future of Ageing conference on the 24th November. To register to attend this conference, click here.
I stand holding my cup of peppermint tea, looking for a place to sit. I see that all the tables are full and I am pleased. I have spied an elderly lady sitting alone and really hope that I can talk to her.
I loiter near her table and she immediately invites me to join her. We sit in silence for a few minutes sipping our drinks. The customers bustle around us, sugaring their coffees and chatting. We smile at each other. ‘A good spot for people watching’ I say. She smiles and nods, looking out the glass at the crowds moving past. ‘Too many foreigners’ she says, her face almost comical in its expression of distaste. We sit for a few moments more. Over the next four hours Betty and I get to know each other as she takes me on a journey across London, visiting the various shops and cafes that she patronises as part of her everyday routine. Nearly eighty years old, Betty has been coming to the Stratford area for over thirty years. She used to live here but moved to Greenwich, where she still lives, during the slum clearances of 1977. She notes her disapproval of the number of immigrants whilst simultaneously praising the café staff that is part of these diasporas. Lunch at the ‘Rainbow English and Chinese Fast Food’ café in the Stratford Centre is followed by a ride on the 108 bus to Lewisham. Along the way Betty tells me about her daughter and how happy she is that she is married to a ‘good man who looks after her’. She lives in Eltham, only twenty minutes down the road from Betty, so they see each other regularly. She divorced her husband when her daughter was two and never remarried, she doesn’t explain why, she just says, ‘I’d had enough by that stage, I couldn’t take it any more’. She points out her house in Greenwich and tells me about how she was recently ill for a year and couldn’t get out of the house very much. She has a disease that affects her muscles and bones so she now walks with a stick. We spend a lot of time sitting in silence and watching the city pass by. Once we reach the end of the route Betty takes me to the Lewisham Shopping Centre where she buys a TV magazine at WHSmith, a cup of corn at a stand in the mall and a cup of tea at the BHS café. At every café we visit Betty is known, maybe not by her name but definitely by her face. Every space visited is private and commercial, requiring a purchase for the right of occupation. I ask Betty about this, she shrugs and says ‘that’s just the way it is’.
A diversity and depth of influences on the everyday life of cities surround a questioning of ageing. Whilst there is great variation in the way that the elderly inhabit the city, Betty’s situation prompts a number of questions that highlight common themes. Where do older people go and what do they do within their daily lives? More specifically, what civic spaces –streets, squares, hallways, allotments, markets – do they occupy? How do these civic spaces and their practices influence marginalisation and resilience? How do family, health and financial status influence the types and accessibility of these civic spaces and the elderly’s ability to engage with and contest the city?
In their everyday routines older people inhabit, traverse, observe, avoid and contest civic spaces. By these acts, both passive and active, they map out their own personal territories and networks. These are not static but subject to the miriad forces – social, political, economic, health – that constantly influence civic spaces and their practices. Ethnographic and spatial studies reveal how ordinary urban spaces are transformed through their quotidian occupation into civic places that are fundamental to the elderly, especially when vulnerable, and their ability to resist their marginalisation and develop resilience.
Dept. of Architecture, University of Cambridge