Visit our 2017 Medical Humanities Modules for more information: Health as a Human RightAging and Social Justice, and BioArts

Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes – Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Project on Aging at Columbia University

(For a copy of the full project report, please contact the ICLS Administrative Office.)

The team at Columbia University working on the Mellon-funded project on aging, focuses on the study of “aging” as a concern brought together at the interface of elderly experience, care, and questions of social justice, as it brings together the medical and the carceral. Our research and discursive sites, under the title “Aging and its Tropes,” comprise both “complete and total institutions” and non-institutional settings: the arts (narrative, representational, plastic arts, street art, art spaces); the hospital (ICU, ER, OR, floor); the prison; and the street (homelessness, street workers, sex workers).

After an initial period of research, both on-the-ground and bibliographical, we held our first workshop in May 2015. The workshop, entitled “Aging: In the Hospital/In the Street,” was closed to the public, and attendance was by invitation only. It comprised two panels spread over an entire day where medical doctors, a psychologist, a project manager for a violence intervention program, an anthropologist, and an epidemiologist gathered together and considered the intersections of aging, medicine, and issues of social justice.

One of the most valuable aspects of the Aging Series’ first workshop was the space allotted for conversation among the participants and invited guests. Within the closed context emerged a very productive and not at all finished dialogue that spoke more broadly to questions surrounding end-of-life decision-making, infrastructures and access to healthcare resources, and power that is experienced asymmetrically across bodies. Many of the interventions and interjections were concerned with the critical space between structure and agency: how to guarantee autonomy of the patient or the subject in the face of overwhelming institutions that constrain choice. Altogether, the first encounter of the Aging Series has incited a number of possibilities for research and critical engagement that we will continue confronting and exploring.

The second encounter in May 2016 continued with the conversations that emerged in our first workshop “Aging and Its Tropes” focusing more closely on 1) the encounter of aging populations with art, and 2) problems of aging in specific populations. Bringing together speakers from departments of English, Classics, History, Anthropology, and Fine Arts from around the country and abroad, as well as experts from the medical campus, the workshop opened up the discussion to the relations between aging, human rights, the arts, and social justice. To inform health as a question of social justice, the discussion revolved about how to think about the ways in which aging is being conceptualized, this time through its representation and its representational potential. We looked at Art created by aging people as well as representational arts portraying aging.

The workshop comprised two panels: the morning panel explored questions and problems pertinent to aging in the context of incarceration and exclusion. The afternoon panel explored representations of old age in the arts and concluded with an art exhibition curated by group of graduate students from the New School for Social Research, Princeton, and Cornell Universities.

This project will continue to expand under the auspices of ICLS and the Heyman Center for the Humanities, as part of the Medicine, Literature, and Society (MLS) project. To learn more about all the CHCI-Mellon Medical Humanities projects, visit chcimedicalhumanities.org.

The team members

PI: Neni Panourgiá, (ICLS Research Scholar)

ICLS Director: Lydia H. Liu

ICLS Assistant Director: Sarah Monks

Heyman Center Executive Director: Eileen Gillooly

Research Assistant: Mercedes Villalba (NSSR)

See also the Aging and Social Justice Module.