Director:  Neni Panourgiá. Curator:  Veronica Sousa (Princeton University, PhD ‘22)

How is aging to be understood as an issue of social justice? Though recent activism concerning issues of race and police brutality, Islamophobia, and feminism and gender have been at the forefront of deeply important work, issues of disability and aging often get left behind. Though disability gets drawn into the work of intersectional feminism, aging most go along with it.

Aging must also be a cornerstone for social justice activism on its own terms. In our discussions of aging as an issue of social justice, we must discuss the following categories, among others:

  • Pathologies of aging
  • Mental health
  • Loneliness
  • Gendered, racial, and class issues
  • Disability
  • Intimate violence
  • Social Security and pensions
  • Family and caretakers
  • Life fulfillment, joy, and time

In this module, we ask that you consider aging as a social justice issue, and how these many intersectional issues fall under it as well. We hope to conceptualize aging in such a way as to open up a dialogue between scholars, students, medical professionals, artists, care-workers, and activists surrounding the idea of aging in the United States and around the world.

Veronica Sousa, Personal and Current Research Interests:

Two summers ago, I began preliminary ethnographic fieldwork in the Azores Islands and Lisbon and witnessed firsthand how the economic crisis in Europe has affected and continues to affect its peripheries. I interviewed psychiatrists and social workers caring for domestic violence survivors, all of whom were primarily concerned about the same thing: the lack of resources for their many elderly patients. In Portugal and the Azores Islands, elderly women make up the largest demographic of domestic violence survivors. With the recent austerity measures and the movement from a welfare state to a post-welfare one, funding for healthcare and social services has been drastically cut across Portugal, making access to quality care unavailable or unaffordable. With many young people either moving out of the country for careers in the greater EU, or unemployed and living with their parents, the burdens of domestic labor and finances fall mostly on aging women, many of whom are already struggling with meager pensions. Within this context, my research examines the bodies and lives of poor elderly women who suffer violence at the hands of their spouses, children, or caretakers. How do aging and gender, violence and health get reconfigured when intimate violence is a problem for elderly women, already vulnerable in their health? Furthermore, how do the economic crisis and unstable state of Portugal serve to aggravate this tension?

As a result of medical advancement and a lower birth rate across Portugal and across the EU, the elderly population is growing – causing economic, legal, and political anxieties regarding the future of healthcare and pensions for the aging population all over the continent. The suicide rate among the elderly is also increasing, with elderly women being prescribed more antidepressant medication than ever before. These factors, among others, show that the Portuguese state and the greater EU will need to take seriously the issues of elderly care.

Additionally, my aim is to explore how the bodies of impoverished aging women become “de-gendered” post-menopause by local and state institutions in Portugal, and how this is exacerbated by the EU financial crisis. With this in mind, I can analyze the realities of gendered violence, sexuality, and social and physical suffering that are subsequently ignored. In Portugal, pathologies of aging render visible domestic violence when elderly women reveal abuse to their general clinicians. With a lack of access to clinics, hospitals, and pharmaceuticals, senior survivors of intimate violence also find fewer opportunities for safe spaces to seek care. Though the Portuguese government promises it will fund more programs for the social well-being of the elderly population, it seems to circumvent the problem of healthcare and health services, especially as they relate to gendered violence.

I ask: how does the state project the future of its growing elderly population in a time of austerity measures that continues to leave out issues related to gender and health? What does it mean to suffer both intimate violence and illness while being neglected by the state, and how does one manage this marginalized position in an economic crisis? How is care conceptualized in this context?

As I reflect on these issues, I find it pertinent to analyze subjectivity, affect, and intimacy on the local level, through the everyday lives of aging women. My ethnographic work will emphasize the critical importance of the local space of poverty, health, and aging in marginalized areas of Portugal and the Azores Islands. My study will include illness and intimate violence narratives and how potentially affective stories can become powerful tools in interacting with a neoliberal state in flux. This examination will give me a way to think about the current anxieties that weigh on the legal and political claims concerning women’s healthcare later in life. In this fraught historical moment, it will be imperative to see how these issues shape the Portuguese state and its governance of the growing elderly population, and how the concept of care is actualized. Though this is not my current focus, I am also interested in how these women, as also pensioners, appeal to the state for healthcare access through processes of public protests and private litigation, and how feminist activist groups respond to these problems.