As the populations of elderly people grow around the world, family members are increasingly likely to take responsibility for the care of an older relative. Jason Danely, a Senior Lecturer of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, England, has been conducting ethnographic fieldwork on the challenges of aging, care, and grief in Japan since 2005. His research for The Enhancing Life Project is a cross-cultural study of informal family caregivers in Japan and Great Britain. He will investigate the ways that these caregivers’ experiences of compassion could expand our own capacity to enhance life and care for any vulnerable group.
Read a blog post by Jason Danely about dangerous compassion here.
What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project?
I have been doing research for several years on aging and experiences of loss among Japanese people. And in that process, I was introduced to different ways of thinking about loss and grief. It wasn’t something that people, especially older people, were keen to shut out entirely; the experience of grief had its own richness. So I decided to focus on people who were caring for older adults and see if they understood grief and loss in the same way. And one thing that kept arising as I talked to caregivers was this idea of compassion. It was similar to what I had found on mourning, although I hadn’t thought about it that way before. To be truly compassionate, one has to empathize with and experience another person’s suffering. I chose to do a cross-cultural comparison to bring out the cultural differences but also to look at how fundamental that experience is for humanity.
What does “enhancing life” mean in the context of your research?
Caring for an older person is something you can’t do by yourself, especially for an extended period of time. And so caregivers—or “carers,” as they’re called here in England—often learn ways to open up and ask for help, and to rely on the support of others. Some also find that their faith or their connection to a church community also deepens. I’m interested in the ways that our experiences of caring and compassion create a desire to be close to something spiritual or something greater than ourselves, even if it’s just the community of other carers. That’s right at the center of enhancing life. It’s a process of learning to empathize and pay attention to the needs of others, and a willingness to be vulnerable.
One thing I really appreciate about the framework of the Enhancing Life Project is that it’s not just merely about making life easier or more convenient. We draw meaning from pain as well as joy. Each carer has their challenges—it can be really lonely and isolating work. But that’s something that can be shared with other caregivers; they build communities and support each other. And I’m interested in how that happens. Enhancing life is in many ways a humble thing.
What’s the most surprising or interesting challenge you’ve encountered so far in your Enhancing Life Project research?
I’ve been impressed with the similarities I’ve seen between the two countries. Maybe in some ways that’s not so surprising because Japan and Great Britain are actually quite similar. They’re both island nations; they’re very old, proud cultures; people who live there value formality and perseverance. But it’s still striking to see parallels: the changes in the self that people experience, their perspectives on care, the changes in their views about faith. There haven’t been nearly as many differences as I expected, at least so far.
How do public debates -- whether it’s political, cultural, etc -- shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?
When I look at a lot of where the money is going in research on aging and care, it seems like there’s a focus on very particular parts of this puzzle without seeing the whole picture. There’s a medicalization of aging, an emphasis on scientific and technological solutions. And obviously this is useful and helpful work, but when it becomes the only way we talk about aging, we lose something important. Take the robot caregivers that are being developed in Japan. They’re completely ridiculous as a solution for the care of the aging population in Japan. But really large sums of money are still being invested in them. What if we spent some of that money on effective human social care? That’s where I hope my research will contribute; we need to make the case that social care is important and effective.
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
I’ve been to some places in Southeast Asia but I’ve never been to Vietnam or Cambodia or Indonesia. And my mom is from the Philippines, so I’ve always imagined myself going there. These places are different from where I’ve been before and the food would be incredible!
Interview conducted and condensed by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux