Hello, you are listening to De Facto, the podcast of the Faculty of Social Sciences, today with Alice Němcová Tejkalová and Jaroslava Hasmanová Marhánková from the Department of Sociology.
We meet in the middle of summer. How are you, Doctor Marhánková?
Summery. I feel good, relaxed.
After the semester, basically the whole year, a year and a half that we had in distance learning, are you looking forward to the autumn being different?
Well, I’m not only looking forward to it, but I do believe and hope it will be different. And I’m certainly looking forward to seeing everyone again physically.
Did you learn anything from distance learning for yourself that works with students?
I have to selfishly admit that it was a great experience on the one hand, I don’t feel those months were wasted. I feel we have all learned a lot of new things that we will be able to use in our on-site teaching. So, I’m a bit selfishly looking back on it as a good experience as well, although I don’t want to go back to it.
You’ve had experience at various other schools. What was your journey like to us at FSV?
Not direct because I pursued one of my master’s studies at the Faculty of Humanities and then I worked in Pilsen for a long time. After that I went back to the Department of Gender Studies and finally, I landed here in Sociology. So, it was a bit of a round trip, including a short stay in Brno, where I studied for my PhD. degree. I actually toured the whole republic to come back to my alma mater.
Have you found colleagues you work well with? Are you planning any new projects?
Absolutely. First of all, I have to say that I have a colleague here from Pilsen, Emma Hrešanová. She is a colleague I have been working with for a long time. And otherwise, there is quite a strong stream of people in the Department of Sociology who are involved in sociology, medicine and health care, which also rank among my long-term interests, so we already have joint projects and I think that the cooperation there is excellent.
You are working on the topic of aging in the LGBT context, could you give us an overview of what you do?
There’s always a connecting line in my various topics, which is usually an interest in the body and gender also in the topics that relate to aging. And through that topic of aging, I also ran into the topic of LGBT+ people. And especially how the current generation of LGBT seniors are experiencing their ageing and how coming out comes at different stages of life. Because I did not get through the LGBT topic to LGBT seniors, but through seniors to LGBT seniors. And I’m working with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, which is opening up the topic in the context of social services, for example, and how to actually work with LGBT+ clients. What I was very interested in was how those different aspects of our identity, whether it’s gender identity when we’re looking at, for instance, aging women or sexual identity when we’re looking at LGBT+ people, how they actually affect that experience of aging, and I personally find that the topic of LGBT+ seniors is like a litmus paper that allows for magnifying how different the experience of ageing is, how we often talk about Seniors with a capital “S”, as if in their sixties or mid-sixties there is a sort of metamorphosis. As if we were some kind of butterflies, being caterpillars for a while and then suddenly we sort of pupate and suddenly some new species comes out – this butterfly. And it’s a senior. We kind of suspect that it has something in common with the caterpillar, but we think it’s something completely different, the butterfly.
What I found interesting, when reading some of the interviews with you, is that two lesbians go to a senior home together more as friends, they want to live together in the same room, but they actually have a problem saying that they are lesbians and that they want to live together like that. Is the adaptation of our society, and of social services in particular, better than before in terms of approach to this type of senior citizens?
It certainly is. In fact, when carrying out research with social service providers, we live in a relatively liberal society. For example, the social services sector is not so tied to religious organizations and so on, so there’s a little bit more of a liberal attitude than, for example, in some other states even west of our border. But there’s still that concern about the reaction of other clients, for example, and it also needs to be pointed out that the current generation of LGBT seniors are people who lived a significant part of their lives in a time when these issues were not talked about. But going back to the research we did with providers, there were a number of people who were taken aback and surprised by the very idea that there were any LGBT seniors at all. Which, again, brings me back to how much of a litmus paper that is also for understanding how society in general relates to older people.
For example, my parents, who are over 60, my dad is totally fine with the designation of a senior and my mom can’t stand that designation. What’s it like with the people you meet?
I don’t think older people have a problem with that, but of course such categories are always categories that we easily apply to others. In this context I always think of our Prime Minister’s speech at the time of the covid crisis in this context, where he says, himself being at the age of sixty-five, “grandmothers, grandfathers, you are ours.” Which on the one hand is nice, but on the other hand it’s being uttered by a peer of those grandmothers and grandfathers, but he’s pretending he doesn’t belong to that group, and I think that’s symptomatic of most of us. That if the category has some pejorative connotation, we rather apply it to others.
The Czech population is aging, there is a talk that there may be problems with whether to pay pensions, how much to pay, and so on. What kind of old age awaits us? Our generation?
Well, we’ll see. Probably different than the current generation. Economically, but also socially, because even today we see that as the number of older people in the population grows, the social mood changes. I was already talking about these ideas of active ageing, and this idea just goes hand in hand with the ageing of the population, where we suddenly see attempts to relabel that period of life, because this society – in quotes – can’t afford to live with the idea that the old age is a period of passivity and some kind of inactivity in all different ways. And we can also see in public policy that as the number of seniors grows, so does the appeal for an active old age. So, in this respect, the generation of today’s seniors is living in a different idea of old age than my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generation did, and the question is what ideas of old age we and our children will live in. If the institution of pensions will even function as it does today. Or whether it will be assumed that we will be in the labour market until we die – in quotes.
Maybe we will also view our parents’ generation differently, because I sometimes hear from my friends and acquaintances to say, “Our parents do not babysit for us enough, they go on holidays, and they want to enjoy life and it’s completely different. My grandmother, she used to look after me much more.” So maybe in time we will also look at our parents in a more tolerant way, that they have holidays and everything else that was not usually associated with Božena Němcová’s grandmother, who was just at Staré Bělidlo and that’s how we imagined them.
Well, Božena Němcová’s grandmother was fifty, we wouldn’t imagine a fifty-year-old woman in Bělidlo like that today. But you make a good point about the contradictory expectations we have, especially in Czech society, where the imperative of active grandparents is very strong, even in European comparison. In this respect, the idea of active ageing is terribly limited because it is linked to activities. If you go and clean somebody’s flat for money, you are active, but if you clean your own home, but you are at home, it’s not really active ageing. In the same way, if you go out to learn English in a course for the elderly, you’re active, but if you sit at home in front of the TV, we don’t see that as being fully active. So, what is labelled as active is actually largely selective and of course it reflects some of the norms of a particular social group, so I would be a little bit careful about what we talk about as activity. For example, grandparenting is certainly active ageing par excellence.
You have also devoted one of your research projects to grandparenting, which is why I have raised this topic. What are the current Czech grandparents like, or grandparents at the time of the research?
They are relatively active, meaning we have a huge number of grandparents who babysit the kids every week and at least some part of the day without their parents being present. That’s the most intensive care that grandparents can give. So even in the European comparison, we rank more among the active part of grandparents. Of course, it has different dynamics, depending on how close the grandparents live, that’s the most influential factor for the active involvement of grandparents. And the age of the grandparents, the younger they are, the more actively involved they are, and women babysit more often than men, unsurprisingly. One of the studies has shown how, for example, the current trends in terms of partnership, family behaviour also affect grandparental involvement. When grandparents divorce, grandmothers are the organizers of the care, meaning that divorced grandfathers are often just as active grandparents as married ones. But they are active grandparents more in relation to the children of the new partner, meaning that women are the ones who draw their new partners into caring for their grandchildren. Also, the dynamics of partner relationships and blended families are reflected in the patterns of grandparenting.
Because women are living to a higher age than men, there is also a relatively large group of lonely women, older women, living in our society. This is also one of the topics you address in relation to ageing and gender. What is the life like of older single Czech women?
Widowhood or losing a partner later in life is a predominantly female reality. Not that it doesn’t affect men, but the likelihood of a woman living as a widow at the end of her life is disproportionately greater than for men. We can find women for whom widowhood is a bit of a re-start. If they still have enough strength, widowhood can be a positive impulse, not necessarily something that brings trauma only. But the research was focused on a specific group of seniors, active women who are attending different leisure centres, learning English and going to the third age universities. These are often women who have had the experience of widowhood and often that was the moment that launched their desire to pick up new things. Because widowhood, it’s not just the experience of a partner dying, but it’s often an experience that is preceded by months, years of some very intense care for a partner, which again is the predominantly female experience. These women often take care of their dying parents and then they still take care of their dying partners and then they are left alone and then their daughters come in and take over that care. Widowhood is often preceded by a period of intense and psychologically demanding care, and in that respect for many of the women I spoke to it was also a kind of an impulse, a chance to get back to their hobbies. I don’t mean to say that losing a partner is a positive experience, but that it can be an impulse as well.
Around my grandmother’s friends, there’s quite an explicit situation where after partners die, mobility is lost because the women weren’t driving at that age. I’m noticing this because I like driving, plus what I associate with it is this independent moving around and I’ve realised what an uncomfortable situation it is. You’re dependent on someone having to drive you to the cottage where you and your partner used to like it. Is that something that’s a trend in general in the older female population?
The Czech Republic doesn’t have such a traditional division in this respect, at least in terms of competences, but in general the loss of a partner, it doesn’t have to be only in the case of women, simply brings a reorganization of the daily routine. Maybe it’s not just that you can’t get to the cottage, but that you can’t sustain it economically, for example, or that you don’t want to go back to somewhere where it’s linked to the memories that can be painful. But these mobility issues are something I came across in these interviews, too. These women were getting rid of their cottages and cabins because they couldn’t get there and because the situation wasn’t even financially sustainable for them.
We talk a lot about women, but we know that contemporary society also makes great demands on men and their role, is the senior role of men changing in any way?
I didn’t really focus on the male experience that much in my research. But, for example, in the project we had on grandparenting, we did address the issue of male grandparents. And what I found fascinating was the way in which grandparenting became an opportunity for a number of men in that generation of contemporary seniors to experience some childcare for the “first time.” The period when their own children were young was, de facto, often a period of quite absent fatherhood. Often these men were in the military service or it was common for them to be working on construction sites, away for over a week. Very much present in those interviews was the story of how they were often experiencing for the first time with their grandchildren what it was like to care for young children or to spend an active day with them. Which on the one hand is very positive and on the other hand sad because it also points to the absence of fatherhood in the generation of older men today. It shows how acceptable the idea was that a good father can be a father who is not necessarily physically present in the lives of his children.
What are the interesting topics you are currently working on and planning to develop further?
We are working on two projects. I’m personally working on the topic of dementia, particularly the fear of dementia and how images of Alzheimer’s disease affect the experience of ageing and how people view old age. That’s where I’m involved in talking to people and about their lifestyle in old age and their knowledge and attitudes towards dementia. And the second project is perhaps more topical in the context of social debates. It’s a project that looks at hesitant attitudes towards vaccination, not necessarily covid vaccination, but a vaccination against ‘common childhood diseases.’ This is a major European project that explores how hesitancy is born and develops. Not necessarily a refusal, but a sort of hesitancy in parents in relation to vaccination.
Where do you get that positive energy and enthusiasm? How not to become overwhelmed by such topics? I was involved in the sports of the disabled for a long time and sometimes I was confronted with life journeys that were not entirely pleasant. It helped that I actually saw a lot of positive things as well. Is it the same with the research on ageing and dementia?
I’m sure it is. I meet mostly very positive male and female seniors and I think there is always something positive to be found. Opening these topics also lifts a little bit of the fear and the shyness of thinking about these things, because when you open them up, you suddenly realise that maybe it’s not such a black hole and such a depression. I also try to balance it mentally by dedicating myself intensely for a couple of years to a topic that is harder for me, and then I try to open up a topic where I know it will allow me to stay detached a little bit from the harder things. But I would say that a topic od seniority is definitely not depressing, I definitely don’t see it that way. And I think the more it’s talked about, the less anxiety or less negative emotions I personally feel about ageing.
It is true that when you get closer to what you fear most, you will find that it is not as scary as it looks. And the current generation of seniors, which is actually more active than the previous ones were, gives us great hope, so I hope that all goes well, both in our society and in your research. Thank you for taking your time to come to De Facto. This was another episode of the De Facto podcast of the Faculty of Social Sciences, and I’m looking forward to being with you again the next time.
Thank you for inviting me. Goodbye.