This book has many key points that make it ideal for highlighting issues in current anthropological discussions around care, well-being, generations, memory, and subjectivity. This guide offers some suggestions on how to elaborate these issues into lesson plans.


While writing this ethnography, I was surprised to find that even older people who appeared physically and mentally healthy, socially and civically engaged, and actively pursuing hobbies and leisure activities (in short, "successfully aging"), also insisted that their lives were marked most by loss. They had lost parents, siblings, spouses, and friends. They either experienced or anticipated the loss of health, independence, or authority. Most troubling, perhaps, were existential losses; dreams had to be given up, regrets would not be resolved, a lifetime's work would not be remembered, and in death, the lineage and ancestors would be abandoned.

While prolonged grief has become pathologized in the west to the extent that it has earned its own category designation in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V, 2013), Japanese people traditional perform formal memorial services for as long as 33-50 years after an individual's death. Memorials, often done privately in the home or at the grave, are cultural narratives of loss that restore a sense of existential good by opening up flows of meaningful exchange between those living and those beyond. In this way, memorial is what Erik H. Erikson (1986) would call a ritualization, based on the "mutuality of recognition" (47). I also refer to this as an expression of the "creativity of loss," whereby cultural symbols become a means of forming subjectivity suspended between hope and abandonment.

This research not only asks us to revisit Eriksonian thoughts on the role of culture and self over the developmental life course, but it also allows us to reconsider ways cultural narratives are adapted or contested in the process of growing older.

Learning outcomes

After reading and discussing the book alongside other sources, you should be able to

- recognize some ways older people are influenced by culture differently than younger generations

- understand how aging subjectivities shape cultural narratives about care, interdependence, and uncertainty

- understand how aesthetics and rituals attend to age-related grief and call our attention to personal symbols

Discussion questions

  1. Is there an ideal way to grow older? Does loss play a role in aging well?
  2. How might constructs such as “successful aging” actually compromise the ability of alternate cultural models of aging, especially those that reserve a place for loss?
  3. How do the biophysical circumstances of human longevity combine with the social and cultural context to help us construct our experience of old age?
  4. How does grief give rise to creativity? How does old age shape experiences of grief, and how might it open unique possibilities for creativity?
  5. What are the roles of narrative, landscape, and ritual in the process of mourning?
  6. Briefly review the three examples of Obasuteyama tales in the text (Zeami's Obasute, pp.35-38; Fukuzawa's Ballad of Narayama, pp.65-69; and Tatsumi's Abandon the Old in Tokyo, pp.134-138). How does old age raise questions about morality? How is this depicted aesthetically? Could you imagine a similar story in your own culture?
  7. Sharon Kaufmann's The Ageless Self popularized the possibility of a subjective experience of continuity of self across the life course (see pp.189). Is this the case in a place like Japan, where self is experienced as multiple, contingent, and marked by changing relationships (to living and the dead) over the life course?

Further Reading

On aging in Japan

Allison, Anne. 2013. Precarious Japan. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lock, Margaret M. 1993. Encounters with Aging Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. London: University of California Press.

Long, Susan Orpett. 2004. “Cultural Scripts for a Good Death in Japan and the United States: Similarities and Differences.” Social Science & Medicine 58 (5): 913–28.

---. 2005. Final Days: Japanese Culture and Choice at the End of Life. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Plath, David. 1980. Long Engagements: Maturity in Modern Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Traphagan, John W. 2000. Taming Oblivion: Aging Bodies and the Fear of Senility in Japan. State Univ of New York Pr.

On death and memorial in Japan

Connor, Blaine P., and John W. Traphagan. 2014. Negotiating the Afterlife: Emplacement as Ongoing Concern in Contemporary Japan. Asian Anthropology 0 (0): 1–17. Accessed May 6.

Long, Susan Orpett. 2003. Becoming a Cucumber: Culture, Nature, and the Good Death in Japan and the United States. Journal of Japanese Studies 29 (1): 33–68.

Rowe, Mark Michael. 2011. Bonds of the Dead: Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism. University Of Chicago Press.

Schattschneider, Ellen. 2004. Family Resemblances: Memorial Images and the Face of Kinship. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 31(1):141-162.

Smith, Robert John. 1974. Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

On narrative, subjectivity, and grief in old age and over the life course

Becker, Gaylene. 1997. Disrupted Lives: How People Create Meaning in a Chaotic World. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Cohler, Bertram. 1982. “Personal Narrative and the Life Course.” In Life Span Development and Behavior, 4:205–41. New York: Academic Press.

Hollan, Douglas. 2014. “From Ghosts to Ancestors (and Back Again): On the Cultural and Psychodynamic Mediation of Selfscapes.” Ethos 42 (2): 175–97.

Jackson, Michael. 2002. The Politics of Storytelling: Violence, Transgression, and Intersubjectivity. Copenhagen [Denmark]; Portland, Ore.: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen ; Distributor USA & Canada, International Specialized Book Services.

Kaufman, Sharon R. 1987. The Ageless Self: Sources of Meaning in Late Life. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press.

Lamb, Sarah. 2014. “Permanent Personhood or Meaningful Decline? Toward a Critical Anthropology of Successful Aging.” Journal of Aging Studies 29 (April): 41–52.

Myerhoff, Barbara G. 1980. Number Our Days. New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster.

Neilson, Brett. 2012. “Ageing, Experience, Biopolitics: Life’s Unfolding.” Body & Society 18 (3-4): 44–71.



The Age Bomb: Japan's Aging Crisis

Laura Carstensen at Nobel Week 2014 speaking about emotions in old age:

Charles Briggs on anthropology, psychoanalysis and mourning:



This text was written to be ready for classroom use, covering a broad range of topics and cultures while introducing questions for discussion and debate. When teaching the text, you might start by considering the title words, “transition” — as in moving through the life course, and “transformation” — as in the changes that happen in society as more and more people enjoy a long life. How do these two intersect? Do they have similarities to other characteristics of social life? While no aspect of identity or personhood is completely fixed, age is always on the move. Think about how this compares to gender, race, or even class, for example. Age transitions have typically brought out questions concerning human development and adapting to changes in the body, so this seems like a natural place to begin.

Chapter 1. Changes in the Life Course: Strengths and Stages
Mary Catherine Bateson


Chapter 2. Narrating Pain and Seeking Continuity: A Life-Course Approach to Chronic Pain Management
Lindsey Martin 

Chapter 3. Venting Anger From the Body During Gengnianqi: Meanings of Midlife Transition Among Chinese Women in Reform-Era Beijing
Jeanne L. Shea

Chapter 4. “I Don’t Want to Be Like My Father:” Masculinity, Modernity, and Intergenerational Relationships in Mexico
Emily Wentzell


  1. How does the Eriksonian life course model account for historical and cultural differences?

  2. On what basis does Bateson add a new stage of development after adulthood rather than just extending Erikson’s framework or adding at the end?

  3. How does is the life course embodied, and how does illness and pain affect bodily narratives?

  4. How does the individual body articulate with cultural and national narratives? What possibilities do transitions bring to this articulation?

The life course also brings up questions about different experiences of spatiality and time. The next section concentrates on the ways anthropologists recognize the significance of historical, environmental, and spiritual contexts that challenge the notion of age as a linear process that proceeds the same way despite the surroundings.


Chapter 5. Shifting Moral Ideals of Aging in Poland: Suffering, Self-Actualization, and the Nation
Jessica C. Robbins

Chapter 6. A Window into Death: Euthanasia and End-of-Life in the Public-Private Space of the Dutch Home
Frances Norwood

Chapter 7. Temporality, Spirituality, and the Life Course in an Aging Japan
Jason Danely


  1. How does memory affect the experience of social change across the life course?

  2. Is aging a private matter? How does the arrangement of space affect the ways it can or cannot become public?

  3. What other ways might one experience aging aside from a linear and progressive sequential model? Why might these persist in aging societies?

Parts 4 and 5 are more focused on “transformations,” although they all keep the anthropological perspective of viewing these transformations from the everyday lives of individuals. What becomes apparent right away is that older individuals’ life courses are also linked to younger ones, and these inter-generational relationships are often critical to grasping how the life course is part of broader social changes. In the chapters on family, inter-generational links are described in terms of care.


Chapter 8. “I Have to Stay Healthy:” Elder Caregiving and the Third Age in a Brazilian Community
Diana De G. Brown

Chapter 9. Grandmothering in Life-Course Perspective:  A Study of Puerto Rican Grandmothers Raising Grandchildren in the United States
Marta B. Rodríguez-Galán

Chapter 10. Care Work and Property Transfers: Intergenerational Family Obligations in Sri Lanka
Michele Ruth Gamburd


  1. How does the presence of an older family member provide a source of care, and how does this affect family life?

  2. How does transnational migration provide an opening for new ideas and ideals of care to emerge?

  3. How do older caregivers and care receivers maintain agency in the family, even as they become aware of new limits?

The word “economy” derives from the Greek oikos, meaning “home.” In the previous section, domestic life, age, and care was also linked to economic concerns and strategies. In the final part of the book, we focus more directly on ways older people contribute to transformations taking place in public economic spheres.


Chapter 11. Personhood, Appropriate Dependence, and the Rise of Eldercare Institutions in India
Sarah Lamb

Chapter 12. Membership and Mattering: Agency and Work in a New England Factory
Caitrin Lynch

Chapter 13. Life Courses of Indebtedness in Rural Nigeria
Jane I. Guyer and Kabiru K. Salami


  1. How are traditional forms of dependence and global forms of market dependence reshaped by a growing older population?

  2. How old is too old to work? What are ways that current economic systems might adapt to include more older workers?

  3. Inheriting property and goods is often cited as a case where economy and kinship face challenges, but how does one negotiate passing on debt?

The Afterword brings up even more points of further questioning, especially from the point of view of youth. It is a good chance to reflect on how different points in the life course accentuate not only differences, but affinities as well. Hope some of these questions prove to be good starting points for your lessons.