We Are All Going on a Summer Holiday - An Anthropological Study of Holidays Offered by EGV Foundation to Lonely Older People

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1 Louise Scheel Thomasen We Are All Going on a Summer Holiday - An Anthropological Study of Holidays Offered by EGV Foundation to Lonely Older People Master s Thesis, University of Copenhagen, 2010 Published by EGV Foundation/Ensomme Gamles Værn 2010 From , the EGV Foundation offered older Danish people the opportunity to apply for a holiday organized by the foundation. During those years, destinations were tourist locations abroad. In 2009, the EGV Foundation decided to change course of direction. While still directing attention to people suffering from feelings of loneliness, social isolation and marginalization in old age, the foundation added social relations and togetherness to the pool of important issues that were to characterize the annual vacations from 2009 and on. Bringing people together was the main priority rather than concentrating on the mere sightseeing aspect, broadly speaking. Vacations were now restricted to locations in Denmark, thus allowing for an increase in numbers of older people attending. We Are All Going on a Summer Holiday relies on studies into the following: How do older people connect and how do they establish social relations? What is it like for older people to be away from home? Back home again, what does it mean to have been part of this social process? When a group of people go on a holiday together they create temporary relations. Such relations are established and dissolved, all within a few days. Basic social processes are at stake when establishing relations on a holiday. Everyone finds themselves in a field of tension: how to stay true to their personality and how to act in the company of others while at the same time approaching one another, yet making sure not to get too close. When back home again, their lives are blessed with rich memories and perhaps a holiday acquaintance. Having been away from home is an important thing entirely of its own. This study is an anthropological approach with the purpose of gaining insight into social relations and experiences obtained while on vacation. Empirical research is based on material from three vacations including qualitative interviews during the holidays and afterwards. We do have a lot of things in common as we have reached a certain age. We have lived our lives, we have children and grandchildren. That is the first common denominator and the point from where the conversation takes off. Then it progresses, and you realize, Oh, I like that as well, and yes, I see that too, right My first impression was and I am sure this is entirely wrong but I felt they were of an older generation, which is nonsense since I am going on 74. It means there were people younger than me. Then you get to know them and you realize they are just as young as you are yourself and younger. I got the wrong impression after spending the first few hours with them, but that has changed A LOT since then.

2 Friends, they are the people you have known since you were young. I do not expect to make any friends while I am on holiday. I shall thrive on it. I shall feel great when I get back home. It is always like that when I have been away from home. The following 3-4 months are like I am so I think of all the things I saw and the wonderful people I spent time with. That is a marvellous thing. In 2009, holiday destinations in Denmark were Dronningens Ferieby in Grenå, Hasle Ferieby in Bornholm and Løgumkloster Højskole (a folk high school) in Jutland. A total of 114 people participated, 77 of them were women, 37 men, 20 of them were married couples. Main conclusions: When participants meet for the first time, they present themselves to each other according to geography and share their experiences of being parents and grandparents. By doing so, they establish a mutual social bearing and an immediate sense of togetherness. Going on a holiday together involves mutual consent. Individual differences may surface at times, however everyone agrees that they are on holiday together and that they are there to have a good time. They attach little importance to individual differences and avoid potential conflicts. Holidaying together presents a field of tension with closeness and distance as operating counterpoints. The participants move about in this field as they are trying to define themselves in the group. They want to spend time together, yet they are careful not to get too close until they know each other better. Holidaying together is considered a particular social space away from everyday life. The hours spent on a holiday are of an intense nature compared to life back home, and it is easy to go with the flow for a week, as they are not themselves responsible for making every day a success. Holidaying also allows for experiments with social relations and games such as pretending to be close friends, perhaps even married to a mate. On vacation, there is also the possibility of experimenting and playing with cultural dimensions in terms of old age and ethnicity, culture and religion. Participants are thus able to share knowledge and reflect upon those topics. Ethnicity, culture and

3 religion are themes represented at Løgumkloster Folk High School. As a whole, staying at the folk high school creates an opportunity to meet as part of different cultures or as different human beings. These particular vacations are important due to their position as being something else. They are sort of a pensioner s time off when in fact pensioners always have time off. Going on holiday adds dynamics and complimentarity to everyday life as one is away from home, subject to new experiences and gets the chance to meet other people. The holidays are noncommittal with noncommittal holiday acquaintances. In most cases, the participants are not interested in forming friendships. Memories of a good experience are what they bring back - with those memories serving as a social resource when everyday life kicks in. Being able to tell stories from when they were on holiday is of value in a social context. Ultimately, the participants familiarity with growing old reveals that they disassociate themselves from characterizations such as lonely and poor old people. They see old age as an increasing impairment leading to worries about the future. Some of them also consider loneliness one of life s dimensions. They associate themselves with feelings of loneliness when they think of themselves as the last link in a chain, as useless and when there is the loss of an irreplaceable spouse. QUOTES On travelling alone: It was not the issue I thought it would be. When I got on the bus I grabbed a window seat, then another single woman arrived, and she sat down in the seat in front of me. Then a third woman arrived and sat down in front of us. All the couples were on the left side. Finally, a fourth single woman arrived. She looked at all of us and then sat down next to me When we were leaving I told her that I actually preferred a seat on the aisle. She said, Fine with me, I prefer a window seat, so we swapped places and had a real nice ride on the bus to Berlin. On the way, we discovered that I was supposed to share a double bed with the woman in front of me That was the first thing to deal with, you know, sharing a room and a bed with a complete stranger And the one sitting next to me were in a room with another woman, so the four of us quickly agreed to change that, even though the carer in Odense had told us that we could not as it had been planned from the very beginning But we fixed that once we got to Berlin ( ) and I was fine. In a double bed with a stranger, yes! It turned out she was deaf. She took off the hearing aid and said not to worry about snoring. That was one down, and in the bathroom we were like: Soap to the left and right, no problem And What did you do for a living? and we were more or less in the same line of work, not quite, but almost. Our lives had taken more or less the same direction On the importance of going on holiday: My time is over, this is life as a pensioner. I forget about that by going away for a week, those feelings of loneliness, I forget about them while I am here. Spending time at this folk high school

4 makes me happy. There is always someone to talk to and it is good to know what they are up to here (the young ones) and know they are right in the midst of it all, they are not pensioners who have become superfluous That is not on our minds, but I do think about it when I go back. Well, the family will be visiting soon, but they will be gone the next day, as they have to work. Then what do you do? You watch TV or go to the movies or You pretend to be of use, but the fact is you are not. I do not think I shall be calling her when I get back home, no. I did not call the woman who is in the picture I took at Kurfürstendamm in Berlin the year before last. When I got back home I thought, Should I send it to her? I can easily find out where she lives or I can get the list of participants and her phone number, all I have to do is call the operator. I never got around to it, and it is very typical, the people you meet on holiday stay acquaintances, you rarely end up with (Why is that, you think?) It is because we share this experience, we are on holiday. We wear shorts all the time and run around barefoot. It has nothing to do with our usual daily lives. On holiday with people of ethnic origin other than Danish: You know those foreigners... my attitude has changed. I used to Well, you read about them in the papers, but I have never met or known anyone before. After I talked to some of them, you know, things changed. (How?) You know, the way they see their life, and how pleased they are to be here, and they only say good things about Denmark all the time, right. They always say, We are so happy to be in Denmark, and everything is great here. Our children have been raised well, there is freedom of religion and we are free to do whatever we feel like and that is not the case in those countries. On getting old: (Female participant of Danish origin) Old people waltzing on the dance floor, no, that is not for me. An old-fashioned dance in the mission hall, no way, I need a lively place. That is what I prefer. There is a local centre next door with activities and what have you I think they are too old. Yes, I am old too but I think they are too old Maybe there is something wrong with me, I am actually their age but I do not feel 75 years of age, I just don t. (I am more like) 60, somewhere between 50 and 60, that is how I feel. If I am determined about something, I get stubborn and want things to progress fast. We do not want to be old, not really. I only know of one person who wants to be old ( ) who does not mind being considered old ( ) but no, it does not feel right. On the future: There is a wish that whatever time is left you spend that time free of serious health problems and The worst thing is What I fear most is to become dependent on others If you see what I mean

5 to become a vegetable. I find that hard to deal with. (Why?) I could not tell you, but maybe it is the fear that after a life of independence you suddenly become dependent on others, in every sense, right I do not like the idea of it and the older you get the more pressing it becomes. On family and friends: My children are happy for me. That is the good thing about it, they mean well. I text them while on holiday and send a postcard or something. That is the good thing about a text message, I get one in return straight away (laughs) saying they are happy for me and enjoy or something. On feelings of loneliness: Once you have turned 90 you become lonely. Where are your friends and the people you used to know? I know of more people in the cemetery than I know alive. That is loneliness for you. Just the other day I lost the last one of my friends from when we were studying at the teacher s college He was ninety something and his daughter called me and said, Well, Aksel has passed away. That is distressing, the fact that he is gone. I knew him and his wife too and we went to a lot of parties and weddings and what have you, and knew each other well. Yes, yes, I feel lonely in that respect, in that weird way On indispensability: There is one thing I know since I became a widower ( ) The things we built together over 56 years are irreplaceable ( ) which is why I am sure that a long-lasting friendship between a man and a woman, no I cannot do that. I have nothing to offer a woman and vice versa. I do not expect to run into someone 30 years my junior (laughs). I shall stay all by myself I think.

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