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The World’s Population is Getting Older, which is Awfully Interesting

The World’s Population is Getting Older, which is Awfully Interesting

Psychologist and HSE graduate Daria Belostotskaya carries out research in gerontology — the science of ageing. She examines what orphans and the elderly have in common, why children and older people should talk to each other, and how art can help see the beauty of the old age. Daria spoke about her work in an interview with the HSE News Service.

I don’t really remember why I decided to pursue a psychologist’s degree, but, probably, I simply wanted to help people. And I had this idea about ‘saving the world’. Today it sounds silly, but then it was what I truly wanted. And psychology was about helping, so I wanted to help, no matter whom.

I chose HSE for its Western standards and progressive orientation. My school was not good, and most of what I knew I had learnt from my family, so it was very important to choose a good university.

The teacher

HSE opened my eyes. It defined me to some extent.  The secret of a successful education is a good teacher. And I found mine there. Vladimir Petrovich Zinchenko was my academic supervisor, from the senior year of my undergraduate degree, until the first year of my doctoral studies, when he passed away. A month later, I left Russia. That’s why HSE for me is Zinchenko and the work we did together. He gave the first lecture I went to at the university; he quoted Pushkin, Brodsky, and Mandelshtam, and said that we have a year to decide whether we were staying or not. With that he gave us an unbelievable level of freedom. It’s always easier to go on, when you know that you can stop.

It took me three years to dare to come up to him, and, of course, I was hurried by his age; I didn’t want to let him go. I told him about my interest in the old age, but he wasn’t interested in it, since he was old himself and a topic about himself was boring.

I wanted to tell everyone, the whole world, what it is like when an old person and a child live together or close to each other

I’ve been interested in the old age, probably, my whole life, since most of it I’ve spent among elderly people: I was brought up by my grandparents. I think I was able, very early on, to value how much they were doing for me. And they did a lot: they shared their lives, they pushed me to argue with them, they taught me, showed their favourite films, read books, and always talked to me. They were slipping away (due to obvious reasons), and that’s why I valued them and the time we had together even more. They were my first friends, and we understood each other well. And I always wanted to somehow express my feelings towards them, to show them what they did for me as a child. And then I wanted to tell everyone, the whole world, what it is like when an old person and a child live together or close to each other. Even when I was a schoolchild, I was thinking about writing a book about a house for old people and children. In my imagination, it was a very happy house. And then I met Zinchenko. He gave me a pile of books, and we parted for the summer. In the autumn I came back to him not only with the topic of old age, but with childhood too, and we decided to unite them through art – a theme which interested both of us.

Old men and children

So, this is how we began to study how old people and children (preschoolers) living in families perceive a text of fiction. First, we studied how they reacted to the same text (‘Old Cook’ by Paustovsky) read out loud, and then we talked to them. The control group consisted of people aged 17 to 35. And then we did the same thing, but with elderly people from old people’s houses and children from orphanages. The results of the study showed that preschoolers and old people have very similar understanding and emotional reactions, and also see the same existential senses in the text.

For example, it turned out that orphans perceive things very differently from children from families, in a way which is closer to perception by old people from both groups (there were no big differences between perceptions by ‘ordinary’ old people and the elderly from old people’s houses). Both orphans and old people have an increased interest in death and solitude. Unlike the control group participants, who retold the story and answered the questions calmly, taking it as a study task, the orphans used their imagination, added their own contents not related to the text, spoke about their solitude and tried to embellish the story.

The world today, if you see it as scales, has swung to the side it has never swung before

Problem children and the elderly perceive the text through their own life experience, although children generally perceive texts more directly (mediation through their own experience is more vivid among orphans). We detected a specific type of perception among the old people, which we called ‘post-mediated directness’. Children have a more clear interest in the topic of death than the elderly and the control group.

Of course, we didn’t have the intention to absolutize the results we received or make far-reaching conclusions about the levels of intelligence or sensibility of our respondents. We bore in mind that we studied their ethical and aesthetic reactions only to one single literary piece. But still, the results were made on a representative sample, and could hardly be considered something which distorts the truth. (The results of the study were published in 2012 in Cultural-Historical Psychology, issue 3).

Demographic problem

The main approaches to studying old age are gerontology and geriatrics. Gerontology studies the social aspect of ageing, while geriatrics studies the clinical side. These sciences are very young, and old age itself is ‘very young’. There is another reason why gerontology appeared so late (the first studies began at the turn of the 20th century, and the term itself only appeared in 1903). It is always difficult for humans to perceive our mortality, and old age reminds us that death is inevitable.  But, because death is a taboo subject and because of the myths surrounding it, the topic of old age has long been kept in the shadows.

Simply speaking, gerontology is a science that studies the biological, social and psychological changes related to ageing. Studies dedicated to age-related changes in health began in the 1930s. In 1945, the Gerontological Society of America was founded, and five years later the International Association of Gerontology started work.

The secret is not in overcoming the old age and staying ‘forever young’, but in allowing old age to be beautiful in its own way, with its specifics and advantages, as well as its flaws, as every other period of our lives

Today, due to the decreasing birth rate and growing life expectancy, the world is facing a huge problem, economic, social, medical, cultural, and, of course, psychological. This is very interesting, since the world today, if you see it as scales, has swung to the side it has never swung before. This is happening everywhere, in spite of the level of social aid and health care. For example, the average life expectancy in India is about 67 years today, while in the 1990s it was 60. And while today the number of old people in India is about 140 million, by 2050 there will be 324 million of them. In the U.S., life expectancy was 47 years at the turn of the 20th century, and 77 years in 2000. Of course, despite the diseases medicine has overcome, we still have cancer, and the number of catastrophes is much higher than a century ago, but this doesn’t outweigh and doesn’t even balance the situation. So, this is a global catastrophe, but it is incredibly interesting.

The beauty of old age

Since gerontology is a purely interdisciplinary area, there is a very wide choice of what to study. I’m involved in psychology and cultural gerontology. I support the idea of active, successful ageing, when an elderly person continues to develop, opens new areas of activity, goes through personal and social changes. I’m very interested in old age and art and how you can see the beauty of old age through the arts. I genuinely believe that old age is beautiful, but there is a strong attitude towards old age as a weak, ugly, and helpless age in society, including among old people themselves (not to mention ageism).  I believe that art, on some level, could overcome these attitudes. The experience of old age varies enormously, and it seems to me very important to maintain this balance – to see and value old age not only when people overcome it, when they exercise, look good and are healthy, but also when they lack all of that. I believe that the secret is not in overcoming the old age and staying ‘forever young’, but in allowing old age to be beautiful in its own way, with its specifics and advantages, as well as its flaws, as every other period of our lives.

Today we have something we’ve never had before. We have the time

I think it’s very hard to live if you know that once you’ll become old, which means weak, ill and lonely, and that everything will stop then. That’s why my task, as a psychologist and gerontologist, is to help fulfill and enliven this period, as well as to understand what an old person needs for their social and psychological well-being. In some ways, old age is a wonderful time -  your life stress decreases, you don’t need to achieve anything anymore, and you at last can understand who you really are and what you really want, taking into account your previous experience. And today we have something we’ve never had before. We have the time.

This autumn, I’m going to work at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, University of Oxford. For 10 years already that they have been running a project with a gallery in London, where they bring old people, organize workshops for them, teach them to conduct excursions themselves, and invite them to discuss what they’ve seen. One of the activities is a joint workshop for the elderly and teenagers. I’m going to organize communication between preschoolers and old people there. I’ll also continue taking interviews and photos for the exhibition, since another project I’m moving to is old age and fashion, which seems to me also very important in understanding how we perceive old age and how old people see themselves in society.

Academic career and social projects

For me, it was logical to pursue an academic career, mainly because of Vladimir Zinchenko, although over time I realise that I find social projects much more interesting than academic research. Research for me is more about ‘thinking’, and I like ‘doing’ more. But knowledge for its own sake is not enough for me. Be that as it may, I entered a doctoral programme at the University of Vienna. This summer I finished the first year. It wasn’t easy, since my idea of bringing together orphans and elderly people from old people’s homes is very difficult to implement in society. I had known it, but as a result, I had to settle for a compromise, and now we are organizing and studying social communication between adopted children and people living in old age home as well as communication between children from one-parent families and old people who live without a family.

The communication includes developing (cognitive) and motor activities. We measure the style of attachment, emotional regulation, and subjective well-being. The first year was very difficult, since, in addition to a research committee, we also had to pass through an ethics committee, which approves the research in these kinds of problematic topics. The design of the study is very difficult and the research itself is very large-scale and complicated, and I fail from time to time. This year it will be easier, since now, as I’ve passed through all the committees, I’ll be assigned several master’s students, who will help me to implement the project.

What I understood this year is that when you have an idea, it makes your life much more complicated. I have this idea, and I can’t get away from it; I’ll implement this project one way or another. This year it will be six years since I started . It is exhausting and so far makes me more unhappy than happy, since it is still a long way to go, and since I only get one ‘yes’ to every 99 ‘no’s’. But somehow incredibly this one ‘yes’ is worth all the ‘no’s’. And the only rule here is to never stop.

Children from an Indian orphanage. Photo by Daria Belostotskaya


I spent this August in India. It has about 20 million orphans; about 4% of the Indian population, which is a lot. And only 0.3% of them have no parents. There are 140 million old people in India; they could make up the population of two big countries. 90% of old people don’t receive pensions, don’t have normal living conditions and have serious health problems. One third of these 140 million live below the poverty line. And the number of old people is growing steadily and fast, since life expectancy is growing globally. This is a very hard situation, a real crisis, which is not being solved with enough effort. I thought it would be interesting to look at what we could do in India, taking into account the cultural specifics, of course.

I wrote to more than 500 orphanages in India. Of course, there were a few answers, and those who answered were asking for money, printers, and computers. But one orphanage sent me a good response. It is located in a village 50 km away from Chennai, and many single old people also live there. I wasn’t expecting to see any wealth, but what I saw astonished me. I don’t want to go into details, this is worth a separate story, but almost all the old people I saw there live in real poverty and the children, all of them, have a very difficult past. Together with the orphanage director, we organized communication between the children and the elderly for three days. They ate together, did some sewing, and processed fruit. The children danced and sang for the old people; these are very simple things, but they were very valuable for the old people, many of whom have long lived in poverty, and many of whom are blind or almost deaf.

On one of the days we demonstrated our results to a state commission that supervises orphanages and applied for public funding for joint weekend lunches for children and old people. Our chances are high, but it will take several months for anything to happen.

An old man from an Indian old people’s house. Photo by Daria Belostotskaya

Old age on the photos

In addition, I wanted to photograph old people in India and interview them, for an exhibition I’m preparing of pictures of elderly people from various countries.

In the interviews I ask five questions, about life and death, regrets, fears, dreams, and what they love the most in their lives. Each photo of an old person will be accompanied by a short story about them on the basis of these interviews. To demonstrate why such an exhibition might be interesting, I’ll give an example of answers to two questions (and they all give roughly the same answers to them). When I asked what they like the most in their lives, they answered, food and (sometimes) clothes. And when I asked what they were afraid of they said that they were afraid of nothing, since the worst had already happened to them. And when you look at how they are living, you believe them.

And now imagine, what old people from Austria, USA, Russia, or Great Britain, whom I also photograph and interview for the exhibition, answer to this question…

Interview by Liudmila Mezentseva


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