Social participation is among the most significant factors linked to health and wellbeing later in life. As a variety of studies have shown, loneliness (both social and emotional [i]) is one of the most pressing issues of ageing. Individuals, of all ages and backgrounds seek roles, a sense of belonging and purpose, but these needs becomes particularly pertinent following retirement, in ‘empty nest’ contexts of family members having moved away, or in conditions of limited physical mobility.
One question we have been exploring in the ASSA project is what might be the significance of digital social participation, or rather, social participation that is facilitated by smartphones and digital practices. My ethnographic research in one inner-city neighbourhood in Milan reveals how smartphone practices play a significant role in facilitating social participation amongst a range of individuals and groups, helping to combat issues associated with loneliness and physical/social isolation, via on– and offline practices.
To illustrate with a couple of examples.
Ugo, 75 is a retired engineer lives with his wife, Anna, 70, a retired schoolteacher, on the 5thfloor of an apartment building where they have lived for the last 30 years. Due to a severe spinal condition that affected the use of his legs, Ugo hardly ever leaves the house. A combination of technologies, the Internet, historical fiction books, and daily interactions with his wife make up his social world where he spends the days in a wheelchair at home. From the moment he wakes up in the morning until he goes to bed, Ugo is connected to the Internet via the house WiFi. Ugo uses his smartphone primarily for communication with the wider social world – he wears his smartphone round his neck in a well-worn, knitted phone case that Anna had knitted for him a few Christmasses ago. Through WhatsApp, Ugo enjoys receiving photographs from family and friends. At one point, Ugo was added to a WhatsApp group of the apartment building that was set up by one of his neighbours, a Peruvian woman called Angela, as a communication porthole for residents of the building. Before long the group transformed ‘from below’ into a forum of sharing, posting, commenting, celebrating, via emojis, memes, screenshots, even poems. While Ugo is not active overly himself on the group, the messages he receives on his phone, in addition to wider notifications such as the news, bring him a certain pleasure throughout the day, making him feel connected to a certain buzz of being-in-the-world where his physical conditions had otherwise gradually removed him from.
Ugo also uses WhatsApp to communicate with his (family) doctor. In one instance, Ugo had a rash that had developed on one of his legs. The first thing he thought of to do was to take a photograph of it on his smartphone and send the image to his doctor on WhatsApp. This led to a kind of informal digital consultation between the two. “We are close”, Ugo explained. “He (the doctor)is like a son or nephew to me. With WhatsApp we are like family – I know he is never far away if I need anything, which comforts me. From time to time he will ask if he can pop round to see me on his way home.”
In a different example, Rosalba, 69, originally from the region of Abruzzo in central Italy is a retired secondary school teacher. She lives with her husband (75), a retired electrician, and their dog. Rosalba found the adjustment to full-time retirement a difficult transition, and missed the sociality of her professional role and buzz of school life. She soon sank into daily routines within the home; household chores, shopping, cooking for her and her husband, a few outings. But without real purpose, Rosalba found herself drifting through the days and weeks. Before long, her home space became a kind of benign ‘prison’, and she found herself feeling suffocated by emotional isolation and loneliness. One of Rosalba’s former colleagues from her school who she sees regularly at the supermarket recommended that she should come along to a women’s choir that meets once a week in the neighbourhood. Rosalba found aspects of the choir refreshing and stimulating; the multi-cultural and cross-generational aspect resembled what she had experienced at work at the school. The choir’s WhatsApp group, in particular, was extremely active. The women share photos, videos, song lyrics, emojis full of hearts, flowers, shooting stars, laughs, cries, thumbs up and down, amid a broad repertoire of digital-visual expressions of emotion. After a year, Rosalba found that she had discovered a new lease of life through the choir and its associated fora of sociality, including the WhatsApp group. The stream of messages that flows between the women and the immersive, ‘affective community’ it forms, comforts Rosalba in her day-to-day life, and she became to feel less alone throughout the days. Retirement now feels like something Rosalba can participate in and even shape, as she begins to carve out spaces for herself and her need for collectivity. She has developed her singing voice in expressing powerful and politically and emotionally-loaded lyrics of defiance, human solidarity, sisterhood, in a range of languages and dialects, and this empowerment appears to have seeped into other aspects of her life, including how she participates more actively in her social relationships, and in trying out new hobbies such as walking groups. Ageing and retiring with smartphones has been a gradual but creative and rejuvenating experience for Rosalba, and digital communications have facilitated and boosted her social participation.
For others in the neighbourhood, digital social participation can be an important way of participating in community life for other reasons. Angela (45) is from Lima, Peru. She lives with her husband and their 12-year old son in the same apartment block as Ugo mentioned above, working as a part-time teaching assistant in one of the local public schools. Angela describes her life with her family as ‘quiet and closed’. She is not particularly sociable or confident in public settings, and some of this she attributes to a difficult background and upbringing in the low-income neighbourhood her family lived in in Lima. She is particularly concerned about street crime and violence and the safety of her son growing up in Milan. Although she is reasonably active during the day between her job, the food shopping, and taking care of the family at home, Angela avoids going out at night. Through digital forms of engagement however, Angela has enhanced her social participation in the community in a manner she feels comfortable with – from the comfort and safety of her home. She participates enthusiastically on the apartment block WhatsApp group she set-up for neighbours in the building – sharing friendly messages and greetings on festive days – and is a member of various groups tied to her son’s school such as parents’ groups on WhatsApp and Facebook, which keeps her both informed and feeling involved. When one of her Peruvian friends recommended a weekly women’s sewing group, Angela joined and became an active participant on the WhatsApp group. The social worlds contained within Angela’s smartphone constitute some of the main sources of Angela’s present social life. Her social participation is both offline and online, but is most frequently played out via the smartphone.
Engaging socially in digital forms can be important in a variety of contexts and at any age. Although the politics and practices of inclusion/exclusion via digital practices are far from simple matters, requiring delicate critical and contextual attention, my research in Milan highlights how smartphone-facilitated sociality can modulate experiences of loneliness, isolation and/or social exclusion amongst a range of people, including older adults and migrants in the city, forming an overall central part of how socialities are crafted in this context.
[i] De Jong Gierveld, J. & Van Tilburg, T. (2006). A 6-item scale for overall, emotional and social loneliness: Confirmatory tests on survey data. Research on Aging, Vol. 28 (5): 582-598.