Walking with my Mother: the World Perceived with an Elderly
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This article recounts the experiences of walking and traveling in a city with an elderly person, my mother, and the ways those transform my perceptions of the everyday environment. This article further explores environmental and social features that serve as potential enablers or disablers for the moving through the environment for an elderly person and highlights how ability is contingent on the person-environment relationship. These explorations are particular relevant for many industrialized nations facing a rapidly aging population.
KeywordsWalking Phenomenology Aging Environmental competence Urban planning
It has been a while since I have been back to my hometown in Tokyo, Japan. The time lapse gives me a heightened awareness of the gradual changes that are hard to notice and easy to get used to had I not been away. My image of my mother has not fully adjusted to that of a grandmother, but walking with my mother is a reminder of her aging. She has slowed down and is using a cane. It used to be her who would drag me along, and I struggled to keep up with her. Now, the roles have been reversed. We are on our way to a meeting with her friends, who meet up for lunch. I suggest that we take a cab. After all, by taxi, the destination is only 1.5 miles away, less than a 10-min-ride (according to Google Maps), and would save us significant time and effort, and probably would not cost that much. But she insists on walking and using public transit, as if to assert her ability, her frugality, her environmentalism, or perhaps to teach me another lesson. Her decision involves a journey with an itinerary that includes walking to the bus stop, transferring to a train, and walking to the destination, which will take almost 30 min (according to Google Maps), if not more accounting for my mother’s walking speed. However, compared to taking a taxi, the public transit route requires a fair degree of physical, cognitive, and social engagement, considering the walking and navigation involved. In that respect, the public transit route is a much healthier option that keeps an elderly active and promotes optimal aging. Walking with my mother makes me view the world differently. It allows me to partly see the world with different eyes and through a different body, and in the process to become aware of my habitual mode.
I am engaging in a phenomenological approach (Seamon 2000) that includes a first-person approach—that guides me to form my experiences of walking with my mother. However, I am also trying to understand the experience of my mother, which then may be an existential-phenomenological (third person) approach that explores the specific experiences of individuals; however, I am not asking for an in-depth account of her experience, although I do occasionally probe her how she is feeling. Finally, it includes a hermeneutical phenomenological approach as I am trying to interpret the meanings of the environmental features, as it is revealed through the walking with my mother. Very often phenomenological researchers use a combination of first-person, existential-phenomenological (third person), and hermeneutic approach (Seamon 2000). Therefore my approach may fit with that tradition. However, the very act of walking with my mother is neither a first-person (just me), nor a third-person (just her), but something of a first-person plural perspective as it becomes “us” walking that shape the dynamic of the walk and allows me to experience the world from this unique perspective.
Walking is a growing methodological approach that consists of various theories and practices, including some recent articulations of walking as a social science methodology (Bates and Rhys-Taylor 2017). Springgay and Truman (2018) identified four major themes in walking research: place, sensory inquiry, embodiment, and rhythm (pace and tempo). These themes have been extended into land and geos, affect, transmaterial, and movement. Given this framework, my approach touches upon several on these themes. In particular, it touches upon affect and the transmaterial as it involves my mother, it disrupts the notion of the embodied coherent self—her challenges become our challenges influenced by the environment.
Several scholars have explored the experiences of the aging population (Keller et al. 1989; Shin et al. 2003; Matsumoto 2011) and many have focused on the aging body. Common themes included adjustments to and acceptance of limitation and boundaries, but little has been said about the role of the physical environment that mediates the experiences of the aging body. The physical environment is often taken for granted, and had I sat down with her to interview her, the common practice in the study of the elderly, I doubt that I would have gained the insights I received by actually walking with her. It is this shared embedded enactedness that is so revealing.
The environment as Umwelt (Uxeküll and Kriszat 1934) is different depending on the organism—each organism inhabits its own environment based on its own body. With different receptors and effectors, the environment is different for a fly and a human. But the environment can also be different within humans. A loading dock becomes a play space for children, but a workplace for dockworkers (Muchow and Muchow 1935/1998). And the environment can be different within the same person depending on one’s state. A person appeal to a certain food hinges on the degree of hunger (Lewin 1935). There is no “neutral” environment, but an environment exists in relation to a person and his or her situation.
Looking at the world from this perspective, the world is a more challenging and threatening place, but also in some respects a kind and caring place. Features of the environment suddenly grab my attention, which before have escaped my consciousness as I frequented these places in my habitual mode of moving through the environment. I recognize different affordances (Gibson 1979), properties of the environment that allow or disallow certain actions, that escaped my attention before: The stairs afford not only to step-on, but they afford to trip, slip, and fall-down. The handrails, which as a child I thought of as affording to sliding down, and as an adult sort of disappeared from my perception, reemerged as for my mother there are affording to hold on that help her climb the stairs and prevent the undesirable affordances.
The Habitual Mode of a Younger Person’s Experience Moving Through the Environment
Every time I thought I myself might be about to bump into people near me, both I and they were already accelerating slightly, or decelerating, or making a little side step so that no nobody ever collided. (p. 8)
When I first came to New York it seemed like a nightmare. As soon as I got off the train in Grand Central I was caught up in pushing and shoving crowds of 42nd Street. Sometimes people bumped into me without an apology… (p. 1461)
Milgram’s passage certainly does not evoke a sense of mastery of the choreography, the dance that avoids the unpleasant encounters with the crowds. If you are involved in several bumping incidents, chances are you are doing something wrong. Considering that he may have been doing the bumping and not apologizing, he should consider himself fortunate that he was not being cursed at. Perhaps the other people were granting him civil inattention (c.f. Goffman 1972), not giving the bumping incident any attention, recognizing that he was probably not purposefully bumping into them. It is a recognition that sometimes bumping into each other is bound to happen, both parties may be partially at fault, and that for the most part it is accidental without any harm done. That allows you to just brush it off. You may not even notice it, and if you do, you quickly forget and move on, as if nothing has happened.
I cannot recall the last time that I was bumped. I am not exactly sure whether it is because I have become desensitized, developed a thick skin that comes with city living, or because I have fine tuned my urban skills such as reading the environment and anticipating other people’s moves that have become second nature.
There are many ways to reduce the risk of bumping or being bumped. One is to go with the flow of traffic. By picking the “right side,” figuratively speaking. In Japan, “the right side” is literally the left. We can avoid being faced with hordes of oncoming people blocking our path (and blocking their path); we can smoothly move along with everybody else. As my mother and I move at a slower pace, we stick to closer to the wall with less and slower moving traffic.
Walking by myself, I am not concerned about bumping into people. Not only because I can do the dance, but also even if something were to happen, it is unlikely that I would lose my balance. Even if I were to lose my balance, I would likely catch myself. Even in the unlikely event of a fall, the most I would suffer would likely be a bruised ego, but no broken bones. I would quickly get on my feet as if nothing had happened. By contrast walking with my mother, it no longer feels like a duck takes to water, but more like a duck takes to land. I transition from a taken-for-granted to a highly conscious mode with a heightened awareness of my movements and the environment, because I have to factor her in. I transition from Zuhanden ready-to-hand to Vorhanden or present-at-hand as I am walking with my mother. This transition Heidegger (1927) described with the analogy of hammering, when the hammering goes smoothly, one is unaware of the hammer, until there is a disruption. It is this disruption that raises awareness and prompts contemplation.
Experiencing Specific Situations by Walking with my Mother, an Elderly
Crossing the Street
We just got off the bus, and are about to cross the road. The walk light is on, we can cross, so I think, but my mother is moving slower than I thought. By the time we make it to the crossing the light has turned. There is hardly any traffic. In my habitual mode, I would cross, but with my mother, it pays more to wait it out. Everything takes more time and effort. The physical distance seems longer. It reminds me of the temporary physical condition after one completes a marathon for the first time, when legs are stiff and walking hurts. It reminds me of traveling with small children, too. But small children you can pick up if you have to, carry them when they are tired or when you want to speed things up. It reminds me of traveling with a big heavy suitcase, with broken wheels, fragile content and full of memories.
The light turns, we get to cross. We are faced with stairs, an obstacle that slows us down. We could walk up a nearby ramp, but it is a bit out of the way. We move to the side of the stairs so that my mother can hold on to a handrail, and we start going up, one step at a time. Distances are not merely defined by the physical distance the here and there, but also by what is in-between, a point made by Toombs (1995) in her account of the lived experience of disability. As Toombs’ multiple sclerosis progressed, her physical capacities have been altered in a number of ways, which gradually went from walking with a cane, to crutches, a walker, and a wheelchair or battery operated scooter for mobility. This has affected her lived experience with what used to be “near” has become “far,” what used to be “effortless” has become “effortful,” and what used to be easily accessible has become more difficult and at times inaccessible. Stairs have become obstacles and finally insurmountable if an elevator malfunctions. Through her loss of mobility, the world is experienced as overtly obstructive and non-accommodating.
Arrival at the Station
Though the station is a place with large crowds of people, I rarely experience crowding—the subjective feeling that there are too many people. This is in part because I expect large crowds, I am habituated to them, and because people move through this space with high efficiency. People know where they are going and they know how to walk. I do not feel impeded by other people or that I am impeding other people. The experience of crowding sets in when one no longer sees order in the crowd, or when others move too slowly or too quickly for one’s comfort level. Like driving at one’s comfortable speed, until encountering a slow moving vehicle ahead that is in the way, or a fast moving vehicle from behind that comes too close. Traffic seems slow when the roads are familiar, fast when they are not. Perceived traffic speed also depends on the car. My late grandmother used to refer to herself as a car fit for the scrap heap—as if to say she was no longer roadworthy on the road of life as her bodily kinesthetic abilities declined. Merleau-Ponty (1962) provides two conceptualizations of the body: the body as a subject, part of the self, and the body as an object, part of the world. It seemed that my grandmother was beginning to experience her body less as a subject able to act upon the world, and more as an object, a potential burden to herself and others. It is a twofold frustration. There is the frustration of not being able to move oneself in the way one wishes and the world appears full with obstacles, and there is the frustration that one begins to feel like an obstacle to others. Traveling with a big heavy suitcase with broken wheels on the subway on my way to or from the airport makes me feel that way. As a “body-with-a-suitcase “subject, I feel less able, despite my best efforts a move much slower. In addition to the physical challenge with the added baggage, there is also an increased cognitive load (c.f. Sweller 1988), as I have to factor the suitcase with every move I make in navigating the environment. This makes the trip mentally more challenging as well. As a “body-with-a-suitcase” object, I become more of an obstacle, I move much slower holding up other people, I take up much more space blocking other people, and among the many commuters, I feel very much in the way and out of place. But at least, it is only a temporary condition, and people are generally understanding and forgiving. It is obvious why I am moving slower and less able to get out of people’s way. Rules are relative and bend for people if they have visible legitimate excuses. If not, they are more likely to get bumped (such as the person from Milgram’s quote), or receive a sigh or eye-roll (such as a person on a smartphone oblivious to the surrounding).
My mother represents the aging population of so many industrialized nations. Japan in particular is one of the most rapidly aging nation in the world and in history with an estimated population of 22% over 65 and 10% over 75 (Uesugi 2014). The World Health Organization’s Global Age-Friendly City Initiative includes physical features as part of a supportive environment as an essential part of productive aging (Mui 2014). Tokyo is among the cities that have made those implementations reflected in the built environment. There have been some changes from what I remember growing up. The city has become more “barrier-free” and more accessible to people of different abilities for whom steps may literally be a roadblock, particularly when on wheels, whether with a stroller (Imamichi 2014), wheelchair, or suitcase. Buses have become “non-step” or low-floor buses that can be boarded without climbing steps. Some stairs can be circumvented with ramps, while other stairs are alongside escalators and elevators. If societies are judged by how we treat the weak and the elderly, then based on the architectural and design improvements, there has been some progress.
The world seems to have become a more caring place. Such changes in accessibility have made the world more child-friendly, elderly-friendly, and friendlier to people with different abilities. It allows them to move more freely. A “disability” can occur at any time to anyone. It can occur gradually or suddenly, brought by injuries, disease, or aging. Some disabilities may be permanent, others be temporary that recede through rest and recovery, healing and maturation. In a sense a “disability” is a matter of degree, to what extent one’s ability is limited. It may not be just a matter of whether or not one can walk, but how fast, how long, how stable one is on one’s feet, and what kind of support is needed. The ability to interact effectively with the environment depends on the person, as much of the environmental competence literature has focused on (Steele 1980; Pederson 1999), but also on the environment, a point made by Lantermann (1976). One’s being-in-the-world depends on the ability of moving-through-the-world. The ability of moving-through-the-world depends on the environment with its enabling and disabling features, as well as the tools, such as canes, walkers, or wheelchairs, and also other people stepping aside or lending a hand that mediate the relationship between person and environment. Walking with my mother allows me to put myself into her shoes, imagine myself a few decades from now, feel a sense of appreciation of my current abilities, and develop a greater sympathy for people with different abilities.
Passing Through the Ticket Gates
I remember there was a time when it was necessary to go to a ticket vending machine and purchase the appropriate ticket in order to enter the ticket gate at the departure station and exit the ticket gate at the destination station. While it is still possible to go to that route, there is now a much simpler alternative: The Suica—the Super urban intelligent card: a rechargeable fare smart card that lets you directly proceed to the ticket gate and hold the card over a card reader, no need to take it out of your wallet. It is a great hassle and time saver for everyone. The benefits feel even greater when I think of my mother. No need to figure out your fare by looking at a gigantic map of the Tokyo transit system. I recall a childhood episode with my father and I when he was looking at the fare map and telling me the destination asking me to figure it out saying “I can’t see it, my eyes are bad.” My response was “I can’t read it, my head is bad” because I did not know the particular kanji or Chinese characters that corresponded to that particular destination, and it was before the time when Roman letters were added to the fare maps. But even with good eyes and head, it can be challenging to figure out the fare, a process that can be bypassed with the Suica. No need to divert to the vending machine. No need to take out and open your wallet to take out money to insert into the ticket vending machine. No need to select the appropriate ticket, pick up the ticket and the change. I remember how I hated it when I needed to break a ¥1000 bill ($10) for ¥160 ticket, and having to retrieve all the change and fill up my wallet, something that would be a much greater hassle for my mother, who would also have juggle her cane. But with the Suica, no need to deal with change, hold on to ticket, to go to the ticket gate insert ticket at one end of the ticket gate, pass through ticket gate, pick up ticket at the other end of the ticket gate, and hold on to ticket until your destination station ticket gate. The potential for errors and the risks of dropping your wallet or money, and losing your ticket are also greatly reduced.
Riding an Escalator
Traveling with my mother, small children, or a big heavy suitcase are reminders that escalators can be a potential hazard: as one steps on the moving stairs, one has to make sure to step onto the middle of the steps, not on the border between the steps that eventually separate. One has to time it right to catch that middle of the steps part, or make the adjustments in time before they steps separate. The sudden acceleration has to be considered when getting on the steps, which require adjusting one’s balance as one is slightly pulled backwards. The sudden deceleration has to be considered when coming off the steps, which require adjusting one’s balance as one is slightly pushed forwards. This is something that I hardly notice, but am occasionally reminded of whenever I encounter a non-moving escalator. There is a strange sensation in my knees when stepping on it, because the body is so used to that backward pull when getting on, and that forward push when stepping off. The speed of the elevator never struck me as particularly fast. However, if the speed of the escalator is above one’s comfortable walking speed, the more potential challenge and risk. Stepping off the escalator requires keeping up with the speed of the escalator, not only to make a smooth transition from riding to walking, but also to clear the area. When it is crowded and hordes of people keep being delivered by the escalator, they would begin to pile up, if the landing is not cleared in time. I notice that my mother takes slightly bigger steps and moves slightly faster than usual in order to accommodate to the elevator. I am glad that she can still do it!
The platform is somewhat crowded and it gets more crowded as people are coming off the elevator, some are going to other places on the platform, others are staying lining up at the marked lines that feed passengers towards the train doors. The train arrives. The doors open, first people pour out, then people pour in. Something that I have taken for granted, before spending riding the New York City Subway. We make it onto the train and the compartment is somewhat crowded. All seat are taken, which normally would not be much of a problem, but being with my mother, I am wishing for a seat for her. Among the seated passengers busy on their smart phones, one of them quickly notices the old lady with the cane, and gives up his seat. The cane is not only a tool that aids walking, it is also a tool that may help to get a seat. It communicates that one is not completely secure on one’s feet and therefore may require a seat. That kind gesture of the passenger means a lot to me. It is not just because my mother gets to sit. It tells me that the world is a kind place with people looking out for my mother.
Riding an Elevator
Compared to the escalator, the elevator is much safer. Its location is sometimes harder to find, when situated away from the usual flow of traffic that streams towards the stairs and escalators. But we manage to locate the elevator. One enters one side, and exits on the other side. There is no need to do a “turn around” that makes it easier for strollers and wheelchairs. The elevator takes us to the middle of the platform, away from the stairs and escalators on either side. It is less crowded here. There are also benches to sit. But there is no need for that with trains arriving every few minutes, the next one less than a minute away, according to an announcement as well as a digital display. So we wait there standing. Timing is crucial. If we have a few minutes, it may be worth to sit, because standing can be tiring. However, when the train is coming soon, it may not be worth the trouble to move towards the bench, because sitting down and standing up is also a maneuver that can take some time and effort.
As predicted, the train arrives. The train doors open, we enter and there is priority seating adjacent to the door. Seats are available; my mother gets to sit near the door. Upon arriving at the destination, the train doors open near another elevator. Elevator-train door-priority seating-train door elevator- is a good synchronization of various tools, what Heidegger has called Werkzeugzusammenhang. It allows for a smooth transition. Someone must have thought of that! When every step counts, when you want to minimize effort, time, and risk, these design features are appreciated! It is not just because my mother is afforded a smooth transition. It tells me that the world is a caring place with designs looking out for my mother and my future self that allow us to keep going a little longer. All this I only noticed walking with my mother.
This article explored the experiences of walking with my mother, an elderly that allowed for an understanding of an urban environment from a different perspective with its various social and physical features that potentially enable or disable moving through the environment.
Present findings might be further refined with future research that could explore similar walks with different people and in different locations and under different conditions (e.g., during rush hour, in the rain).
The limitations of this present approach are that it is strongly based on a younger person’s view moving through a modern city. This may be supplemented by an approach with more emphasis on perceptual phenomena. Such approach could include simulating low visual and auditory abilities of elderly through wearing of muddy glasses and earplugs, or limiting gross motor movements and fine motor skills through wearing body suits and gloves. Another approach could be more directly focused on older persons’ view of moving through the city such as recording the person’s comments while walking or interviewing the person related to a video of that person’s walk in a city.
The practical usefulness of the present results for designing more age-appropriate and inclusive environments is that they show the way people interact with the environment and what aspects are impacting the moving through the environment. Another practical usefulness is for promoting a better understanding about how older people experience their world and for promoting a more empathetic way of caring for older people—through walking.
The author thanks Dr. Rebio Diaz and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.
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