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In a Lisbon senior day center, the staff and especially the elderly members care for each other in ways that expand upon the neoliberal assumptions of active aging campaigns in Portugal. Theatre plays, and communal watching of the video-recordings of these events are an occasion for intersubjective intra- and inter-generational sense-making. As such these visual activities are an important element of the communal care, where late life, loss, friendship but also Portugal itself is constantly re-imagined.

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  • 1 All names have been changed.

1“Ah, Maria do Céu!”1 Sónia exclaimed. Projected onto Lisbon’s Santinhas Senior Day Center’s blank wall was a homemade film by the Center staff. Maria do Céu had died a couple years prior. Sónia, one of the younger members of the Center, continued: “So many people have died. And that’ll be us next.”

2We sat watching old Center videos and photography slideshows from the last few years, an occasional post-lunch activity. I awkwardly started: “Oh, no, not necessarily…” and Sónia thankfully cut me off. “Yes, dear. We are all going to die someday, some of us sooner than others.” She squeezed my hand and smiled. She got up and grabbed her purse, kissed me on the cheek, and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow?” I lamented that I wasn’t going to be able to come tomorrow, but that I would be back in a week or two. “I’ll see you then,” I said. She replied, “Se Deus quiser” – God willing.


  • 2 “White-Portuguese” refers to Portuguese people who are of Portuguese and otherwise European descent (...)

3The Santinhas Senior Day Center is a parochial Monday through Friday, nine-to-five center that provides food and activities, free healthcare biweekly, and a host of other on-site and in-home services for elderly members of the Santinhas neighborhood in Lisbon, as well as meals for unhoused and otherwise disenfranchised folks in the community (Miguel 2015). Close to the Tejo River, Santinhas is a smaller area of the now upper middle-class, predominately white-Portuguese2 and white-immigrant neighborhood of Santana. The Center has served as a public health haven to community members in need since the early-mid 20th century. It is funded by the state, the church, and private donations.

4Most of the elderly in this area are working to middle class white Portuguese people, many of whom are disabled and financially precarious women. Membership at the Center is calculated based on pension income, and is often lowered or waived depending on people’s financial means. The members generally present themselves as heterosexual, and sexuality beyond this is rarely discussed as the culture of their generation (and even still around Portugal) is decidedly Catholic. The overwhelming majority of active members are women, as men’s membership fluctuates more.

  • 3 My ongoing doctoral research project explores the politics of touch, gender, grief, the normalizati (...)

5Many members have lived in this neighborhood all their lives. A slight majority of the members live alone, but a significant portion live with one or a few family members. Likewise, the support that members receive from their families varies widely. Prior to the pandemic, there were typically thirty elderly folks at the Center on any given day. In-person services were shuttered during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the center re-opened its doors to the community in June of 2021, typically ten or so members attend, but it is growing slowly. I have been conducting my doctoral ethnographic fieldwork research at this Center on and off since 2017, with various interruptions, especially because of the pandemic. My methods in this fieldsite have been wholly qualitative, conducting semi-structured interviews and participant observation in the field.3

  • 4 All Santinhas Senior Day Center videos in this paper are display by screenshot images, with Vimeo l (...)

6In this paper, I show how intimate relationships built on communal care are integral to the everyday life at the Santinhas Senior Day Center. By communal care, I mean care that is mutual and horizontal and challenges socially and historically contextual hierarchies (but does not entirely disrupt them). The use of visual media by staff for elderly members complicates and deepens the significance of care. Filming and photographing daily life and events4 - to both keep an active archive of the Center’s activities and goings on, and to refresh the members’ memories - allows for an intersubjective self-making. Confronted communally with images of the self and of each other, the members and staff reflect on their relationships to each other, to care, to loss, and to their own mortality. In turn, this presents an opportunity to reimagine what it means to be Portuguese, especially for the women members, in terms both inclusive and exclusionary. This creates the conditions of possibility for an intersubjective notion of a “good life” which improves upon the one imagined by and inscribed in the state’s active and autonomous aging campaigns (Muehlebach 2012; Lamb 2017, 2019; Fernández-Ballesteros et al 2021). At the same time, these communal screenings provide depth to the way bodily changes and corporeal decline associated with aging are perceived through a gendered lens (Lock 1993; Lamb 2000; Calasanti and King 2017; Wehrle 2020). Altogether, communal care, especially among the elderly themselves, allows us to consider new ways of being together in old age, while reconfiguring social relations, everyday intimacy, and visual methods used by our own interlocutors.

Active Aging as a Neoliberal Health Imperative in Portugal

  • 5 See also: Estes, Biggs and Phillipson 2003; Kaufman et al 2004; Leibing 2005.

7Active aging is a contemporary neoliberal and gerontological response to a globally growing elderly population. Anthropologist Sarah Lamb describes the values involved with the biopolitical desire for active seniors as: “(1) individual agency and control; (2) the value of maintaining independence and avoiding dependence; (3) the merit of activity; and (4) a vision of permanent personhood or not aging at all, while pursuing the goals of agelessness and avoiding oldness” (Lamb et al 2017: 7). Ageism and ableism are the basis for the norms of active or healthy or successful aging, something at once moral, medical and governmental – “what could be called a contemporary biopolitics of aging – remaking potentially frail, dependent elders into active, fit, productive, ageless adults” (Lamb et al 2017: 12; Berridge and Martinson 2018; Fernández-Ballesteroset al 2021; Lamb 2019; van der Horst and Vickerstaff 20215). Set in contrast to active aging, to age “poorly” is an individual failure, rather than a result of social inequality.

8Portugal has the fourth highest elderly population per capita in the world, after Japan, Italy, and Finland (United Nations 2019). The insistence on active aging programs, housing protections, and public geriatric healthcare reflect the state’s fears about the future of healthcare and pensions for its aging population (Instituto de Segurança Social 2004; Muehlebach 2012; Bárrios and Fernandes 2015; Valente de Almeida et al 2018; Fernandes et al 2021). This perception of the elderly as a group at risk was particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when seniors were at the forefront of the country’s mass vaccination campaign (Costa et al 2021).

9The Portuguese state has aspired to the ideals of active aging, while to some extent failing to reach these ideals in practice. Portugal’s approach to active aging is synthesized in the “Estratégia Nacional Para Envelhecimento Ativo e Saudável (ENEAS),” or National Strategy for Active and Healthy Aging (2017-2025)” (Proposta 2017). ENEAS promotes active and healthy aging as important for the maintenance of the elderly as productive citizens and thus the state itself. This is seen in the way the ENEAS, following the World Health Organization 2002 guidelines (WHO 2002), defines the term “active” as: “the ongoing participation in social, economic, cultural, spiritual, and civic life…” (2017: 8; my translation). The ENEAS charges the elderly with the responsibility to offset the financial burdens of their own aging and to contribute to “future development.” Older people are invited to continue “to work, when they wish and are able… [and to access] education programs and training” (2017:9; my translation). While this approach gives agency and control to seniors as independent actors, the ENEAS lays out explicitly that the goal is to “promote and facilitate [their] contribution… to break the… barriers that prevent their participation in society” (2017: 9-10; my translation). The Portuguese state emulates the biopolitical regime of active aging, as discussed by Lamb, above: the state allows people to age, but only within particular – and productive – parameters, that avoids overall dependence.

10The active aging policy perspective provides jobs for caregivers and other elder care professionals, creating more for-profit facilities and more funds or subsidies for non-profits (such as Catholic institutions and centers, like my fieldsite) and public facilities and institutions that also provide elder care. It also creates more tax revenue by creating new laborers that will fund the (often meager) pensions of aging citizens. As a result, the state can capitalize on the aging of the population, transforming senior citizens into contributors, rather than mere beneficiaries of the economic system.

  • 6 The care apparatus of the Portuguese state, including the Catholic model, is outside the scope of t (...)
  • 7 Structural violence, abuse, and neglect still exist in public, private, and Catholic social care ce (...)

11Moreover, Portugal’s culturally Catholic moral sense of care, interdependence, and charity is imbued within the neoliberal state policies, so that Catholic care is another arm of the state’s care apparatus, providing elder care where the state is lacking.6 The state has thus erected a neoliberal structure of outsourcing elder care to private institutions, maintaining a for-profit discourse for active aging (even in non-profits, like Catholic care centers). But putting that discourse into practice is unattainable, not least because of the lack of resources and that the implementation occurs outside of the state’s direct purview. There is little oversight of elder care within this structure, especially in Catholic centers and institutions because of an assumption that Catholic care is “doing good works,” leaving room for creativity in care as well as abuse and neglect (though a lack of oversight and supervision, and its consequences, is present in all types of care institutions).7 Furthermore, the neoliberal rhetoric underlying the active aging model promoted by the state does little to address the quotidian practical challenges of the elderly in elder care institutions, more generally. In contrast, my fieldsite, the Santinhas Senior Day Center, constitutes a space in which care can be inscribed into community, and vice versa, in varying ways that are discovered, tried out, and managed in practice (Mol et al 2010, emphasis mine).

  • 8 Coe and Alber’s term “age-inscription” derives from a different one, “kin-scripts” which Carol Stac (...)

12As such, the Center is a space of “age-inscription” – a term coined by Cati Coe and Erdmute Alber to denote an ongoing process of changing cultural scripts for old age. Age-inscriptions are different than norms, because they are neither dominant nor standardized and they are rarely articulated at a discursive (speech) level (although they may become such in the future) (2018: 3). Inscriptions emerge when existing norms do not provide adequate (or provide contradictory) answers to the practical challenges that people face due to ongoing social change (Coe and Alber 2018: 1). For example, age-inscriptions may arise in the context of rapidly increasing longevity, mobility, and migration, especially when these are accompanied by a lack of clear transitory markers between various phases of late adulthood (e.g., between the “young old” and “old old”).8 In Portugal in recent decades, norms such as elder care as the responsibility of adult children, the security of good pensions, or shorter lifespans, have changed dramatically. Thus, a state neoliberal health structure that is insistent on active aging from an ableist, capitalist-productive and thus hardly realistic lens, is one that inadvertently leaves space for new practices and creative problem-saving. In the context of the Center, set in a rapidly changing and gentrifying neighborhood in Lisbon, the changes associated with daily life within the process of aging have also altered the Center itself, triggering new age-inscriptions – and as a result, have also generated new practices which contrast the governmental “active aging” model by being more flexible, but less visible and discursively organized.

13Interdependent and communal age-inscription happens at the Center in a multitude of ways, and at multiple levels. Here, I use the concept of “age-inscription” to show how theater, video, photography, and screenings become part of the contemporary process of aging, creating new ways of being and aging together. The Center not only provides other ways to meet members’ needs and thus pragmatically respond to new issues, but it also creates new ways of aging, thus reappropriating and re-interpreting the state’s ideas on how to age well. It does this through its use of visual media to fill the gaps, to support its members through personal hardship and celebratory joy, illness and disability, grief and mourning, and to cultivate collective memory and a sense of belonging.

Active Aging at the Santinhas Senior Day Center

14The Center fosters an intersubjective self-making that provides a more expansive view of active aging, one that lends itself to a good life at old age. It collectively accepts individuals as they are, active or not, without attempting to lower any dependence on state or other resources (Corwin 2020). Activities are meant to bring members together to combat loneliness and improve cognition, and the Center (either on-site or in-home care support) provides daily necessities such as food, hygiene care, help paying bills, dispensing pharmaceuticals, and in some cases also counselling, advocacy, and patient support. The Center, communally, creates and cultivates a space of belonging, and it functions because of and in spite of differences amongst the members, treating them as individuals while creating and maintaining the conditions for the possibility of community.

15In the Santinhas Senior Day Center, the goal of such an arrangement is to nurture autonomy that is based in a sense of interdependence and community, one that does not have as its objective any expressed productive aspect beyond that, similar to other related forms of age-inscription found in the anthropological literature (Myerhoff 1978; Vesperi 1985; Lock 1993; Cohen 1998; Leibing 2005; Muehlebach 2012; Lamb 2017; Corwin 2017, 2020). Members can leave whenever they choose. There is a side room off the activities room for those who want to sit and relax or nap. They can also alternate home visits or food delivery with attendance at the Center, and take meals home. The significant advantage of such a model lies in the fact that care is provided without the total restructuring of the lives of the elderly (Vesperi 1985).

16Two of the three head directors, Fernanda (administrative and finance director, the Director) and Isabel (activities director) are not professionally trained in public health or elder care. They met over a decade ago when they worked together at a museum, Fernanda having focused on tourism and Isabel focused on fine arts and education. They view elder care from a flexible and creative standpoint that is not limited to using specific methods or reaching specific goals for a standard senior day center. They focus on the quality of life of members, as opposed to biomedical ideals of health in old age, which they view as sometimes arbitrary. For example, they allow members to drink wine at lunch, regardless of perceived individual health consequences. The third director, Mariana, is the staff social worker and director of social support, who often has an intern in tow. The Center’s official director, Father Mateus, is absent from the Center’s daily life. The staff also includes two chefs, two motorists (white men), and home caregivers who also sometimes provide support at the Center, in the kitchen or with members. Most office staff members are white middle to upper-middle class women, while most other staff are working to middle class women, the majority of whom are immigrants from former Portuguese colonies, some of whom are women of color.

17The Center provides space for the messy reality of life at old age. The staff are pragmatically trying to help members survive and thrive in their own ways. Part of this is to put emphasis on the importance of community. One way the Center creates a communal sense of belonging is by presenting opportunities for diversion, such as theatrical performance and communal screenings of the Center’s own visual media. Prior to the pandemic, the staff would record special activities, events, and holidays; put together slideshows of day trips from their photographs of places like the beach or at the famous Fátima Catholic pilgrimage site about an hour and a half outside of Lisbon).

18The act of watching and discussing these plays together allows for each person to reflect upon their own selves and their relationships with each other. It also provides a framework for the emergence and transfiguration of caring relations: as anthropologist Steven Black tells us: “… the morality/ethics of care is afforded by the capacity for intersubjectivity, a capacity that is encoded in language and structured by conversational exchange” (2018: 84). An ethic of care based in the mutual recognition among the elderly as agential subjects may help to move away from loneliness in the process of aging – a pillar of healthy aging. The context of the Center also exemplifies Cheryl Mattingly’s notion of “moral laboratories” as peoples’ understandings and interventions into their own moral worlds are constantly changing and adapting, reconfiguring the moral and social underpinnings of everyday life through language and interpersonal relationships (Mattingly 2014; Mattingly and Throop 2018).

19At the Center, significance is placed on the quality of relational care fostered in that very process, and the friendships that are built and sustained from it. A more free and flexible social space is thus created, generating the conditions for a sustained practice of intersubjective self-making by cultivating shared and differing identities via the plays and the videos, and by keeping alive the memory of those lost. The participation in these activities (and even their refusal) is one way that keeps the elderly members involved in their own care, as opposed to alienating them from it. This serves to empower them as a community and as individuals, changing how they view themselves and each other. In this way, they are able to co-construct and maintain, through ebbs and flows, a good life together in community.

Creative Community-Making in Elder Life

20Making and remaking art as a communal activity can foster an imagined good life and construction of identity in old age (Kaufman 1986; Viegas and Gomes 2007), similar to Anne Basting ’s work on “creative care” (2020). She defines creative care as: “the tension between the words [creative care] calls attention to the generative nature of one and the depleting qualities of the other. By its very definition, creativity is new and valued. Care seems the opposite, defined by loss, devalued at every turn, pulling down economic productivity and inhibiting generativity… (2020: 55)”. For Basting, it is only when we add the qualifier “creative” to care that care becomes the space of relational meaning-making capable to “add something new and valuable to the world” (2020: 55). Though I admire and support Basting’s efforts to dissociate late life from passivity, I find problematic her treatment of care as the antonym of creativity, and as a practice that inhibits generativity – a notion that, I argue, undervalues care. Bringing artistic practices, including theater and performance as play, reifies notions of old age much as it serves to undermine them. In contrast to her argument, anthropologists have long demonstrated that care is generative of new meanings and relations (Taylor 2008; Mol et al 2010; Barnes 2012; Nakamura 2013a, 2013b; Bellacasa 2017; Buch 2015, 2018; Warren and Sakellariou 2020; Kontos et al 2021; Ryan 2021).

21Zygmunt Bauman also prompts us to consider how not only all care relations but indeed all lives are creative: “To cut a long story short: you must have believed you are an artist able to create and shape things as much as you yourself might be a product of that creation and shaping… The proposition ‘life is a work of art’ is not a postulation or an admonition… but a statement of fact” (Bauman 2008: 52-53). Via material conditions and both individual and collective agency, people are able to make up a “reality in accordance with their chosen vision of the ‘good life’” (2008: 53). Bauman also uses Ricoeur and Foucault to show that realities and identities are formed, made up of “happenings” and “installations,” which are fluid, unstable, and in flux over time. For him, “the ‘art of life’ may mean different things to the members of older and younger generations, but they all practise [sic] it and can’t possibly not,” (2008: 56). Communal creative action and storytelling reify notions of a collective generational identity that performs while it enacts a sense of belonging to each other and to a shared history within a regional setting. This is the case for senior members at the Santinhas Senior Day Center, which I will return to in the next section (Myerhoff 1978; Robbins 2019).

22For Isabel, encouraging creativity as part of her job in daily activities at the Center provides a way for the senior members to support each other, imagine and co-create worlds together, and recognize each other’s dignity via intimate mutual vulnerability. This has the potential of enacting a space of care, however fraught it may sometimes be when anxiety (as well as criticism) about performance and capability are present. Her focus on fostering community through art is an invitation for members to participate and to belong, acknowledging each person’s abilities and limitations, and is aligned with a politic of mutual care. Isabel describes her work as gratifying on a deep level, seeing her work as equally valuable for herself as for the elderly members that she works with daily. She views it as difficult but engaging work for herself as well as others – supporting the members’ use of memory in games and in play rehearsals, keeping everyone involved and engaged simultaneously, though they may have different needs, such as those with mobility issues, dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, hearing loss, or vision loss. With patience, Isabel designs activities that challenge the members, and she feels fulfilled when she sees them try new things, or when new members come out of their shells.

23Cultivating self-confidence and esteem is tantamount to Isabel’s work, though at the same time, her expectations are based on the members’ expectations for themselves, meeting them where they are. This has been especially central to her work during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which many members became (more) depressed, irritated, and isolated, their chronic illnesses and addictions worsened because of the lack of consistent medical care and social support. Her positionality allows her to imagine her own futurity as an elderly woman, hoping that there will be new things for her to learn as well. As activities director, play director, and video director, the visual archive is constructed through Isabel’s eyes, incorporating hers as an eye in flux in the making of the Center’s videos (Rouch 2003).

24The Center staff and the members alike enjoy games, arts and crafts, and physical activity every week. However, the issue of infantilization, central to ageism and ableism, remains at times (Berridge and Martinson 2018; van der Horst and Vickerstaff 2021). Disagreements or annoyances between members, or even behaviors, are sometimes viewed as childish by staff, and some activities performed could also be done with children, such as drawing and coloring, word games, practicing penmanship and other motor skills, etc. However, as Isabel explained, these activities provide opportunities for elderly who often were not able to do them in their own childhoods, such as those who labored with family and did not attend school (there are indeed some illiterate members), or for those who enjoy the challenge of puzzles or the relaxation achieved through art. Though it is important to keep a critical gaze on play and infantilization (Vesperi 1985), it is also important to see play as something necessary for humanity across the life course (Kontos et al 2021; Ryan 2021), which is in and of itself a refusal of neoliberal capitalism’s insistence on work and productivity for profit.

Visualizing Collective Memory and Reifying Community Identity

25Before the pandemic, the feast day of Santo António (Saint Anthony), Lisbon’s patron saint suffused the city with the sounds of music, conversation, laughter, drunken tears (the festival is affectionately referred to simply as “Santos”). These festive weeks of June in Lisbon have always been a central activity in the summer, something that many Lisboetas (or Lisbon-born people) look forward to all year. In 2016, my interlocutors at the Center put on a play entitled, “Santinhas Centro – Teatro de Verão 2016,” or “Summer Play 2016” (see video 1), invoking the memories of this annual celebration during their youth in their neighborhood (Santinhas) and civil parish (formerly Madragoa, now Lua) to an audience primarily made up of other seniors, also from Madragoa. In one of my visits to the Center after it reopened in 2021, Isabel and I hosted a communal screening of this play that became a focus group of sorts.

  • 9 A historically complex genre of music with working-class and Black roots. It is characterized by an (...)
  • 10 Video password: AnthroVision2022.

26In the video, the play opens with the storytellers (members) taking their seats on benches. Mariana, the social worker, enters all in gold, to introduce the history of Madragoa, the formerly working-class fishing and industrial area on the river. She emphasizes that Madragoa is a diverse and multicultural area of Lisbon where many Black immigrants settled. The storytellers interject at parts to replicate voices from the streets. They tell various stories; Conceição, in the middle on the left bench, shares about how she would blow air into the fish she was selling, so that they would look fatter and more appetizing. After Mariana leaves the makeshift “stage” (in the activities room), Isabel and Fernanda come in as lost tourists on a hot day, who sit to learn about Madragoa and the Santo António festival from the storytellers. After a few stories, Pilar enters to sing a fado9 song, and finally, there is dancing and singing of the “marchas,” marching songs and dances traditionally performed by women, to celebrate saint feast days. The video ends with Isabel thanking the staff and members who are responsible for putting on the play.10

Theater on a makeshift stage 1

Theater on a makeshift stage 1

Isabel, staff, and members of Santinhas Senior Day Center


Video 1: Santinhas Centro - Teatro de Verão 2016

Video 1: Summer play from 2016, about the “Santos” feast celebrations in the members’ neighborhood, in their youth. 

Credits : Isabel, staff, and members of Santinhas Senior Day Center

Video link:​831007725

  • 11 I am referring to the Estado Novo (New State) dictatorial regime in Portugal, which lasted from 193 (...)

28Upon watching themselves perform in this video, Bernadette, who sat on the very left of the bench on the right side, felt that she was still looking at a youthful version of herself from five years prior. It was like “living our yesterday” all over again, she said. Remembering the period of time encapsulated in this play illustrated the depth of a Portuguese gendered identity constituted by these dances and festivals, and reified them by acting them out in the present moment. Being well-dressed and skilled in crafts, quick on one’s feet in dance and quick-witted with potential suitors, enduring pranks from competing dance troupes showed a commitment to performing one’s Portugueseness and associated ideals of femininity against the political landscape11 in which they grew into adulthood. When Anita, a younger Angolan-Portuguese senior, reflected on these festivals, she was interrupted by an older, white member, Paula: “You were growing up in Angola, how would you know?” Anita retorted that she came long enough ago that she remembered these traditions, that they still existed, and that she also knew the “real” Santinhas neighborhood, in the “real” civil parish of Lua. The attempt at racialized and aged gatekeeping by Paula reproduced the ideal of a past Portugueseness that was dominant, white, and colonial (an ideal that continues to be alive and well).

29Watching this recording also reified dominant ideals of the previous Estado Novo dictatorship that valued(s) whiteness and immaculate femininity as a nostalgic past, yet equally valued youth and old age. Mariana’s insistence on the diversity and Blackness while introducing the civil parish’s history is significant, it “sets the record straight,” as it were. Black folks like Anita have always belonged, have always found joy in this community and its events. Paula’s response shows the racism and xenophobia that plagued their daily lives, then and now. The play and the Center itself (with its own photographic archive on its walls of its time as a public health center during the dictatorship) firmly contextualize the space, the neighborhood, and its people, as a historicized landscape of collective memory and elder belonging (Myerhoff 1978; Bauman 2008; Robbins 2019; Thelen and Coe 2019), both gendered and racialized.

30The “saudade” (feeling of longing, loss, and desire) they felt when performing the play came back with an emotional force during the screening and discussion. They mourned the loss of these rituals and festival activities to what is now a more generic, commercialized event in the wake of mass tourism. In terms of the Center, many noted how they missed socializing and meeting with more people, as it still operates on reduced capacity due to the ongoing pandemic. They yearned for the conditions that would allow them to perform plays again, in spite of their memories of stage fright and anxiety. Bernadette stated that she had forgotten the details and the colors in the play, pointing out the paper flowers they had made as props. Watching herself speak and dance in the play, she remembered what she had been capable of doing, what she is still capable of. Paula, who has since passed away, remarked that she preferred performing for children because it feels like one is teaching something, and they are more receptive to the play’s message. Miranda, a newer member, lamented that she missed these opportunities, and would have liked to participate in them herself. Isabel assured her that someday soon they should be able to do a play, though it would need to be a smaller production.

31Pilar lit up as she watched herself sing fado. She remembered how her voice was not in good form that day because she had been having issues with her throat. She was, however, glad that she had lost weight since this particular play. In the play (and video), others began to join her in singing the famous song about their neighborhood, and she motioned for them to stop. This was her moment to shine, and hers alone. A sensitive, charming performer, Pilar adores the stage and takes any opportunity to appreciate the spotlight, sometimes to the annoyance of others.

32This reminds me of the late Barbara Myerhoff’s work at a Jewish senior center, in which “Even the very active, energetic people came more alive when looked at. An opportunity for attention made them shine. An interview, a camera, a tape recorder, or simply an ear, any indication that a record was being made of their existence vitalized them” (Myerhoff 1978: 144). The staff made sure to give everyone care and attention, and members gave the same to each other. Isabel’s use of recordings, such as Video 1, is a way to give members attention from each other, to encourage empathy, humor, and love. Even other staff stopped in to laugh, remember, and mourn the dead and those who have moved on to live in nursing homes or with family far away. It is also a tool to help members remember what they have accomplished since they joined (such as performance, crafting, flexibility, enhanced mobility, etc.).

33Videos, like photographs, are active within social relationships. Videos maintain, reproduce and articulate shifting relations between people as they interact with them (Edwards 2006). In showing us how the photographic lens was a present modality which helped mourn his father’s death, anthropologist Paolo Favero tells us: “Bringing stories in touch with images, this space brings me in touch with those I lost, connecting my past with my present. They offer me a door to enter their world, stitching life and death into a continuum with no before and no after, no beginning and no end” (Favero 2018: 119). Images join varying feelings together - sometimes ambivalent, conflicting, or unconscious – thus helping to maintain attachment to those who have passed on, and to inspire stories that keep memories alive in some form or another.

34The acts of performing theater, making and screening videos, and perusing photographs expand upon the state’s active aging rhetoric. They function as ongoing processes of intersubjective self-making. Members seek commonality and (re)produce collective memories of belonging via the agentive force of desired community building (as shown above). In the process, some also challenge Portuguese political and collective belonging (as shown by the exchange between Anita and Paula). Moreover, the preparation for performance mobilizes many skills. The members gain mental and physical health benefits from doing this work of theater and of screening followed by discussion. But, in a challenge to the state, they do not produce these plays and videos, and reflect upon them, for the sake of productivity in old age. They do so in order to strengthen bonds with one another and to build community, with no discernible interest in living longer or contributing to society at large.

Coming to Terms with Aging and Loss through Center Screenings

  • 12 Video password: AnthroVision2022.

35The Santinhas Senior Day Center puts on a biannual play, often for the parish’s preschool children - one in the summer, as we saw in the previous video (in July), and then a Christmas play in December. Video 2 presents the Christmas play from 2015 - “Santinhas Centro - Teatro Natal Circo 2015” (Christmas Circus Play 2015). Isabel told me that she was tired of the annual nativity play, so she broke away from the traditional telling of the Nativity.12

36The play starts out with Isabel standing in the middle of the stage, long pieces of construction paper in alternating colors draped along the wall, with a few balloons hanging in front. She asks the children how their holiday festivities at the preschool went, and what they are expecting for a Christmas play. One child shouts that the play is about the “velhotes,” or old people, and the audience of children laughs. Isabel corrects them and says that the play is actually a circus, a Christmas circus party for baby Jesus. Two of the elderly members acting as narrators, Bernadette and Kátia, enter stage left, and discuss what the play will be about – as a sort of prologue. Mafalda, an employee of the preschool who helps out musically in the Center’s plays, comes over to help Kátia face the audience. The construction paper is then lifted by Mafalda, revealing the elderly cast of the nativity scene (Mary, Joseph, an angel under a felt yellow star covered with tinsel, all standing around a doll in a manger). As Kátia and Bernadette move to the side of the stage, a number of Center members and staff perform circus acts for the baby Jesus. The play wraps up with the members and staff making a half circle facing the audience, singing “Jingle Bells” in Portuguese. The children cheer and clap, while Isabel introduces each group of performers, followed by more cheers and clapping, and a final round of applause for all. Isabel thanks the audience for coming, wishes everyone a happy Christmas, and the members and staff return to dancing and singing to Mafalda’s guitar.

37Enacting an opportunity to create something new and different, and to some seniors very unusual, was a way that the members could be vulnerable with each other while celebrating a central cultural holiday and telling a well-known story. Their vulnerability associated with being on stage, and performing and dancing with one another creates an embodied bond that requires a mutual recognition of this very vulnerability. This circus nativity play was more than just a play for the children, it was a process of mutual acknowledgement and support, deepening relationships and friendships, and cultivating a sense of self that included everyone else who took part in this communal experience. This contributes to a good life that is intersubjective in its mutuality and its cultivation of self-confidence – resulting in a form of active ageing that is productive solely to this community, as opposed to a productivity that benefits the state, writ large.


Video 2: Santinhas Centro - Teatro Natal Circo 2015

Video 2: A Christmas play in which Isabel and the members broke away from the traditional nativity scene to a circus theme; the actors did circus acts as gifts for the baby Jesus.

Credits : Isabel, staff, and members of Santinhas Senior Day Center

Video link:​831016512

  • 13 Video password: AnthroVision2022.

39In Video 3, “Santinhas Centro – Harlem Shake,” the Center staff hosted a dance party as aerobics for a standard day’s activity (around 2014-15). Isabel began recording when one of the members, Kátia, who had snatched someone else’s walker, sunglasses, and a bicycle helmet, sashayed into the spotlight. Isabel grabbed some costume pieces and props to spruce up the party. After filming, Isabel synced the song to the dancing, so that the video starts with Kátia as the focus, and the dance party is matched up with the “break down” in the song.13


Video 3: Santinhas Centro - Harlem Shake

Video 3: Dance party at the Center to “Harlem Shake.”

Credits : Isabel, staff, and members of Santinhas Senior Day Center

Video link:​831025981

41In late 2019, the elderly cracked up rewatching this video of themselves dancing and toe-tapping to the music. But in this video too, there are a number of people who have passed away, or who are now living in nursing homes or receive in-home care. While watching these home videos, some members muttered blessings to the souls of the dead, laughed at each other, reminisced, gossiped, gave each other compliments, and told stories to newer members. In doing so, they learned about each other, deepened their sense of community, and saw themselves through each other’s eyes.

42Kátia passed away a couple years ago after going into a nursing home. Her story with the Centro is quite unique in that she was one of the caregivers doing in-home care and Center support, and had worked there for around twenty years. Isabel joked that she, herself, will be a Center member in the future. She described Kátia as a kind-hearted and generous person, who had created intimate relationships with many people at the Center. Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of knowing her.

43Bernadette’s best friend and neighbor, Ursula, is in multiple videos that I have shown here. In Video 1, she sits in the middle on the bench on the right; in Video 2, she is the second clown, with a striped top and a multicolored umbrella. Ursula died in the spring of 2021, after suffering a massive heart attack in her bathroom, home alone in COVID-19 isolation (just one building over from Bernadette). Ursula was also very popular, and her death sent shockwaves throughout the Center. No one had anticipated her passing, as she was one of the younger seniors and had a jovial and energetic way about her. When I first came back to this fieldsite in June 2021, her death was the first thing I learned about.

44In Video 1, Ursula is seen prancing about the stage at the end of the play, in a dizzying hurl of hues red, yellow, and blue. When Isabel and I screened this video, no one said a word. When I asked what the elders thought about the play, and watching it again now, no one acknowledged Ursula, not even Bernadette. When the activity ended a while later, Isabel and I reflected on the strange absence of Ursula in the stories and memories of the others. Neither of us had wanted to force any discussion regarding her death. The members had chosen not to. The pain was too great. Grief is present in the Center like static electricity, invisible yet present in the air. The week before we screened Video 1, Bernadette and some other members remarked on the pictures, hung at eye level, that included people who had already passed away. They mused, wondering aloud what happened to some who had disappeared into nursing homes. They did the same as they watched the summer 2016 play.

45Being active members at this Center necessitates a relationship not only to passed loved ones, but to death itself. Even when death is not discussed, it is ever-present, as seen in the members’ discussions (and silence regarding Ursula) about the videos and photos. If nothing else, the consistent reminder of death as the result of old age and grief often makes living life more appealing – when experienced in community. The idea of aging actively in this Center is not solely something that entertains notions of living better as the state would define it, it also entertains a notion of dying better. Knowing that one will be grieved brings comfort to the fear of acknowledging death. This aspect of death and dying in this context challenges what active aging campaigns envision for their elder subjects.

Gender and the Embodiment of Mourning

46Death, at the Santinhas Senior Day Center, is not something most members avoid discussing, though some also demonstrate ambivalence and fear concerning both aging and death. As Sónia, introduced in the opening vignette, told me matter-of-factly, everyone dies. She is in her 70s and has conflicting positions and feelings regarding aging, death, mourning, and remembrance. She had recently passed by the Center to pick up lunch, and said that if Isabel took down the many pictures of those who had died, she would return to the daily lunch and activities. Sónia is one of many who had not returned when the Center reopened in late June 2021 (after COVID-19 vaccinations became available). She sometimes refuses to accept herself as a senior, while at the same time accepts services exclusively meant for seniors. How is this the same Sónia who told me that everyone dies, yet she does not want to see images of those who have passed away? Isabel shrugged, when I asked this question, and motioned that she is not quite “right in the head.” But I do think Sónia, in her conflicting feelings and stances, shows the ambivalence that comes with aging and dying for many people. Bauman notes: “However hard one tries to the contrary, life is lived in the company of uncertainty” (2008: 54). There is a desire to belong to a space with one’s peers and do fun activities, but then to shy away when what she desires also reveals to her the loss, mourning, and changes that come with aging. Watching the Center’s home videos or looking at photos helps (for better or for worse) to visualize change in elder life, creating a focus on the possibilities and limitations of old age, particularly for women, who often comment negatively on their own bodies, or compare themselves to a former version of themselves.

47As most members are either religiously or culturally Catholic and lived through the Estado Novo dictatorship until 1974 (in Portugal or in one of the former African colonies), belief in the afterlife is shared within the same logic, so that death is a fact of life that should not be particularly feared. Death is supposed to liberate the soul from this world. Jason Danely has described the Lacanian uncanny of old age and its mirrored, embodied self-reflection that can be an uncomfortable and alienating experience for an elderly person (2014). But through visual memory and relationships to deceased loved ones, this self-recognition can also be an “… entry into the imaginary, the ‘other world’ that offered solace and a sense of order to old age suspended between past and future selves” (Danely 2014: 184). Watching themselves age as friends disappear can be bittersweet, and it provides another intimate way to care for one another experiencing these complicated moments refracted in real time.

48During a Center mass on All Soul’s Day this year, the members recalled the memory of Ursula and of Glória, a deceased member who had had a series of severe strokes (both of whom had been recently admired in photographs). This remembrance introduced an opportunity for the members to care for one another: sitting closer and holding her hand, Bernadette comforted a teary Elvira as mass began. The acknowledgement of their deceased friends while practicing this holy day also reminded them that life and death are both fleeting and painstaking, causing them to reflect upon their own bodies and lives, and those of others. Ursula’s sudden death and Glória’s long declining health and mobility in between strokes were inherent in their memory at end-of-life, prompting Bernadette to offer her love and friendship to comfort and soothe Elvira (and vice versa).

49The community bonding related to the death of a member is one steeped in love. bell hooks’ influential and politically salient work in All About Love: New Visions ( hooks 2000) teaches us about the simplicity of love and loving, and intimate relationships against the backdrop of heteropatriarchal racial capitalism. She illuminates how love shines in a particular way in moments of death, grief, and mourning (as shown above). In caring for each other through mourning together, Center members extend their love for each other to their enduring love for those who have passed on, and as such, create a certain intimacy with death. Loving and spending time with one another leads to a deeper understanding of death in its immediacy. hooks’ statement here is emblematic of what I bore witness to at the Center: “Love is the only force that allows us to hold one another close beyond the grave. That is why knowing how to love each other is also a way of knowing how to die” (hooks 2000: 202).

50One afternoon, after watching videos of old plays on the projector, Isabel informed everyone that it was time for the afternoon snack. The members filed into the eating hall for bread, cheese, and espresso. Elvira got up slowly. She has a high arched back which brings her constant pain and discomfort, leading also to lopsided hips. She was not energized or delighted with the videos. She was frustrated, mired with anxieties about memory loss and insecurities about her body. Elvira is one of the darlings of the Center, popular with both members and staff alike, so I was surprised at her reaction. I took her arm in mine, and we strolled gently to the eating hall. She was shocked to have forgotten numerous activities, watching herself as if she was a phantom, wearing her body as a costume. For those with dementia or Alzheimer’s at the Center, the videos can be helpful and comforting, but as memory loss was new to Elvira, the experience was terrifying. Tears welled up in her eyes as she described this alienation as an effect of a recently diagnosed benign brain tumor. Elvira was a caregiver for much of her life, caring for her son, who was physically and mentally disabled, until he died in his 50s, and her husband who had previously died of cancer. Her curved back was a result of decades of physical and emotional care labor.

51She feared becoming an object of such care by a stranger. Isabel later told me that the staff think her anxiety about memory loss is what is actually causing it, not the tumor itself. But Elvira’s fears about being rendered dependent in a nursing home revealed other anxieties about becoming inactive and internally alone, despite the continuation of support and care by her friends at the Center. According to Isabel, Elvira’s “angústia,” or angst/agony about this possibility creates the conditions for this very possibility. The Center, through its official mission and purpose, serves only autonomous and active elders – but in reality, it continues to provide care for members through illness and disability, sometimes until death. Elvira’s fears reflect not only “the almost universal” aversion to “the look of old age” (Lowenthal 1985, cited from Higgs and Gilleard (2020:1624), but also the neoliberal pressures of the Portuguese state’s public health campaigns for “active” aging, troubling her very ability to remain active.

  • 14 Video password: AnthroVision2022.

52This conversation was revived again later, in late 2019, when she watched herself portray a little boy in the Center’s 2018 summer play for children, “Santinhas Centro – Teatro da Borboleta Branca” (“White Butterfly Play”; Video 4). The play tells the children’s book story of a white butterfly’s failed attempts to add color to her wings. The moral of the story is self-acceptance and confidence in oneself. Yet watching the recording in Video 4 did the opposite for Elvira.14

53The play (and the video) begins with Bernadette, the narrator, being led onto the stage by Isabel. A little girl from the community comes in as the white butterfly in the forest, lamenting her lack of color. She announces that she will try to add color to her wings to be beautiful. She tries to rub them onto a strawberry (Pilar), to no avail. She tries next to eat a rabbit’s (Conceição’s) orange carrot – nothing happens. She then runs into a boy (Elvira), who helps to paint color onto her wings. She is thrilled to feel beautiful. Ursula enters as a butterfly collector, trying to possess the butterfly’s newfound beauty. But as she does so, it rains (Adélia as the cloud), washing away the colors on her wings. Ursula’s character is no longer interested, and the butterfly is both thankful to escape the collector but devastated to lose the color she tried so hard to attain. When she sees her white wings in the light of the moon (Maria), she discovers that she is beautiful in her own way. She accepts herself for who she is and how she appears. Between each part, Mafalda plays guitar and sings a summary (with the actors) of what just occurred. Bernadette finishes narrating and the play ends. Isabel comes onstage to introduce the actors, and to announce that the members have made white paper butterflies for the audience of children and remaining members. The actors and the audience repeatedly sing a traditional Portuguese song with lyrics changed to relate to the play, written on a chalkboard.

54While watching the video, Elvira focused on herself moving about the stage. The audience laughed as she, an old woman, portrayed a little boy. Even though she recognized the humor in this premise, the laughter triggered a sense of humiliation that she had already been feeling about her body: “Look, I look so old, so bent over, so disfigured. My back… that’s not how I used to look.” She feared that the audience was also laughing at her arched back. She responded by overexplaining her body’s current condition. She brought up again how she cared for her disabled son for most of his life. She saw her back and hips as a physical manifestation of her care, of her love. Yet it plagued her. Others listened with care and empathy, neither negating her body nor shaming or demeaning her for it. They commented on their own fluctuating bodies – weight lost and gained, and whether or how their appearances had changed due to aging.

55Her reflection of herself as a mother, as a caregiver, and as an elderly woman unveils the morality of what it means to live a good life among and with others, and for oneself – especially as she does this reflecting in community with other members. She is remaking herself in relation to others in her own situated moral laboratory, by focusing her attention on what she was able to do in these social roles, in these subject positions throughout her life – a moral willing that allows her to reenvision herself and her body in a culturally acceptable light (Mattingly 2010).


Video 4: Santinhas Centro - Teatro da Borboleta Branca

Video 4: 2018 summer play for children about a white butterfly.

Credits : Isabel, staff, and members of Santinhas Senior Day Center

57Video link:​831026389

58The pandemic has been particularly difficult for Elvira. A few years ago, she moved to a further away neighborhood, Lavrador. Elvira felt isolated alone in her apartment, unable to go to the Center as she had done on a daily basis for years before the pandemic hit. Social isolation increased Elvira’s anxieties about her body when she reintegrated herself back into the Center’s community. She then saw herself in videos from the past, in which she could see an externalized version of herself, aging then, and aging now.

59Medical anthropology has discussed the ways in which aging is gendered across different contexts (Lamb 2000; Cruikshank 2009; Calasanti and King 2017; Wehrle 2020), and the ways that women’s aging is often seen as biologically and socially degenerative from the perspective of Western biomedicine (Lock 1993; Martin 2001). But as we know through the medical anthropology literature, the construction of the body is one that is both local and historical, and is an object in flux (Corwin 2017; Lock 2017). Judith Butler’s seminal work on feminist phenomenology and gender performance (drawn from de Beauvoir, Foucault, and Merleau-Ponty) tells us that gender is something the body does, with its own social and historical conditions, limitations, and possibilities (1990). Moreover, the body is involved with meaning-making, particularly regarding self-perception. Elvira’s abject self-perception while viewing her “abnormal” aging body is a construction about what she has been trained to see as “successful” aging in images within the sphere of popular culture and stock images used by other social services and medical care centers, in which smiling seniors appear to have little to no visible signs of illness or declining ability, have access to wealth, and are often white (Weiss 1999).

60But aging bodies change throughout this stage of life, providing a culturally phenomenological experience of multiple body images (Csordas 1999). Making different images of elderly bodies available through the years via the Center videos helps to establish the reality that everyone’s body changes, and that everyone ages differently. Philosopher Gail Weiss, using feminist psychoanalytic theory regarding abjection, writes about how multiple body images help to resist strong identification to one particular body image or another, especially those valorized by society, thus challenging alienation via one’s own self-image (1999: 54). Weiss’ analysis is significant here because in maintaining access to multiple body-images, tension is created between them. This turbulent relationship between a socially normalized body image (through idealization – like images of “successful aging”) and other body images allows for the realities of corporal existence to emerge, something that is always in flux and is constantly negotiated. This opens space to consider one’s own body image(s) as also unstable, in a way that acknowledges the universality of that instability and thus the acceptance of the diversity inherent in multiple body images and bodies themselves.

61An acceptance of oneself’s and one another’s illnesses, disabilities, and limitations is required to keep up with an evolving sense of self and other in old age. Embracing perceived “negative” bodies and experiences associated with changing bodies at old age is a way of challenging active aging, refusing the state’s ableist and ageist rhetoric regarding health, capability, and functionality. A good life (and a good death) can be achieved through such acceptance in the space of community, even if acceptance is simply acknowledgment, or a struggle to contend with such changes. Mourning the death of adult children and friends can be a painful yet significant way to connect to the mourning of one’s changing elder body, and eventually of one’s own death to come. Love, here, is not just a moral category of care. It is a relational necessity to deal with the uncertainties of life and death in community.

Visual Media and Archive as Practice of Communal Care

62The Santinhas Senior Day Center videos function as a tool for memory and community-building, as well as an archive. The Center’s videos also provide snapshots of time, and as in Marin Wahlberg’s work regarding cinema, they “… represent historical time and [to] invoke the experience of past events… vestiges and imprints of historical importance” for future generations of elderly members and for archival record-keeping (2008: 101-102). The videos are just as much objects as they are archives of the Center.

63Moreover, Paolo Favero points to Merleau-Ponty’s notion that the body is “one with vision” (2018: 112). Favero reminds us that images do some heavy lifting – much more than just documenting moments or portraying a moment in time. “They do things to us, interact with us, guide us, merge with us; they are literally part of our bodies and life-worlds” (2018: 113). The body refracted through the visual media of video (as well as theater) creates a relationship between the viewer and the viewed, particularly when they are the same person, across time. As David MacDougall tells us, “The cinema operates in yet another way to affect the spectator corporally through its construction of imaginary spaces and its evocation of real ones…” (MacDougall 2005: 24-25). Watching films is not a passive activity or experience, but rather an activity that depends upon recognition while we do the work of understanding images and piecing them together to form a coherent narrative. As we are participants in this active process of construction, we pull ourselves into the film.

64The videos I discussed in this essay are not necessarily what I or my interlocutors would classify as cinema. They are akin to home videos. James Moran’s work on home videos tells us that they are meaningful representations of “a world, rather than the world.” (2002: 63; his emphasis). Moran’s functional taxonomy of home mode videos are as follows:

“(1) The home mode provides an authentic, active mode of media production for representing everyday life” (2002: 59); (2) “to construct a liminal space in which practitioners may explore and negotiate the competing demands of their public, communal, and private, personal identities” (60); (3) “to provide a material articulation of generational continuity over time” (60); (4) “it constructs an image of home as a cognitive and affective foundation situating our place in the world” (61); (5) “it provides a narrative format for communicating family legends and personal stories” (Moran 2002: 61; his original emphases).

65Even though the Center is not a home per se, it is a shared community. Some members and staff have participated in this community for fifteen to twenty years. The Center operates as a “chosen family” of sorts, in that presence is decided at will, and members may present themselves, as they are (Moran 2002). There are conflicts among members, but the relationships built between them, including with those passed on, both complicate and deepen the significance of and attachment to the Center for many elderly members.

66Like Barbara Myerhoff shows us in her ethnography, Number Our Days (1978), among Jewish elders at the Aliyah Senior Citizens’ Center, the Santinhas Senior Day Center becomes an intentional community that is built through new rituals garnered from old ones, from dances, songs, and local knowledge selected from a shared, generational, collective memory, one distinct from families and other communities to which they may belong. It is also a space that provides resources so that they continue to make their own choices, one of which is to maintain their membership. “Center culture is in some respects thin and fragile, but its very existence must be seen as a major accomplishment, emerging spontaneously as a result of two conditions that characterize the members: continuities between past and present circumstance, and social isolation” (Myerhoff 1978: 8-9). These two conditions also characterize many of the senior members at Santinhas Senior Day Center, in which social isolation was felt acutely during the pandemic.

  • 15 Cinéma verité is a French documentary film movement started by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch that is m (...)

67In Myerhoff’s ethnographic/documentary film of the same name, Number Our Days (1976), made in collaboration with director and producer, Lynne Littman, they show the differently-named Israel Levin Adult Center in Venice Beach, California. They display the personal stories and livelihoods of the elder Jewish members, how the Center helps them to make do, both fiscally and emotionally with community surrounding Jewish ethnicity and religion. It is an incredibly rich and thoughtful film, of everyday life for elderly Jews in this Los Angeles neighborhood, particularly as it shows their socioeconomic realities, and social forms of intimacy amidst painful losses of partners, friends, children. Myerhoff and Littman worked with and filmed a quite vulnerable population, and we get the sense that their mediation of the elderly is honest. We see the pain of loss and loneliness, but also the joy that comes with acknowledging death, as Myerhoff notes, as “part of the family.” An elderly man from the Center, “Jacob” in the book and “Henry” in the film, literally chooses to die at his 95th birthday party, which is made into a ritualistic event, combining an American birthday party with a secular “Yiddishkeit” as a Jewish ethnocultural tradition – an example of how the members have created their own community rituals and traditions. This allowed for his death to be something true to himself, choosing a moment that emulated both his life history and his current lifestyle, accompanied by his friends and children. This, to me, is cinema verité15, with Littman and Myerhoff’s “cine-eye” in their cine-ethnography. Like in Isabel’s productions with the elderly members at the Santinhas Senior Day Center: “It is the art of life itself” (Rouch 2003: 32).

68Myerhoff’s work here is an important contact point for how I am illustrating the Santinhas Senior Day Center (1976, 1978). Her work shows the age-inscription of the elder members, adapting to changing personal and societal conditions and creating new roles and ways of living together in old age. In this way, active aging communally is only productive in ways the community sees fit, without attempts to enforce neoliberal ideals of elder health. They are able to practice a good life, together, intersubjectively. At the Santinhas Senior Day Center, they use the Center’s own media in this practice and process of age-inscription (Couldry 2004; Nakamura 2013a; Coe and Alber 2018).


69The Santinhas Senior Day Center uses visual media as a method to practice communal care. The Center reinforces this habitus of communal care by visualizing it and performing it simultaneously through homemade videos, photography, and theater performance (Bourdieu 1997). By representing special occasions and everyday life, providing continuity, constructing the image of the Center as an affective, grounding place of belonging, and in providing a prompt for storytelling, these videos constitute an opportunity for the Center members to enter into an intersubjective self-making in community. This, in turn, expands upon the Portuguese state’s Catholic neoliberal model of active aging by providing a communal good life independent of capitalist productivity and ableist and ageist health standards.

70Visual media allows the Center another form by which to enact and encourage communal care, making it an equally significant practice that refracts the love, loss, and fears that make up life and death. Here, the visual and the digital reshape how the elderly reminisce about past events and deceased friends, and in doing so, reposition their present moment while co-creating an intersubjective notion of the “good life” in old age based in intimacy and collective care.

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Books and articles

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1 All names have been changed.

2 “White-Portuguese” refers to Portuguese people who are of Portuguese and otherwise European descent, and of light to medium complexion.

3 My ongoing doctoral research project explores the politics of touch, gender, grief, the normalization of pharmaceuticals, and social inequality in Catholic elder care during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lisbon, at this Center as well as in another parochial center. In turn, this paper is a result of an interest in communal care and visual media that I had developed while in this particular fieldsite, which was sparked by the salience of theater and video in the daily life of the Center.

4 All Santinhas Senior Day Center videos in this paper are display by screenshot images, with Vimeo links below each one. Each video is password-protected to minimize the risk of inappropriate use of this sensitive visual material, and each password is the same: AnthroVision2022. Every video in the body of this paper was directed by Isabel and produced by the Santinhas Senior Day Center staff and members. Each play takes place in the Center’s activity room.

5 See also: Estes, Biggs and Phillipson 2003; Kaufman et al 2004; Leibing 2005.

6 The care apparatus of the Portuguese state, including the Catholic model, is outside the scope of this paper. For a couple examples of the discussion on how neoliberalism may capitalize on Catholic moral prescriptions, see: Muehlebach 2012 and Nguyen, Zavoretti and Tronto 2017.

7 Structural violence, abuse, and neglect still exist in public, private, and Catholic social care centers across Portugal. However, and thankfully, I have not observed such behaviors in my fieldsite. To the contrary, I have witnessed the community constantly organizing against elder abuse and neglect, and supporting elderly members through structural hurdles.

8 Coe and Alber’s term “age-inscription” derives from a different one, “kin-scripts” which Carol Stack and Linda Burton (1993) coined to theorize the ways in which kin relations create scripts for the life courses of their members. However, unlike these authors, Coe and Alber use the term inscription rather than script, to emphasize that scripts “are coming into being, and being made and formed” (Coe and Alber 2018: 5).

9 A historically complex genre of music with working-class and Black roots. It is characterized by an intense range of vocalizations, melancholic themes, and is traditionally sung by women.

10 Video password: AnthroVision2022.

11 I am referring to the Estado Novo (New State) dictatorial regime in Portugal, which lasted from 1933-1974 and was led by António Salazar. It was characterized by overseas colonization (Africa), extreme austerity, fascism, and ultra-conservative Catholicism.

12 Video password: AnthroVision2022.

13 Video password: AnthroVision2022.

14 Video password: AnthroVision2022.

15 Cinéma verité is a French documentary film movement started by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch that is meant to portray and unveil truths about their subjects, including practices of observation, improvisation, and connection in the process of filmmaking.

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Electronic reference

Verónica Maria Pascoal Sousa, Aging On-Screen: Anthrovision [Online], 9.2 | 2021, Online since 01 December 2023, connection on 16 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Verónica Maria Pascoal Sousa

Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon

Verónica Maria Pascoal Sousa, M.A. is an Azorean Luso-American PhD candidate in Anthropology of Health at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon. Her current doctoral research project, funded by the Science and Technology Foundation (FCT), concerns the negotiations between care and harm with a focus on the politics of touch in elder care during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lisbon. She is interested in the ways that technologies of care and social inequalities, particularly those related to gender, sexuality, race, disability/illness, and class, are entangled within the practice and experience of elder care in the Portuguese context.

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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