Student post by Kaitlin Chiarelli
My interview with Grace started out light-hearted, as she responded matter-of-factly when I asked her age, that she was exactly fifty-nine and three-quarters. When I asked her to explain why she played bingo, her tone became slightly melancholy. She told me she had moved to Fairfield around nine years before because her husband took a job with the local fire company, and he encouraged her to come to bingo one night when he was working as a volunteer. She was worried that she would not know anyone and would have difficulty making friends, but she quickly met Sue and Darcy, who were sitting next to her then and have continued to do so for the past nine years. The fire department and bingo played integral roles in her and her husband’s life, making it a common sphere of public interaction for them. Unfortunately, Grace’s husband had passed away less than two months before our conversation and she was still quite emotional, her voice quivering when she told me this. Grace still attends bingo because she believes that it “gives balance” to her life during this difficult time; she can rely on bingo as an opportunity to be with her friends, which allows for a break from the stresses of home life (Grace, interviewed 8 April 2013, Fairfield).
While not everyone who plays bingo has a story like Grace’s, her narrative does show some of the unique aspects of bingo which I believe make the game important in two Pennsylvania towns, Fairfield and Bonneauville, and in the lives of the players, many of whom are senior citizens. In small, rural towns with few opportunities for social interaction, the bingo games coordinated by the local fire and EMS organizations provide an ongoing and dependable opportunity for creating and maintaining a social community. Bingo brings the players, mainly the elderly, out of their isolated private spheres and into a stable and reliable public sphere together. Participation in bingo encourages social interaction, allows for the creation and maintenance of friendships, has positive physical and mental health benefits, and brings people together to improve their local community.
There is a distinct lack of attention paid to events like bingo in the anthropology of aging, since this field generally focuses on disconnection seen in events like retirement and death, instead of connection, seen on both a personal and community-wide level in events like bingo. The intrinsic disengagement theory, which posits that old age is a universal time for withdrawal, with three potential circumstances for such disengagement, has been an influential albeit controversial theory. Those scholars who support the first scenario of the intrinsic disengagement theory suggest that society pushes elderly people away and inhibits their ability and opportunities for social interaction as a way to remain engaged (Keith 1980:343). In this thesis, I use bingo to argue against the idea that the elderly choose to accept this disengagement; the other possible circumstances associated with this theory are explained and elaborated in detail on page four. My fieldwork demonstrates that elderly players make a significant effort to attend bingo and value the social connections and interactions this activity provides. Furthermore, I argue that we must nuance our understanding of the processes of disengagement and engagement by considering key contextual factors, including town structure, dependence on automobile use, and cultural values such as independence. I suggest a new approach to the study of social isolation and connection in elderly populations, which is particularly applicable to the elderly living in rural areas.
To begin, I provide a concise history of the anthropology of aging and the prominent theory of intrinsic disengagement in particular. Next, I use ethnographic fieldwork to detail bingo as an event and then to critique intrinsic disengagement, particularly on the issues of social isolation, mobility and American values. I conclude my paper with an analysis of other organizations in Fairfield and Bonneauville that provide opportunities for social interaction in order to establish what is unique about bingo and how it best meets the needs of the community and players, particularly in terms of combating social isolation.
Continue reading “More than Just a Numbers Game: Bingo as a Tool against Disengagement among the Elderly in Adams County, Pennsylvania”