From wrinkle creams to blood transfusions, the anti-aging industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise that has expanded far beyond the reach of cosmetics and facelifts to include everything from workout routines and dietary supplements to stem cell research and DNA sequencing. The desire to look, feel, function and think younger is an unstated, yet inescapable given in the cultural landscape of successful aging and healthy living.
Dr. Kirsten Ellison, postdoctoral fellow at Trent University, draws on a decade of research on anti-aging technology to explore what it means to take a communications approach to the topic of aging. She suggests that although representation is only one factor in the lived realities of what it means to grow old, it plays a fundamental role in shaping the kinds of lives we see as worth living, and bodies we see as worth inhabiting.
What does it all mean? Professor Ellison answers a few questions about her research, including what drew her to the field of cultural gerontology in the first place.
Describe your academic path and how you became interested in the study of aging?
“My interest in this topic began in a fourth year Sociology course, titled Social Problems.
Like most people in their 20s, until then, I really hadn’t put much thought into the idea of growing older. In search of a topic for a term paper on “Social Problems of the Future”, I started to think about the kinds of ‘problems’ that were being defined for my own future. Which is really when I stumbled into this rabbit-hole of cultural gerontology - one that I have yet to leave! The articles and books that I read at this point really changed the way I saw the world around me and my own values and aspirations. In fact, one of the first books I bought on the topic - Images of Aging - was from a conference proceeding held here at Trent. After that, I really was hooked. It is what led me to pursue a Master’s degree and again a Ph.D. And now, as a postdoctoral fellow working at Trent with Stephen Katz and Barb Marshall - two scholars whose ideas were largely responsible for my new addiction - I feel as though it has all come full circle.”
What are you currently researching at Trent University?
“In my current role as a postdoctoral fellow, I am part of a research team that examines the sociocultural and material dimensions of aging with digital technology, both as lived experiences and projected futures. One area that we are exploring right now is the role of smart home technology in reconfiguring relations of care in the home.”
What types of anti-aging technology do you research? Are there any examples in popular culture we may be aware of?
“My early work looked into anti-aging skin creams, which I think is a very familiar form of everyday intervention that is near-impossible to avoid when searching for a moisturizer these days. My later work dives into some of the less known forms of intervention, such as parabiosis (blood transfusions), telomere supplements, and rapamycin. While fascinating, the techniques themselves are not what I spend my time on. My interest is how aging and intervention are constructed in the discourse that surrounds these techniques.”
Can you expand more on the “communications approach” you bring to this topic? What does this entail?
“In my approach, I examine the sense-making aspect of communication and the kinds of worlds and objects that are made up and carved out in this process. In other words, language both includes and excludes aspects of the social and material world, and I am interested in the tools that are used to do this and the effects that these communicative assemblages have on how we understand the aging body and our own aging futures.”