‘When will we get rid of you?’

Elder Abuse in Kyrgyzstan

‘What do you need at your age? Sit quietly.’

There is an extraordinary series of photographs in the latest issue of Anthropology and Ageing Quarterly (AAQ). Taken by Malik Alymkulov for HelpAge International, they show older people from Kyrgyzstan, photographed in their own homes. In each photo, a person holds up a notice on which is written some of the cruel words flung at them, mostly by their own relatives.

‘What do you need at your age? Sit quietly.’ ‘You are a burden to our family.’ ‘What do you want, you old crow?’ ‘What else do you need? You eat and drink at our expense.’

They are powerful and strangely beautiful images that document everyday suffering in a part of the world that receives little attention from elsewhere. And part of the reason they are so disturbing is the distance they mark between the distress people feel and the comfortable places they feel it. The regional director of HelpAge International, Eppu Mikkonen-Jeanneret, writes:

‘As you see, the context of the abuse is a home, in most cases a lovely well cared for home. This ‘normalcy’ is what most viewers find so difficult about these pictures – myself included.’

Mostly, the people in the photographs represent themselves, but some people felt too vulnerable to be present, even with their faces obscured. Then another participant in the programme stepped in to lend their presence in support of a friend. The whole series of photographs, which were exhibited on 15 June 2012 in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) to mark UN World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, can be seen here.

‘You are senile.’
'What can you do? The only thing left to do is die.'
‘What can you do? The only thing left to do is die.’
'You are a burden for our family.'
‘You are a burden for our family.’

In Winter Fires, I included a brief passage from Lewis Wolpert’s book about ageing in which he refers to gerontocide – the killing of older people who are considered to be a burden. I hesitated before doing so, partly because it is a genuinely shocking thought, in perhaps the darkest part of the book. These images show a reality that is, in its quite desperation, equally shocking.  But they also show the power of art, performance and imagery in giving people agency, even in vulnerable situations.

PS: I came across this work because we’ve been invited to present Mik Godley’s Winter Fires images in the Spring issue of Anthropology and Ageing Quarterly. We’d been planning to film a short conversation about the process to add to this site and we’ll draw on that to accompany the portraits. So, the internet continues to do its amazing work, weaving connections between  Bishkek, Nottingham and Rhode Island and, I hope, building solidarity in the process.


  1. Terrible, and the japanese prime minister said it very clear today, “the elders should harry up to die.”

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