Hostname: page-component-8448b6f56d-gtxcr Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-21T00:03:46.385Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Reattached: emerging relationships and subjectivities when engaging frail older people as volunteer language teachers in Denmark

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 December 2019

Nanette Bjerring Fournier*
Copenhagen Centre for Health Research in the Humanites (CoRe), Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Aske Juul Lassen
Copenhagen Centre for Health Research in the Humanites (CoRe), Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
*Corresponding author. Email:


As a response to an ageing population, and to benefit from senior citizens’ resources and improve their quality of life, European countries are increasingly engaging older volunteers in the old-age sector and care environments. Older Danes’ participation in volunteer work is high; however, nursing home residents and home care recipients are typically not part of these initiatives as volunteers, but as the receivers of volunteer care. We investigate an initiative that engages frail older people as volunteer language teachers for foreigners learning Danish in an endeavour to utilise their resources as volunteers and to engage the language teachers socially. Through participant observations and semi-structured interviews with older volunteers, Danish-language students and care personnel, we explore what constitutes good social relationships in this specific initiative, how these relationships are created and the kind of subject that appears through Elderlearn. We are inspired by the sociology of attachment as we describe how frail older people emerge as engaged subjects by becoming reattached to their life histories, interests, abilities and relational skills. In this regard, good social relationships surpass the immediate volunteer–recipient bond and create a ‘blurry volunteering’ with less distinct divisions of who gives and who receives. This generates constructive relationships created through interlinguistic competences, international consciousness, and use of materials, objects and the local community. We argue that this arrangement reattaches the language teachers to their life histories, thereby enabling the emergence of a different kind of international and engaged old-age subjectivity.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Anderson, ND, Damianakis, T, Kröger, E, Wagner, LM, Dawson, DR, Binns, M, Bernstein, S, Caspi, E and Cook, S (2014) The benefits associated with volunteering among seniors: a critical review and recommendations for future research. Psychological Bulletin 140, 15051533.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Aspinal, F, Glasby, J, Rostgaard, T, Tuntland, H and Westendorp, RGJ (2016) New horizons: reablement supporting older people towards independence. Age and Ageing 45, 574578.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Barlow, J and Hainsworth, J (2001) Volunteerism among older people with arthritis. Ageing & Society 21, 203217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bernard, HR (2017) Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
Berns, M (1990) Communicative Contexts of Competence: Social and Cultural Considerations in Language Teaching. New York, NY: Plenum.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bjørnskov, C and Svendsen, GT (2013) Does social trust determine the size of the welfare state? Evidence using historical identification. Public Choice 157, 269286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Blix, BH and Hamran, T (2018) ‘When the saints go marching in’: constructions of senior volunteering in Norwegian government white papers, and in Norwegian senior volunteers’ and health-care professionals’ stories. Ageing & Society 38, 13991428.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cattan, M, Hogg, E and Hardill, I (2011) Improving quality of life in ageing populations: what can volunteering do? Maturitas 70, 328332.Google Scholar
Collopy, BJ (1995) Power, paternalism and the ambiguities of autonomy. In Gamroth, LM, Semradek, J and Torquist, EM (eds), Enhancing Autonomy in Long-term Care. Concepts and Strategies. New York, NY: Springer, pp. 314.Google Scholar
Creswell, JW (2013) Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
Davies, CA (2008) Reflexive Ethnography. A Guide to Researching Selves and Others. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Ehn, B, Löfgren, O and Wilk, R (2015) Exploring Everyday Life: Strategies for Ethnography and Cultural Analysis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
Elderlearn (2018) Vi tror på, at alle kan hjælpe [We Believe That Everybody Can Help]. Available at Scholar
Erlinghagen, M and Hank, K (2006) The participation of older Europeans in volunteer work. Ageing & Society 26, 567584.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
European Commission (2011) How to Promote Active Ageing in Europe – EU Support to Local and Regional Actors. Brussels: AGE Platform Europe.Google Scholar
European Commission (2018) The 2018 Pension Adequacy Report: Current and Future Income Adequacy in Old Age in the EU. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.Google Scholar
Fine, M and Glendinning, C (2005) Dependence, independence or inter-dependence? Revisiting the concepts of ‘care’ and ‘dependency’. Ageing & Society 25, 601621.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fournier, NB (2018) Besøgsvenskabet [The visiting-friendship]. Tidsskrift for Gerontologi [Journal of Gerontology] 34, 1621.Google Scholar
Fournier, NB, Reventlow, A and Lassen, AJ (2019) Elderlearn: Når svækkede ældre mennesker bliver frivillige [Elderlearn: When Frail Older People Become Volunteers]. Available at Scholar
Gilleard, C and Higgs, P (2010) Aging without agency: theorizing the fourth age. Aging & Mental Health 14, 121128.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Gilleard, C and Higgs, P (2011) Frailty, disability and old age: a re-appraisal. Health 15, 475490.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Gilleard, C and Higgs, P (2014) Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment. London: Anthem Press.Google Scholar
Gomart, E and Hennion, A (1999) A sociology of attachment: music amateurs, drug users. The Sociological Review 47, 220247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Graebner, ME, Martin, JA and Roundy, PT (2012) Qualitative data: cooking without a recipe. Strategic Organization 10, 276284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hämel, K (2016) Making nursing homes more community-oriented: insights from an exploratory study in Germany. Ageing & Society 36, 673693.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hennion, A (2007) Those things that hold us together: taste and sociology. Cultural Sociology 1, 97114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hennion, A (2017) Attachments, you say? … How a concept collectively emerges in one research group. Journal of Cultural Economy 10, 112121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hillecoat-Nallétamby, S (2014) The meaning of ‘independence’ for older people in different residential settings. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 69B, 419430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hjære, M and Jørgensen, HED (2017) Frivilligrapporten 2016–2018: Tal om det frivillige Danmark. Analyse af befolkningens frivillige engagement [Report on Volunteering 2016–2018: Numbers About the Voluntary Denmark. An Analysis of Voluntary Commitment in the Population]. Odense, Denmark: Danish Institute for Voluntary Effort.Google Scholar
Jakobsen, RG (2016) Plejehjemsbeboere er blevet svagere [Nursing home residents have become weaker]. Momentum 9. Available at Scholar
La Cour, A (2012) The love affair between the policy and the voluntary organizations. In Andersen N, Åkerstrøm and Sand, I (eds), Hybrid Forms of Governance. New York, NY: Springer, pp. 4664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
La Cour, A and Højlund, H (2008) Voluntary social work as a paradox. Acta Sociologica 51, 4154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lamb, S (ed.) (2017) Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession: Global Perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
Laslett, P (1987) The emergence of the third age. Ageing & Society 7, 133160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lassen, AJ (2014) Billiards, rhythms, collectives: billiards at a Danish activity centre as a culturally specific form of active ageing. Ethnologia Europaea 44, 5774.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lassen, AJ (2017) Shaping old age: innovation partnerships, senior centres and billiards tables as active ageing technologies. In Loffeier, I, Majerus, B and Moulaert, T (eds), Framing Age: Contested Knowledge in Science and Politics. London: Routledge, pp. 222236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lassen, AJ (2018) Aktive gamle i København [Active old persons in Copenhagen]. In Jensen, T, Lassen, AJ, Wingender, NB, Møller, A and Nørtoft, KPJ (eds), Gammel i København: Ældres liv og livsvilkår i København siden 1890 [Old in Copenhagen: Older People's Lives and Living Conditions in Copenhagen Since 1890]. Copenhagen: Frydenlund Academics, pp. 135154.Google Scholar
Lassen, AJ and Moreira, T (2014) Unmaking old age: political and cognitive formats of active ageing. Journal of Aging Studies 30, 3346.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lilburn, LER, Breheny, M and Pond, R (2018) ‘You're not really a visitor, you're just a friend’: how older volunteers navigate home visiting. Ageing & Society 38, 817838.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Narushima, M (2005) ‘Payback time’: community volunteering among older adults as a transformative mechanism. Ageing & Society 25, 567584.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Otto, L (2013) Negotiating a healthy body in old age: preventive home visits and biopolitics. International Journal of Aging in Later Life 8, 111135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pickard, S (2014) Frail bodies: geriatric medicine and the constitution of the fourth age. Sociology of Health & Illness 36, 549563.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Pickard, S (2018) Health, illness and frailty in old age: a phenomenological exploration. Journal of Aging Studies 47, 2431.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Principi, A, Chiatti, C, Lamura, G and Frerichs, F (2012) The engagement of older people in civil society organizations. Educational Gerontology 38, 83106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Savignon, SJ (2018) Communicative competence. In The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching. John Wiley & Sons, pp. 17.Google Scholar
Scheele, CE, Vrangbæk, K and Kriegbaum, M (2019) Volunteer association perceptions of municipal policy strategies to promote co-production of healthy ageing services. Ageing & Society 39, 11521171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schwennesen, N (2017) When self-tracking enters physical rehabilitation: from ‘pushed’ self-tracking to ongoing affective encounters in arrangements of care. Digital Health 3, 18.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Spradley, J (2016) Participant Observation. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.Google Scholar
Stephens, C, Breheny, M and Mansvelt, J (2015) Volunteering as reciprocity: beneficial and harmful effects of social policies to encourage contribution in older age. Journal of Aging Studies 33, 2227.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Strauss, A and Corbin, J (1998) Basics of Qualitative Research Techniques. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
Sunderland, PL and Denny, RM (2007) Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.Google Scholar
Wilson, J (2000) Volunteering. Annual Review of Sociology 26, 215240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar