Skip to main content Accessibility help

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

  • Nanette Bjerring Fournier (a1) and Aske Juul Lassen (a1)


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.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author. Email:


Hide All
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.
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.
Barlow, J and Hainsworth, J (2001) Volunteerism among older people with arthritis. Ageing & Society 21, 203217.
Bernard, HR (2017) Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Berns, M (1990) Communicative Contexts of Competence: Social and Cultural Considerations in Language Teaching. New York, NY: Plenum.
Bjørnskov, C and Svendsen, GT (2013) Does social trust determine the size of the welfare state? Evidence using historical identification. Public Choice 157, 269286.
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.
Cattan, M, Hogg, E and Hardill, I (2011) Improving quality of life in ageing populations: what can volunteering do? Maturitas 70, 328332.
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.
Creswell, JW (2013) Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Davies, CA (2008) Reflexive Ethnography. A Guide to Researching Selves and Others. London: Routledge.
Ehn, B, Löfgren, O and Wilk, R (2015) Exploring Everyday Life: Strategies for Ethnography and Cultural Analysis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Elderlearn (2018) Vi tror på, at alle kan hjælpe [We Believe That Everybody Can Help]. Available at
Erlinghagen, M and Hank, K (2006) The participation of older Europeans in volunteer work. Ageing & Society 26, 567584.
European Commission (2011) How to Promote Active Ageing in Europe – EU Support to Local and Regional Actors. Brussels: AGE Platform Europe.
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.
Fine, M and Glendinning, C (2005) Dependence, independence or inter-dependence? Revisiting the concepts of ‘care’ and ‘dependency’. Ageing & Society 25, 601621.10.1017/S0144686X05003600
Fournier, NB (2018) Besøgsvenskabet [The visiting-friendship]. Tidsskrift for Gerontologi [Journal of Gerontology] 34, 1621.
Fournier, NB, Reventlow, A and Lassen, AJ (2019) Elderlearn: Når svækkede ældre mennesker bliver frivillige [Elderlearn: When Frail Older People Become Volunteers]. Available at
Gilleard, C and Higgs, P (2010) Aging without agency: theorizing the fourth age. Aging & Mental Health 14, 121128.
Gilleard, C and Higgs, P (2011) Frailty, disability and old age: a re-appraisal. Health 15, 475490.10.1177/1363459310383595
Gilleard, C and Higgs, P (2014) Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment. London: Anthem Press.
Gomart, E and Hennion, A (1999) A sociology of attachment: music amateurs, drug users. The Sociological Review 47, 220247.
Graebner, ME, Martin, JA and Roundy, PT (2012) Qualitative data: cooking without a recipe. Strategic Organization 10, 276284.
Hämel, K (2016) Making nursing homes more community-oriented: insights from an exploratory study in Germany. Ageing & Society 36, 673693.
Hennion, A (2007) Those things that hold us together: taste and sociology. Cultural Sociology 1, 97114.
Hennion, A (2017) Attachments, you say? … How a concept collectively emerges in one research group. Journal of Cultural Economy 10, 112121.10.1080/17530350.2016.1260629
Hillecoat-Nallétamby, S (2014) The meaning of ‘independence’ for older people in different residential settings. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 69B, 419430.10.1093/geronb/gbu008
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.
Jakobsen, RG (2016) Plejehjemsbeboere er blevet svagere [Nursing home residents have become weaker]. Momentum 9. Available at
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. 4664.10.1057/9780230363007_4
La Cour, A and Højlund, H (2008) Voluntary social work as a paradox. Acta Sociologica 51, 4154.
Lamb, S (ed.) (2017) Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession: Global Perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Laslett, P (1987) The emergence of the third age. Ageing & Society 7, 133160.10.1017/S0144686X00012538
Lassen, AJ (2014) Billiards, rhythms, collectives: billiards at a Danish activity centre as a culturally specific form of active ageing. Ethnologia Europaea 44, 5774.
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.
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.
Lassen, AJ and Moreira, T (2014) Unmaking old age: political and cognitive formats of active ageing. Journal of Aging Studies 30, 3346.10.1016/j.jaging.2014.03.004
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.
Narushima, M (2005) ‘Payback time’: community volunteering among older adults as a transformative mechanism. Ageing & Society 25, 567584.
Otto, L (2013) Negotiating a healthy body in old age: preventive home visits and biopolitics. International Journal of Aging in Later Life 8, 111135.
Pickard, S (2014) Frail bodies: geriatric medicine and the constitution of the fourth age. Sociology of Health & Illness 36, 549563.
Pickard, S (2018) Health, illness and frailty in old age: a phenomenological exploration. Journal of Aging Studies 47, 2431.
Principi, A, Chiatti, C, Lamura, G and Frerichs, F (2012) The engagement of older people in civil society organizations. Educational Gerontology 38, 83106.
Savignon, SJ (2018) Communicative competence. In The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching. John Wiley & Sons, pp. 17.
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.
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.
Spradley, J (2016) Participant Observation. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
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.
Strauss, A and Corbin, J (1998) Basics of Qualitative Research Techniques. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Sunderland, PL and Denny, RM (2007) Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Wilson, J (2000) Volunteering. Annual Review of Sociology 26, 215240.


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

  • Nanette Bjerring Fournier (a1) and Aske Juul Lassen (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed