Aging in Place: Changing Socio-ecology and the Power of Kinship on Smith Island, Maryland


  • Jana Kopelent Rehak UMBC and UMD



aging and changing socioecology, kinship, lifecourse, heritage


This article examines how the people known as Smith Islanders interact with their environment over the life-course. The purpose of the study is to contribute to a better understanding of aging in a small, rural, coastal community which changes are environmentally driven. To address the aging process in changing environments in this essay, I explore the relationship between the place, sense of self, and knowledge. Because the majority of people on the island today are in late life, the main threads in the fabric of this ethnographic narrative weave themselves into stories about aging experiences. I focus on males’ experiences, their traditional knowledge, and the role of kinship over their life-courses. The life history narratives of a Smith Island waterman known as Eddie Boy, discusses two elements present in both his childhood narratives and his late adulthood: work and kinship. I show how changing socio-ecology has altered the potential for intergenerational relations, which older islanders cherish, and how such changes in late life pose a new aging dilemma for current Smith Islanders.

Author Biography

Jana Kopelent Rehak, UMBC and UMD

Dr. Jana Kopelent Rehak, Czech American cultural anthropologist is currently a researcher at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Lecturer at University Maryland CP. Her research embraces a range of issues such as coastal environment and social ecology, urban ecology and aesthetics, aging, social inequality, political life, violence and social suffering. In the Czech Republic, she worked with ecological refugees from Chernobyl and published a book Recovering Face about Czech Political Prisoners, addressing issues of aging, social justice, national identity, communication, reconciliation and memory in the context of post-socialist Central Eastern Europe. Her urban anthropology work, since 1994, is based on an engagement with communities in Baltimore, addressing urban development, housing, health and social inequality. From 2013 she has been exploring environmental and social changes on Smith Island in Maryland, with focus on cultural heritage, life cycle, and aging. The signature of her work is a visual representation of socio-cultural life. Her most recent collaborative publication Politics of Joking, is an attempt to make an original contribution to anthropological study of humor and joking in political life.  



Agar, Michael. 1994. Language Shock: Understanding The Culture of Conversation. New York: Quill.

Anderson, Eugene. 1996. Ecologies of Heart: Emotion, Belief and the Environment. New York: Oxford University Press.

Basso, Keith H. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque.

Bateson, Mary Catherine. 2013. Changes in the Life Course: Strengths and Stages. In Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspective on Aging and the Life Course. edited by Danely, Jason and Caitrin Lynch. 21-34.New York: Berghahn.

Berkes, Fikret. 2015. Coast for People. New York: Routledge.

----. 2008. Sacred Ecology. New York: Routledge.

Casey, Edward. 1993. Getting Back into Places: Towards a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Danely, Jason and Caitrin Lynch, eds. 2013. Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspective on Aging and the Life Course. New York: Berghahn.

Dize, Frances. 1990. Smith Island, Chesapeake Bay. Centerville, Maryland: Tidewater Publishers.

Fiske, Shirley J. 2016. “Climate Skepticism” inside the Beltway and across the Bay. In Anthropology and Climate Change. ed. by Susan A. Crate and Mark Nuttall. New York: Routledge

Guyer, Jane.I. and Kabiru K. Salami. 2013. “Life Course of Indebteness in Rural Nigeria.” In In Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspective on Aging and the Life Course. edited by Danely, Jason and Caitrin Lynch. 206-217.New York: Berghahn.

Ingold, Tim. 1987. The Appropriation of Nature. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City.

Johnson, Paula. 1992. The Workboats of Smith Island. Johns Hopkins University Press.

King, Sarah. 2014. Fishing in Contested Water. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Kitching, Frances and Susan Stiles Dowell. 2011. Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook. Schiffer.

Lynch, Caitrin. 2012. Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and an American Factory. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Marino, Elizabeth.2015. Fierce Climate Sacred Ground. University of Alaska Press.

Maurstand, Anna. 2004. “Cultural Seascapes: Preserving local Fishermen’s Knowledge in Northern Norway.” In Northern Ethnographic Landscapes, edited by Igor Krupnik, Rachel Mason, and Tonia Horton. 277-297. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Myerhoff, Barbara. 2007. Stories as Equipment for Living. New York:A Touchstone Book.

Norgaard, Kari Marie. 2011. Living in Denial: Climate Change Emotions and Everyday Life. Cambridge. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Strang, Veronika. 2004. The Meaning of Water. New York: Berg.

Paolisso, Michael. 2006. Chesapeake Environmentalism: Rethinking Culture to Strengthen Restoration and Resource Management. College Park: Maryland SeaGran.

Ponkrat, Bob and Laura Stocker. 2011. Anthropology, Climate Change and Coastal Planning.London: Routledge.

Helen Kopnina and Eleanor Shoreman-Ouiment. ed.2011. London and New York: Routledge.

Roscoe, Paul. 2014. “A Changing Climate For Anthropological and Archeological Research: Improving the Climate-Change Models.” American Anthropologist 116 (3): 535-548.

Sokolovsky, Jay.1990. The Cultural Context of Aging. New York: Bergin & Garvey Publishers.

Stoller, Paul. 1997. Sensory Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Warner, William. 1976. Beautiful Swimmers. Boston: An Atlantic Monthly Press Book.