Photo essay: Researching retirement in the Himalayas

Sociocultural anthropologist Geoff Childs shares photos from his research in Nepal, where he has spent decades studying demographic trends in a highland Buddhist community.

Geoff Childs, professor of sociocultural anthropology, has been researching demographic trends in Nubri, a highland Buddhist community in Nepal’s Himalayas. He’s done fieldwork there since the ‘90s when he began studying demographic processes such as historical migrations and fertility transitions in the region. 

He’s gone on to investigate many stages of life, everything from breastfeeding at altitude — a collaboration with E.A. Quinn, associate professor of biological anthropology — to school-age children leaving the valley in search of education in larger cities. 

Recently, his work has focused on the impact of outmigration on family-based care for the elderly. Monasteries, like Ribum Monastery shown in the photo below, are popular retirement destinations that allow the elderly to engage in religious practices away from the demands of village life.

Serang Monastery is a popular retirement destination for Nubri’s elders and currently houses 22 retirees. The monastery is a sacred location where religious activities are valued above other considerations. This allows elders to disengage from the demands of village life and focus on their spiritual lives in preparation for Buddhist rebirth.

Childs has interviewed many residents of the Serang Monastery including Mey Jigme, who discussed the history of his lineage. Jigme’s son is a monk at the monastery. Retiring there allows him to be closer to family.

Community researcher Jhangchuk Sangmo (left) speaks with an elderly resident in Kok Village, Nubri. Jhangchuk has been an interviewer on many of Child’s research projects for the past 13 years. Sangmo’s knowledge of the region's culture and language has been an important contribution to Childs' scholarship.

Tsewang Sangmo (right) interviews an elderly man who lives with his wife in their village home. As villagers age, it becomes harder for them to stay in their homes if their children have left the valley to pursue education or employment.

Photo by Dhawa Gyanjen

This elderly nun chose to live in the village instead of moving to a monastery. She cared for her parents as they aged but now lacks support in her own elder years. Parents often designated a daughter to be a nun and kept her in the village to provide family care. When the parents retired or passed on, these women often didn’t have strong social networks and depended on fellow nuns for support.

These are residents of Ugyen Drodulling, Nubri's first retirement community, which is sponsored primarily by a Buddhist monastery. The woman on the far right in blue, Aja Drolma, is the caretaker. Her position at the home is supported by Nepal SEEDS, a non-profit organization where Childs also serves as a board member.