Friday, February 21, 2014

Senior Coolness

Swiss researchers Zimmermann and Grebe describe the outcome of analysis of in-depth interviews in German with 65 people aged 77 to 101, which runs counter to the narrative of very old age which tends to focus on deterioration, dementia and burden. Their subjects seem to rise above their problems with a kind of emotional nonchalance, take pleasure in the things they still can do, and choose not do dwell on issues of pain and other problem they can do little about. Here are the highlights and abstract from their article. The article cites many examples from their interviews to make their case (motivated readers can obtain a PDF of the article by emailing me).
• Public perceptions of old age (80 +) focus largely on deficiency and loss.
• By contrast, elderly people (80 +) report ways in which they are able to live well.
• Living well in old age can be associated with the capacity to “keep cool”.
• This “senior coolness” renders personal and societal problems manageable.
With demographic change becoming an ever more pressing issue in Germany, old age (80 +) is currently talked about above all in terms of being a problem. In mainstream discourse on the situation of the oldest old an interpretive framework has emerged that effectively rules out the possibility of people living positively and well in old age. With regard to both individual (personal) and collective (societal) spheres, negative images of old age dominate public debate. This is the starting point for an interdisciplinary research project designed to look at the ways in which people manage to “live well in old age in the face of vulnerability and finitude” — in express contrast to dominant negative perspectives. Based on the results of this project, the present article addresses an attitudinal and behavioral mode which we have coined “senior coolness”. Coolness here is understood as both a socio-cultural resource and an individualized habitus of everyday living. By providing an effective strategy of self-assertion, this ability can, as we show, be just as important for elderly people as for anyone else. “Senior coolness” is discussed, finally, as a phenomenon that testifies to the ways elderly people retain a positive outlook on life — especially in the face of difficult circumstances and powerful socio-cultural pressures.
In a similar vein, I would recommend reading New Yorker writer Roger Angell's article "This Old Man" about his life in the nineties.

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