A team of German researchers recently undertook a research project which examined both media representations of older adults and older adults’ ideas of what it meant to “age well.” In the process of analyzing older adults’ conceptions of what it meant to live well in later life, researchers identified an attitude that they called “senior coolness.”
In their examination of portrayals of older adults in media and self-help literature, the researchers identified two age periods in which older adults were depicted in quite different ways. The first was from the age of 65 to 80. Depictions of German adults in this age range tended to be largely positive; for example, emphasizing opportunities for greater self-realization due to the opportunity to take up new activities following retirement. They gave examples of media titles like “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “111 Reasons to Look Forward to Retirement,” and “Old at Last! Now I Can Do What I Want.”
In stark contrast to this are media depictions of adults over 80. The researchers report that “all the negative and pessimistic stereotypes of old age that circulate in German culture and society are increasingly being projected onto the group of the oldest old.” Descriptions of individuals in this age group are principally focused on this as a phase of rapid physical and mental deterioration. Most clearly demonstrating this are articles about dementia-related problems, in which it is suggested that aging with dementia involves a loss of identity and dignity. Similarly, reporting on individuals requiring intensive nursing care not only emphasizes a deficiency among individuals requiring such care, but also emphasizes the burdens placed on relatives, communities, and even society as a whole. For example, these researchers note that the positive experiences of caregivers go largely ignored in media stories on caregiving, which tend toward sensationalizing negative “horror scenarios.” Similarly, research on the demography of aging and greater longevity tends to become the basis for stories in the popular press that they label “apocalyptic demography.” These researchers do note that there are articles with a more positive spin on adults over 80; but looking more closely at these articles, it becomes clear that they tend to focus on individuals who buck the processes of mental and physical decline. In the mental realm, these tend to focus on age-acquired wisdom, which the authors note has the unintended consequence of disparaging older adults who show little evidence of wisdom. Similarly, they suggest that a focus on active, “sprightly” adults over 80 leads to the view that less physically able older adults have failed to achieve the same level of physical ability by not getting sufficient exercise.
Against this media background, these researchers also interviewed adults 77 and better to get at their impressions of aging well. In these interviews, “a totally different picture emerges.” A larger range of issues related to living well come into the picture, which included positive aspects of old age that exist despite the experience of vulnerability and frailty. The big issues that came from these interviews were being in good health, remaining independent, being included in social networks, and enjoying material security. A number of small, everyday activities were also described as making the older adults content and happy: visits from friends and relatives, discussions with others, experiencing nature, and enjoying food and drink. These findings are consistent with other research on older adults’ perspectives on aging well. However, these researchers also noted an additional factor that emerged from their interviews. This was an attitude that they labelled “senior coolness.”
The researchers described senior coolness as an ability to stay calm and composed. This involved not getting upset about losses and limitations, and taking things with a pinch of humor. Senior coolness relates to the way in which a person approaches his or her situation—the attitude they adopt, or their degree of composure. The researchers also describe this as “not allowing oneself to be thrown off one’s stride by the miseries of old age.” Interestingly, examples of senior coolness did not seem to be tied to any specific life circumstances. Examples were found among women and men, high- and low-income individuals, impaired and unimpaired individuals, and those living in the community and in senior living facilities.
The researchers also described senior coolness as a form of resistance against the stereotypical views of age and aging. While “active aging” was looked on positively by the older adults interviewed, aging well could involve more than just resisting the tides of physical and mental decline. Those with senior coolness do not let their difficulties spoil their whole lives or check their desires. Some of this involves adopting an emotional nonchalance to difficulties encountered, and an ability to rise above one’s own problems. Senior coolness also involves showing some reserve toward others as part of “keeping cool”—not imposing one’s problems on others and not wanting to be considered a “problem case.” Intellectually, for these individuals, this coolness involves the capacity to deal with circumstances of suffering in such a way that makes it possible to experience the positive aspects of life that are still there.
The researchers conclude that senior coolness points to “the particular mental strength of very old people.” This strength “consists in an ability to compensate for burdens and losses by deliberately choosing certain activities and optimizing ways of making the most out of them.” Senior coolness is an art of living that gives aging individuals a sense of inner security and poise. This attribute is absent from prevailing negative portrayals of old age, and a form of resistance against those portrayals, asserting that it is possible to live well even when faced with vulnerability and losses.