Thursday, 13 February 2014

Very old and very cool - recognising a distinct mental strength of the elderly

A pair of researchers in Switzerland say there is an attitude common among the very old that is best described as "senior coolness". Based on detailed analysis of in-depth interviews in German with 15 people aged 77 to 101 (average age 86; 12 women), and also reflected in interviews with a further 60 older people, Harm-Peer Zimmermann and Heinrich Grebe describe a commonly held attitude of "comprehensive composure, indeed nonchalance and indifference, towards old age".

They argue that this runs counter to the narrative of very old age frequently depicted in the media, which tends to focus either on deterioration, dementia and burden, or on sprightly older people who defy their age. Those in the latter group "are assured of the media's approving attention, all the others more or less come under suspicion of having failed - for which they themselves are held responsible," write Zimmermann and Grebe.

In contrast to this dominant narrative, the researchers describe old people who live with health problems and other challenges with a kind of cool detachment. They are not defying their age, but rather they are able to rise above it with emotional nonchalance. This senior coolness was observed across the sample regardless of age, wealth, education or gender.

The researchers cite many examples from the interviews to make their case. Here is a sample:
Mrs B (aged 87), a former nursing assistant, is no longer able to keep up with her housework. "Whenever I think: 'Oh, you ought to tidy things up again!', I don't do it every time, it doesn't bother me." 
Mrs M (aged 88), a retired school teacher who uses a walking frame, reflects on how she will never be able to travel abroad again. "I'll never get there [to the ocean] again - never mind. That's just the thing, you make the most of the things you've had […] Of course, it's a shame I've never been to Greece. But: so what? As a child I saw half the world." [words in italics were uttered in English.]
Mrs H (aged 86), a former laundry shop worker, speaking about her incontinence: "I can think of more pleasant things." 
Mrs L (aged 84), a former unskilled assistant at trade auctions, suffers from chronic pain. "… [Y]ou take what comes. What else can you do? I can still take pleasure in this and that."
Former German Chancellor Helmut
Schmidt was voted the "coolest guy"
in Germany in 2008 when aged
89, he's now 95. 
The researchers stressed that their elderly interviewees did not speak with complete indifference. They recognised the difficulties of old age, but they did so in a manner of detachment and with balance, also focusing on the positive aspects of their lives. To do this, they drew on their memories and on humour and irony. This allows them to deal with personal and external challenges in a "calm and composed manner" the researchers said. They reject old-age stereotypes and do not allow their difficulties to spoil their lives.

This "senior coolness" is a "particular mental strength of very old people," the researchers concluded. "For us, 'senior coolness', refers to a personal constitution and composure that gives ageing people a sense of inner security and poise. It is about facing the indignities of ageing with reserve and distance. It is about giving a dignified form to life and the process of ageing."


Harm-Peer Zimmermann and Heinrich Grebe (2014). “Senior coolness”: Living well as an attitude in later life. Journal of Aging Studies DOI: 10.1016/j.jaging.2013.11.002

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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