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Perceptions regarding opportunities in old age are culturally embedded, says Americanist and cultural scientist Ulla Kriebernegg. She criticizes the predominantly negative images of old age and calls for new narratives that make it possible for society as a whole to age well. Doctor of Philosophy and Associate Professor Ulla Kriebernegg is vice-chairwoman of the European Network in Aging Studies and founder of the multi- and interdisciplinary Age and Care Research Group at the University of Graz in Austria. Together with other researchers, she wants to raise awareness of age discrimination and point out the individuality and diversity related to the experience of old age. In doing so, she focuses on the term comfortable aging which the American scientist Margaret Cruikshank coined. This stands for aging according to one’s own needs and abilities and takes vulnerability into account. In comparison, the term successful aging suggests pressure to perform as well as competition. As an Americanist and cultural scientist, Kriebernegg approaches the subject from the perspective of literature, film and art. An interview with the scientist:

Ulla Kriebernegg (c) Furgler

In your research project, you pose the question “What do we mean by ‘old biddy’ ? Isn’t that already a linguistic image that gives an indication of how we treat the elderly?

Yes, precisely. I am referring to a campaign that we staged a few years ago in cooperation with the city of Graz. We portrayed average women between the ages of sixty and seventy on oversized posters. The women all referred to points in their lives when they experienced joy and grief. I want to get back to this issue. ‘Old biddy’ is a derogatory term which doesn’t apply to men. Women are definitely discriminated against in old age more than men are.

Isn’t this because of the pervasive obsession with stereotypes – often propagated in advertising – that the cultural domain is still so entrenched in this regard?

Advertising is part of the cultural domain- and the cultural domain is part of a powerful discourse. Films have a different function than advertising, they can radicalize social prejudices, they aim to provoke and inspire reflection. In contrast to advertising, you are able to identify with the character, like an old woman, for example. This is how I begin to think differently and am able to experience something I otherwise couldn’t. I am able to comprehend the character’s fears and thereby develop an empathy that is not present when it comes to advertising. One example is Michael Haneke’s film Amour (2012), in which a man murders his wife who is suffering from dementia. This illustrates the excessive strain that they underwent and what pushed them to the extreme. How could this happen? Because society abandoned them. Even if films represent stereotypes, these are far more complex than in advertising. Although there are also some bad films, of course.

I can either put myself within the frame of literature or I can choose different interpretations. I can read a narrative either as an act of desperation or as an act of freedom. In other words, discover things by interpreting them. There’s a short story by Margaret Atwood titled “Torching the Dusties” – and that is what actually happens in the story. Some young people will tell them to go away, they’re too expensive! This is of course a satire on a group that is being marginalized.

You have observed that images of older people play a prominent role in literature, film and art in the Anglo-Saxon world. How are we able to perceive this?

All in all, our cultures are not that different. Hollywood films are also popular amongst us all. But since the 1980s, older people have gained more visibility in the Anglo-Saxon world. They have a reputation and are independent characters. It is noticeable that films about dementia are booming – in the wake of cancer and AIDS. It is the new social fear that our memories could deteriorate, that the storage disc might break. Rationality dominates the professional challenges of today. You don’t have to remember anything anymore – you can read anything at any time. This can lead to the fear of losing control. Dementia is often portrayed as a way of expressing a fear of old age. Just being old is not enough, the character must also be suffering from dementia. The last witness in the crime thriller is someone with dementia.

You say that the basic needs of aging people should be taken into account according to their individual circumstances – what are these needs?

These are basic needs which include security, recognition, participation, belonging, appreciation, being needed, leading a meaningful life.

What are some positive storylines which have older heroines and heroes?

Swedish novelist Jonas Jonassen, for example, recounts a wonderful story in his 2009 novel ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.’ In it, the protagonist runs out of the old people’s home shortly before his hundredth birthday and has a bizarre story to tell.

One pioneer was Arno Geiger, whose autobiographical novel The Old King in His Exile is based on the King Lear theme. In this novel, the father who is suffering from dementia develops a poetic mode of expression and as a result becomes closer to his son. ‘As my father can no longer cross the bridge into my world, I have to go over to his,’ the son says. This is an atypical portrayal.

All writing that infers that we should deal with vulnerability in various ways are positive in principle. One might expect some sprightly seniors to sail around a bit on a yacht. That is the third phase of life. People in the fourth phase of life no longer have a presence in a story. That’s just how it is, they’re not even considered.

What are students interested in the world of the elderly?

They are fascinated by the mysterious land of aging. What interests them is the question of discrimination. It is not only about discriminatory laws but also about the feeling of not being part of society. It’s obvious to them that it’s necessary to address this issue and they realize that they haven’t thought about it with the older people up until now. Once I let them discuss in groups when does sexuality cease to exist. They came to the conclusion that this would be at the age of 45 …  Another question they had to discuss was: “What are eighty year olds like? ” They realized that there is no clear answer – that age is experienced on an individual basis. But also that it is culturally embedded what an older person can and cannot do.

Thank you for this interview.