MAASTRICHT. The Netherlands has almost 2,000 centenarians. And while nobody is particularly keen on growing old themselves, people seem to be fascinated by centenarians. For their Marble project, five Arts and Culture students interviewed nine centenarians and examined the representation of old age in culture.
Getting old implies physical changes, maybe feeling less fit, and having people treat you as if you’re always in need of help – even if you’re not. But centenarians have a kind of ‘wow’ effect: “As soon as someone celebrates their 100th birthday, it’s as though they’ve crossed a magical line”, says German student Nina Rothermel. She met two Sardinians and a German centenarian. “I googled some old people’s homes in Aachen and got in touch with a German woman who’s now 104 years old. Concerning the other two interviewees, Sardinians: I did my Erasmus programme there and asked some friends if they knew local centenarians. Sardinia has one of the world’s highest documented percentages of people over 100.”
Rothermel was impressed by her interviewees’ fitness and good mental health. “They thought it was cute I was interested, but they were also surprised. Turning 100 wasn’t very special to them. For example, I asked how they’d celebrated their birthday. ‘Well, you know, it’s just another day’, one answered. For one of the Sardinians a big party had been organised and everyone was invited. Of course he enjoyed it, he told me, but to him it was also a bit exaggerated.”
The students met the interviewees several times to establish a relationship. “I asked them their daily routine, if they needed support, I asked about their social contacts, how much life had changed since they got older, and so on. I was impressed by their honesty. They didn’t present themselves in a favourable light, but openly addressed difficulties and problems such as care dependency and loneliness.” The project did not finalize its conclusions yet. “To me it was an opportunity to meet people you would otherwise not have come into contact with. It changed the way I looked at older people and made me reflect more critically on what it means to be old in our society.”
Besides the interviews, the five students analysed cultural artefacts related to ageing and the ‘oldest old’ especially. Rothermel looked at the portrait series by the American photographer Mark Story, Living in three centuries: The face of age. The black-and-white portraits show centenarians from around the world. Rather than take pictures of them in their environment, he chose to do the shoot with a black background. “The use of light exaggerated the unevenness of their faces and highlighted wrinkles. He objectified his sitters rather than let them appear as subjects in their own right.” Another group member investigated the opposite, Karsten Thormaelen’s Jahrhundertmensch: the photographer who wanted to show ageing as incredibly beautiful. “The people’s faces were very smooth. By means of Photoshop, the artist give a more romanticized view of centenarians.”