5/6/2022 | By Margit Novack

“Older women aren’t supposed to be adventurous, spontaneous, frivolous, or outrageous, but aren’t these part of what makes life exciting?” In “The Art of Connection” from her book Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life, author and professional senior move manager Margit Novack explores older adults getting body art, including senior tattoos and nail art. (Excerpt used with permission of Margit Novack.)

One day about fifteen years ago, I went to get a haircut and came home with a tattoo. I had never considered it before and can’t tell you why I did it. My husband, who had gotten his first tattoo at age sixty, was delighted; my friends were horrified. I didn’t care! I was part of the growing trend of senior ink.

Tattoos, now considered a form of body art, have long been an example of self-expression. There are many reasons why people get tattoos, but for older adults, a big part of getting a [senior tattoo] is the experience. “It made me feel sort of adventurous and wild,” said tattooed eighty-five-year-old Helen Lambin, of Chicago. That’s how it made me feel, too. It had been a long time since I did anything wild or spontaneous. Getting a tattoo made me feel alive.

Today, 5 percent of people getting their first tattoo are over sixty, and 15 percent of baby boomers have tattoos. A decade earlier, these figures were close to zero.’ Some people cite the change in societal attitudes as giving them more freedom to express themselves through ink. Others credit life stage. Since many folks over sixty are already retired, “You’ll never get a decent job,” is no longer a concern. Neither is, “You’ll regret it later when you’re old and your skin sags.” Their skin already sags. One woman said her mother forbade her, saying, “Over my dead body.” Her mother is now dead. As people get older, they become more comfortable with themselves and are less influenced by what others think about them. Maybe it’s simply being more comfortable in their own skin.

Rich reasons behind senior tattoos and body art

The aspect of senior ink that most intrigues me is that senior tattoos are less about personal expression and more about connection. Helen Lambin says tattoos are how she makes friends. “With my tattoos, I get to talk to people I wouldn’t normally get the chance to meet.”

Five years ago, my brother-in-law Paul informed his five grandchildren that if any of them wanted to get a tattoo, Pop-Pop would get one with them. So far, three of his grandchildren have taken him up on his offer, and he has flown around the country to be with them. [He has built on his own tattoo on each occasion. A Mickey and Minnie tattoo] was created in Boise, Idaho; [a] rose, in Sarasota, Florida. A kaleidoscope was added in Washington, D.C.

I was especially moved when a friend shared the story of her first tattoo:

My husband passed away in 2014 after a three-year journey with pancreatic cancer. While sick, he kept a blog and signed off each post with “All is Good.” His positive attitude is what got me through that entire time. After he passed, I wanted to do something that would in some way mark me as having gone through that. My younger daughter came to me and said she wanted to have “All is good” tattooed on her ankle. I decided that was exactly what I wanted to do as well. Mine is in Hebrew and hers is in English.

She and her daughter are connected through their tattoos, just as the tattoos connect them with their husband and father.

senior woman with tattoo photo by Simona Pilolla, Dreamstime. Senior move manager Margit Novack explores older adults' body art, including senior tattoos and nail art, in a chapter of her book, "Squint."
Senior tattoos are so much more than ink.

They’re not the only ones to use tattoos as a means of connection. Rachel Mashman wrote about how she and her daughter got matching tattoos on the first anniversary of her daughter’s nearly successful suicide attempt. Getting the tattoos created a positive memory to replace the horror of the original day. They chose the image of an arrow, to represent strength, bravery, and moving forward.

Once the hallmark of youth, low life, or wild behavior, tattoos have become mainstream and intergenerational, something you can do with and for others to create a meaningful shared experience. Tattoos can invite discourse and create opportunities to engage with others. They can connect us to those we have lost and to those who are still here. They can make us feel alive and current, even adventurous. Tattoos are so much more than ink.

Studies show that people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to have positive aging outcomes. They live longer, are happier, and have improved cognitive function and a sense of purpose. Conversely, social isolation and loneliness are associated with poor aging outcomes. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) is exploring potential interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness.” Perhaps they should be looking at nail art.

senior woman choosing her nail art. Photo by Denys Kovtun, Dreamstime. Senior move manager Margit Novack explores older adults' body art, including senior tattoos and nail art, in a chapter of her book, "Squint."
Woman choosing her nail art.

Nail art is a way of embellishing nails with designs, artwork, glitter, patterns, and textures. For people of all ages, it’s an opportunity for creativity, self-expression, and fun. It’s also an opportunity for social interaction, and for some older people, nail art has been life-changing. After one eighty-seven-year-old woman was introduced to nail art, she began “hanging out” in the lobby of her senior-living community more than she used to, because people noticed her nails and would start conversations. Another woman in her eighties said nail art expressed her inner artistic side. Older women aren’t supposed to be adventurous, spontaneous, frivolous, or outrageous, but aren’t these part of what makes life exciting?

The National Center for Creative Aging is dedicated to exploring the relationship between creative expression and quality of life of older people. Nail art and tattoos are examples of creative expression, but they are also more than that. They are an opportunity for connection to others. We yearn for connection in every phase of our lives, especially as we age. Connection and creative expression as we age are within everyone’s reach. They’re at the tips of our fingers.

Read the Seniors guide review of Squint or enjoy another excerpt, “Caregiving,” on lessons in caregiving from aging pets. For an entire book of wisdom like these lessons on dividing family possessions and heirlooms, order your copy of Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life by Margit Novack.

Related: When I am old, I shall wear purple … hair

Margit Novack

Margit Novack offers a unique perspective on aging. A pioneer in the senior move management field, Novack founded Moving Solutions in 1996 and helped older adults and their families through the process of downsizing. She helped establish the National Association of Senior and Specialty Move Managers (NASMM) and chaired the group’s ethics commission. Now, Novack is in her early 70s and experiencing some of the issues that her clients and their families faced. She brings her insights to her book, "Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life."