Becoming a “Vulnerable Senior” in the Days of COVID-19

Hans-Georg Eilenberger, Annemie Halsema, Lotte Schuitmaker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, older people in the Netherlands were framed as essentially vulnerable. In the public discourse, the figure of the “vulnerable senior” rose to unprecedented prominence. Taking a critical-phenomenological approach, we combine an empirical study with philosophical reflection, drawing on phenomenological and post-structuralist work on vulnerability and precarity to interpret quotes from daily newspapers and other media. This approach leads us to distinguish three forms of vulnerability: (1) vulnerability as discursive effect; (2) vulnerability as unrealizable; and (3) vulnerability as creative appropriation. We conclude that the COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the entanglement of age and vulnerability and has led to novel social distinctions and labels. These labels harbor harmful stereotypes and are in constant need of critical evaluation. Still, the people who are affected by them are not passively dominated; rather, they exhibit a certain freedom in re-interpreting and challenging their situation. It is this attention to the entanglement of discourse and lived experience that situates our research in the broader field of critical phenomenology.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-57
JournalPuncta. Journal of Critical Phenomenology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • COVID-19
  • Judith Butler


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