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Aging in Film and TV: Writing the ‘World as it Actually Is’

By Emma Ayers and Fay Gordon

[Editor’s note: This post was originally published 2/29/16 on American Society on Aging’s AgeBlog.]  

Each day, we see the impacts of aging, whether within ourselves or in conversations with family and friends. But when we curl up at the end of the day, and escape into the world of streaming TV and film, the images reflected back at us paint a picture far different from reality.

Unfortunately, as we were reminded during last night’s Academy Awards, the stories told in films, and the actors telling those stories, often fail to reflect the diversity of experience in this country. In 2015’s top grossing films, aging was portrayed through the eyes of a wealthy businessman (The Intern), adventurous globetrotting pensioners (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and a woman who physically cannot age (The Age of Adeline).

These films hardly represent the real drama of aging in America, the actual stories of older adults and their caregivers. Part of the entertainment industry’s sluggish evolution to reflect diversity should include characters and plotlines that accurately highlight our aging demographic and the accompanying economic insecurity that so many experience. More than 25 million older Americans are economically insecure, and more than 65 million Americans are family caregivers. With nearly a third of our population aging with financial challenges or caring for a loved one through the process, their lives are part of the fabric of our modern cultural story.

Maybe the film and television industries just need a little inspiration to create an honest narrative on what it means to age in America. As Shonda Rhimes recently said in her acceptance speech at the Producers Guild Awards: “It’s not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is.”

So, Hollywood, to help you get started, here’s our pitch of a few characters and plotlines that shed light on the world of an older adult as it actually is. Please feel free to work in to your current projects however you like. But Netflix, Amazon, Hulu—we’re looking to you for an original series.

A couple navigating the reality of retirement after 2008:

Ed and John are a couple in their mid-70s. In 2005, after working their whole lives, they retired, only to find their 401(k)s obliterated by the recession. Forced to take out a reverse mortgage on their house to cover bills, they’re now underwater and back to work. John works as a part-time cashier at a corner store and as the nightshift attendant at a downtown office building. Between John’s two jobs, Ed’s weekly dialysis appointments and shifts at a big box discount store, the two are fighting to make ends meet with no “golden years” in sight.

A lifelong San Franciscan hoping to live out her life at home:

Maria is an older woman who has lived in San Francisco’s Mission District her entire life. Recently, all the tenants in her apartment building received Ellis Act eviction notices as her landlord intends to turn her building into luxury condominiums. Maria has relied on her neighbors to help her remain comfortable at home. Without children or family, and a monthly SSI benefit of less than $900 that won’t cover a market-rate apartment, she is living in fear of becoming homeless or being forced to move to a nursing home. Thomas, a housing rights organizer and part of a coalition of advocates working to improve the SSI program at the national level, hears of Maria’s situation and invites her to testify in a senior poverty hearing to heighten awareness of the issue and push for change.

A daughter grows up and into a new role as her mother’s caregiver:

Steph is a busy middle-aged mother with young children, juggling two jobs. After her father passed away, she took on the responsibility of managing her mother Kathleen’s healthcare. With the help of Medicaid hours for personal care aides and food stamps to supplement her mother’s Social Security checks, everything fits into place and Kathleen is able to age in dignity. But when Kathleen takes just one fall, the system that Steph carefully patched together for her mom comes apart. After two months in a rehab facility, Kathleen loses her Medicaid eligibility due to a glitch in the system. Steph, stretched to the limit, begins having healthcare problems of her own. She doesn’t know where to turn for help—she thinks they can’t afford a lawyer and there are not enough hours in the day for her to take on another job. Eventually a friend puts her in contact with a local legal aid attorney who helps her appeal the Medicaid decision and get things back on track.

These vignettes are just a small glimpse into the challenges facing low-income older adults, their families and caregivers. As a nation, we have our work cut out for us to address the healthcare and economic security needs of a rapidly aging population. And the creative, comprehensive answers to meet these needs involve a cultural shift as much as improved policies and legal protections. The more visibility we lend to real stories of aging will help us reach the important goal of ensuring the rights of all older adults to age with dignity.

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