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On Our Own or All Together?

The Troublesome Question of Aging

by STEVE EARLY and SUZANNE GORDON

“It’s strange. We plan for everything. We insure our cars, our homes. We even insure our lives. But we don’t give a thought to our final years.”

–Jeanne, a character in the French film, All Together

Depending on who you ask or what you read, aging and retirement are the best things that could ever happen to you (considering the alternatives) or an over-hyped stage of life that’s actually filled with social isolation, economic insecurity, and mounting health problems. These bi-polar depictions are both reflected in the burgeoning popular literature about how to navigate the “new old age”—that period of life 78 million U.S. Baby Boomers just began to enter, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or trepidation.

Given this huge demographic, it’s not surprising that more movies now focus on the tribulations of the old. They include the moving, but terminally grim, Amour, its more uplifting French cousin, All Together, and a charming U.K. import (by way of India), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Although none of these films are set in the U.S., they explore, very accurately, many of the same social, economic, and health care dilemmas facing millions of people in our country, due to increased longevity.

When the Oscar-nominated Amour opened near Berkeley, we joined a privileged slice of our generational cohort to find out what might be in store for us, several decades down the road. Statistically speaking, of course, not everyone currently in their sixties will still be collecting Social Security checks twenty years from now, even if they’re white, affluent, and feeling rather chipper today. For anyone counting on being alive and kicking in their seventies, eighties, or beyond, director Michael Haneke’s film is quite the reality check. In fact, it’s what used to be called, in The Sixties’,  “a real bummer.”

Not Aging Gracefully

Amour is the twilight tale of a long-married French couple, Georges and Anne, a retired teacher of concert pianists. He is played by 82-year old Jean-Louis Trintignant and she by 85-year old Emmanuelle Riva. (Riva is the oldest Academy Award nominee for best actress in a leading role and deserves to win on Feb. 24).

Georges and Anne are “aging in place,” but not gracefully. They haven’t moved into a retirement community or long-term care facility, of the U.S. or even French type. They have a distant relationship with their off-spring, who live or work much of the time abroad. They seem to have no close friends. So their social contact is limited to the concierge in their building, his helpful wife, and infrequent visitors, like their self-absorbed daughter or a successful former student of Anne’s. As Anne becomes disabled by a series of strokes, their gloomy, high-ceilinged apartment becomes their own private geriatric ghetto.

Their life first takes this turn for the worse in a fashion familiar to many people over-65, who have the misfortune of being hospitalized and then discharged in worse shape than before. Failed surgery on a blocked carotid artery leaves Anne partially paralyzed. She is unable to walk, take a shower, get out of bed, or go to the bathroom by herself. After suffering a further stroke at home, she becomes totally bed-ridden, incoherent, incontinent, and dependent on the use of adult diapers. In one of her remaining moments of lucidity, Anne makes it clear to Georges that she does not wish to be hospitalized again, under any circumstances. Even after she has lost the ability to speak, she tries to communicate her “end of life” decision-making by refusing food and water.

Like many real-life spousal caregivers, Georges struggles with the physical and emotional burdens of round-the-clock care. Money for home health aides, who eventually become necessary, appears to be no object; but “good help” in that field can be hard to find. As played by Trintignant, the exhausted Georges is both tender and impatient, loving and uncomprehending. Faced with the prospect of even greater loneliness as a widower, he has trouble coming to grips with Anne’s desire to die in peace, rather than live disabled, disoriented, and in physical pain. How he resolves that matter is less than ideal.

Less Truthful Than Amour?

Directed by Stephane Robelin, All Together affects the light-hearted air of a French farce, a far cry from Amour. This apparently irked New York Times critic Stephen Holden when the film opened briefly in New York last fall, so he proclaimed it to be less “truthful about those final years” than Haneke’s “heartbreaking masterpiece.”

All Together can now be found on Netflix but, in truth, it has no shortage of its own age-related disability, disease, and death. These afflictions take their toll in a livelier set of French seniors, who are cher amis. The main characters include two married couples—Annie and Jean, Albert and Jeanne–plus their longtime bachelor friend, Claude. All have socialized together for years as part of the same comfortably bourgeois circle, with a shared interest in food, wine, politics, and ideas.

In one of the film’s early scenes, the police break up a Paris street protest led by an over-wrought Jean, still wielding a bullhorn like a young left-wing agitator. We learn that he and his fellow retirees are all veterans of campus activism long ago. Fittingly enough for a film with characters so inspired and a smooth French-speaking performance by Jane Fonda, a real-life Sixties’ radical, All Together conveys an important message: namely, that a sad, hermetic existence is not the only option for the old. Instead, these Gallic soixante huitards set out to prove (not for the first time) that “another world is possible.”

What triggers their late-in-life social experimentation is the hospitalization of 75-year old Claude.  He is an aging lothario once linked romantically to both Annie and Jeanne, unbeknownst to each other or their current spouses. Stricken with a heart attack, he lands in a French rehab facility that looks pretty nice by U.S. standards. Yet, when his friends come to see Claude, they share his dismay at the condition of other elderly patients. “This place is full of fossils,” one visitor says. “I’m not letting an old friend croak in this hole,” another declares.

On the spot, they decide to liberate Claude from the company of the palsied, demented, and wheelchair bound. They spirit him out of his chateau-like nursing home and move in together, at Annie and Jean’s many-roomed house, with a big garden in back. “Going hippy,” as Annie calls it, is not without inter-personal problems and tensions. Jeanne, the retired philosophy professor played by Fonda, has terminal cancer, a condition she attempts to conceal from her husband.  Albert’s worsening memory loss (and resulting absentmindedness around running water) leads to a damaging flood. To help them all cope, the communards hire younger live-in help, including a German graduate student who is studying the treatment of the elderly in different societies and becomes their in-house ethnographer.

The backyard is soon dug up and a pool installed, a move long resisted by the politically puritanical Jean. The expanded household is rewarded with the laughter and play of visiting grandchildren. When Jeanne dies in her new home, with her friends around her, Albert soon forgets that she has expired. He panics at the thought that she may have just become lost and tries to search for her. The now multi-generational intentional community rallies around him, in a touching display of solidarity. Aging in place, in collective fashion, looks a lot better than the institutionalized care that Claude narrowly escaped from or the lonely fate of Anne and Georges in Amour.

The Off-Shoring of Old Age

The British expatriates thrown together more randomly in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are played by an ensemble cast better-known to American audiences than Fonda’s fellow actors in All Together.  Directed by John Madden, the film features Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (both age 78), Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Dev Patel, the 23-year old Anglo-Indian actor who played Jamal, the upwardly mobile prize-show contestant in Slumdog Millionaire.  Like Holden in The Times criticizing All Together, Boston reviewer Allen Stone dismissed Madden’s work as “a fairy tale for old people—an anodyne against the cruel reality.”

In fact, the film unfolds against a very realistic backdrop of economic crisis, the fiscal squeeze on pensions, dwindling personal retirement savings, and what Patel’s character, Sonny, calls the “out sourcing of aging,” a trend that has sent more than a million Americans abroad, to places where their fixed incomes can go further.

The disparate retirees who land in Jaipur have, with one exception, never set foot in India before, so the culture shock is extreme. They include a quarrelsome married couple just fleeced out of their retirement nest egg. (Nighy plays the harried husband who decides to stay behind when his spouse evacuates to England). Other Marigold guests are divorced, never-married, or recently widowed singles with their own personal and financial baggage or romantic agendas. Among them is a closeted gay judge, now retired from the bench (played by Wilkinson), a middle-class widow (Dench), whose recently deceased husband left her unexpectedly penniless, and a newly laid off household servant for the rich (Smith), who has been unhappily dispatched to India for an outsourced hip replacement, to avoid waiting in line at the National Health Service.

All are unsettled to discover that the retirement paradise advertised, on-line, by Marigold’s hyper-kinetic young manager (Patel) is more of a shambles than a jewel of the Raj. Fortunately, their humid, dumpy quarters are right in the middle of Jaipur’s teeming, colorful street life, to which the new residents react in varying ways. Wilkinson’s character is briefly re-united with his one-time Indian lover, now a middle-aged married man; he soon expires, peacefully and happily, of heart failure in a Marigold Hotel easy chair.

Smith’s bitter and distrustful former maid overcomes her racism, bonds unexpectedly with a family of Dalit “untouchables,” and rebounds from surgery to become Sonny’s much-needed bookkeeper. Like millions of real-life seniors also forced back to work to support themselves, Dench’s character snags a part-time job in a local call center. There, she coaches young Indian telemarketers on how to communicate better with cranky old U.K.-based customers like the one she used to be.

Out of their individual and collective struggle to find a place for themselves as strangers in a strange land, the guests of the Marigold—or those who don’t die or defect—manage to forge a new sense of community. They work together to rescue their residential hotel from impending bankruptcy.  The down-market Marigold gets a big makeover and becomes, in the words of their host, Sonny, “a home for the elderly so wonderful they will refuse to die.”

Life Imitating Art?

Now, cynical reviewers may continue to object that the happier endings of All Together and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are simply not “real,” (a legitimate point since neither is a documentary). Yet both films do accurately reflect the aspirations of many older Americans–particularly those influenced by the politics and counter-culture of the Sixties. They are wary of traditional long-term care arrangements, at home or in an institutional setting. And they sure don’t want their own life to become a sad, impoverished replay of Amour, if that can be avoided.

So, instead, many U.S. Baby Boomers, at all income levels, are engaged today in an urgent quest for alternative forms of old age living. These range from cross-generational co-housing projects to natural occurring retirement communities (or NORCs), where neighbors help each other out, to “life care” facilities located on or near college campuses to new retirement villages organized around shared politics, musical tastes, or sexual identity. And then, of course, there’s the Marigold Hotel option in the form of lively, multi-cultural retiree colonies like San Miguel de Allende in Mexico and its counterparts in Costa Rica, Belize, and elsewhere.

Despite its rich and very relevant social content, the current crop of international films on aging may prove to be a mixed blessing. Given the copycat instincts of Hollywood, more Americanized remakes of Marigold or Amour may soon be slated for production. And if The Bucket List or Stand Up Guys–the new buddy film about the last hurrah of three old gangsters—is any indication, they are likely to be pretty awful. Meanwhile, the humor, pathos, and communitarian striving so well captured in All Together and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel will continue to play out in real life, here and abroad, where it really counts after all.

Steve Early and Suzanne Gordon are Bay Area journalists collaborating on a book about how Baby Boomers–particularly those politically or culturally influenced by the Sixties—are dealing with aging and retirement. Any readers with information, insight or ideas related to the experience of  the“new old age” are urged to contact them at: Lsupport@aol.com.