The Age of "Honor"
Have no doubt, we live in a youth-centered culture. The desire to remain forever young is fueled by all manner of media, which celebrate youth to the annoyance of those of us who have been around long enough to see how mean gravity can be (yet still would not dream of returning to our teenage or twentysomething years). In the midst of all the glory, one niggling fact of life is ignored: We're all going to die. But before that -- and perhaps more frightening to those inculcated by the cult of youth -- we're going to grow old.
Assuming for a moment that I rely on popular culture for all my information, what I want to know is, where do we learn to grow old? Certainly not on television. When compared with the elderly in most ordinary peoples' lives, those depicted on television are eccentric. The grandmother on Malcolm in the Middle (Cloris Leachman) is a witch-in-the-forest kind of woman who torments everyone around her. Overbearing elders -- like the Costanzas (Seinfeld), Frank and Marie Barone (Everybody Loves Raymond), the feisty Benny Lopez on The George Lopez Show, or the manipulative Victor Pellet (Dennis Farina) on The In-Laws -- all constantly meddle in their children's lives when they're not being annoying. The opposite of these characterizations is the financially secure, but more importantly, distant (geographically or parentally) elder who occasionally drops by to spread good cheer. The Cosby Show had two pairs of robust, elegant grandparents. Brooke Shields had her nana on Suddenly Susan, while the new fall season welcomes a geriatric party girl in Good Morning, Miami's Suzanne Pleshette, who dispenses love life advice to her starchy grandson over mimosas.
There are always exceptions. While Tyne Daly's Maxine Gray on Judging Amy dips into her daughter Amy's business (hey, Amy moved in with her), she is devoted to her family and career and, hark, she even has sex once in a while.
Clearly, TV's focus on the aging process, both by elders and their offspring, is narrow. Statistics show that the baby boomer generation is not only aging, but living longer and in many cases is "the first generation in which couples have more parents than children" to care for, according to Alan Solomont, founder of HouseWorks, a Massachusetts organization that provides elder care services.
A reflection of this trend is in The King of Queens. Arthur Spooner (Jerry Stiller) is an elderly character who lives with his childless daughter and her husband specifically because of his care needs. He accidentally burned down his house following his wife's death and refused to move into a retirement home. Perhaps the most complex portrayal of a baby boomer's anxiety over an aging parent was in an episode of Once and Again. Lily Sammler (Sela Ward) not only reached out to care for her proud, pre-Alzheimer's impaired mother, but expressed the grief that comes with realizing that a parent is in declining health.
It is this very delicate and poignant aspect of aging that is examined in the PBS documentary, And Thou Shalt Honor. The film airs as part of a statewide initiative, spearheaded by Texas agencies devoted to the aging process and by KLRU, to bring attention to the state of elder care across the U.S. The documentary includes first-person interviews with caregivers and their loved ones from across the nation, speaking about their circumstances, choices, contradictory feelings about caregiving, and the difficulties that come with it.
"When a loved one dies, you grieve and, over time, adjust to the loss. But in caregiving, especially for an elderly parent in decline, the grieving process is ongoing," says Lois Escobar, a family caregiving consultant in San Francisco.
And Thou Shalt Honor accomplishes two very important tasks. The first is the obligatory storytelling aspect, allowing viewers potentially in the same situation to hear that they are not alone. The other is a very clear, though indirect, call to arms. That the U.S., one of the most powerful nations in the world, has such an abysmal system for elder care should inspire even the most apolitical to write to their congressman, start a petition, make some phone calls, or write a letter to an editor.
The documentary has an excellent companion textbook (And Thou Shalt Honor, a Caregiver's Companion, Beth Witrogen McLeod, ed., Rodale Press) with useful advice for caregivers. The checklists alone (e.g. "Does Your Loved One Require Care?") are well worth the cost of the book and particularly helpful to new caregivers bewildered by decisions before them. A recently launched Web site provides caregivers resources across the nation: www.thoushalthonor.org.
Future screenings of And Thou Shalt Honor are Oct. 9, 8pm; Oct. 11, 3am; Oct. 13, 2pm; and Oct. 16, 3:30am, on KLRU.
E-mail Belinda Acosta at firstname.lastname@example.org