Where are you going to live during the final years of your life?
Will it be with your children and grandchildren or will you be living in a senior development wondering if your children can find time for you this weekend?
More and more, everyone is busy and weekends are no longer devoted to family gatherings with grandparents, cousins and the extended family. These gatherings have been replaced with work, sports activities and tutors. Extended families are more frequently scattered and the few gatherings that do take place require months of planning with lots of emails and text messaging.
Can we say that we, or the seniors in our family, are any better off today?
I was lucky to have three grandparents. My most wonderful summer memories of my youth were spent in a Catskill Mountains bungalow colony with one grandmother and two grandfathers. We had two attached bungalows and my bed was in the kitchen. Evenings we sat outside with the citronella candle; I was mesmerized by stories of their lives in Europe, a world that was imaginary to me; the Russo-Japanese War, World Wars, gypsies and more.
One grandfather went off to Florida every winter. We wrote letters and he would come to New York for holidays, graduations and other important family events. His last trip to New York was at age 97 when I was a first year medical student, in 1973, when he came to die near his family. I was frustrated by my inability to ease his pain and suffering and that was not how I wanted to remember him.
For the families and the seniors that by circumstance or choice chose to live apart, there is a great tendency to marginalize the elderly, even those who remain independent. Turns out we are talking about around 50 million people. It is estimated that in the next 15 years, 25 percent of the United States population will be aged 65 years and older. Once you reach age 65 years, you can expect to live another 20 years. Indeed, the National Institute on Aging has cautioned, "a silver tsunami is approaching for which we are unprepared."
Atul Gawande, wrote an article in The New Yorker in 2007 entitled "The Way We Age Now". He stated that people naturally prefer to avoid the subject of their decrepitude. We put off changes that we need to make as a society and deprive ourselves of opportunities to change the individual experience of aging for the better.
The Academy Award nominated and critically acclaimed short documentary Kings Point forces us to see the concerns and struggles of seniors who live alone, do not want to be a burden to their family and turn to one another for support and fulfillment in their lives. It's a magnificent film that leaves one pondering all of these issues. It is the wake-up call we all need to understand the mindsets of our parents and grandparents as they contemplate the final stages of their lives.
The film opens with a colorful sunny view of Kings Point, and then flashes back to the grey starkness of New York City, the place that these retirees have left, hoping for a better life as widows and widowers, parents and grandparents, entering what they know is the final stage of life. Staring you in the face is a heartwarming, intelligent, articulate and thoughtful group of seniors who are desperate to find companionship and love for whatever time they have remaining. They are realistic about life, each bringing to Kings Point sadness and loss. What I found amazing was the sense of optimism the residents of Kings Points display. One resident so poignantly says, "self-preservation is our number one priority".
They want to be joyous. Residents say, "you try to fill your day the best you can"; "I don't want to hear other people's complaints". We see them as fashionable and elegant at their New Year's Eve Party. I cried bittersweet tears when they hugged each other at the stroke of midnight.
As I watched this film, I thought of my grandfather who chose to live in Florida. Shortly after his death, the phone kept ringing. So many women called from his residence in Florida (happens to have been the now very chic Delano Hotel) with stories of friendship and love. We were all shocked to learn that our 97-year-old grandfather had such an active social life. I could see him as a resident in Kings Point.
By giving us up close views of these seniors living far from family, one can't help but feel that we as a society must do a better job of embracing those confronting this stage of life. Why have we, so easily, relegated them to living in isolated communities? This film gives us pause to re-think how we are handling our impending "silver tsunami".
Barbara E. Paris, MD, FACP is Vice Chair Medicine & Director, Geriatrics at Maimonides Medical Center and Professor of Geriatric Medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.