Aug 2, 2013

Hollywood: How do we "picture" aging? by Karen Austin



Guest Blogger Bio: Karen D. Austin is a gerontologist who spend her time as an adjunct, blogger, and volunteer with older adults in a variety of venues. She lives in Wichita, Kansas with her husband and two children. Her approach to aging is part science, part performance art. She blogs at The Generation above Me. Follow her on Twitter @TheGenAboveMe

About five years ago, I started to maintain a list of films that feature people from late midlife on.  I was still teaching college English at the time and well versed in the concerns of those 18 to 25. I spent three decades supporting the intellectual development of young adults. Sometimes I offered them a little emotional support, too. 

I am interested in human growth and development, but because I spent so much time in a university setting with undergraduates, I was woefully inattentive about life challenges and opportunities for those 50 plus.

Watching these films peaked my curiosity.  I won’t claim that watching movies was the only catalyst for my career change. However, five years and 100 films later, I have quit teaching college English. I recently finished a master’s in Aging Studies. And I’m preparing to teach a class about films that depict aging issues.  My students will be both traditional and nontraditional, providing for multiple perspectives.

Now it seems that Hollywood is making films that star seasoned actors faster than I can view them.  Or is this just because I’m hyperaware? 

I remember when I bought a VW, it seemed everyone had a VW. When I was pregnant, the number of pregnant women crossing my path seemed to grow exponentially. And now that I’m interested in active aging, it seems there is more information about managing the aging process than I can consume.

The more I observe the aging process, the more I discover its complexities.  People in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond are a diverse group. I can see this complexity in the films I’m watching, even though they at times exaggerate the human experience.  But such exaggerations make it easier to see things that real life might obscure through subtlety.

These themes have emerged: films about sex and love, films about managing male power, films about artists, films about athletes, films about family drama, films about generational conflict, films about road trips, films about communal living, films about meeting the challenges of illness, films about how to cope with loss. In other words, films featuring an infinite number of life experiences.  

By taking a closer look at aging through films, I found that people in midlife and late life do pretty much the same things that young adults do. Love, laugh, live.  Earn, yearn, spurn.  Each age group just strives for the same things—self-expression, intimacy, creativity, self-determination, community, etc.--with their own spin.  

Here is a short list of films that I found that taught me that the concerns of people 50 plus defy the stereotype that people in the second half of life are boring, inflexible, and stagnant. Not true. Like all people, midlife adults and older adults are interesting, dynamic and developing.  

  • Age of Champions (2001). This documentary profiles a handful of athletes as they prepare for and compete at The National Senior Games.
  • Boynton Beach Club (2005). This film mixes comedy and drama as it shows six older singles adjusting to single life and the dating scene after decades of marriage. 
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011).  A master sushi chef is still perfecting his craft and mentoring others at age 85.
  • On a Clear Day (2005). When the lead character is laid off at midlife, he must find a new purpose. His friends, wife and son all respond differently to his decision to take up long-distance swimming.
  • Quartet (2012). Having a long-history sharing work lives and social lives makes living in the same retirement community more complex than living in a college dorm, but it also makes life more rich.
  • Trouble with the Curve (2012). Despite having to manage age-related challenges, an experienced baseball scout shows that he still maintains a lot of skill and strength when co-workers challenge him.

Interested in more titles? See a bigger list that I maintain and update regularly. Recommend a film in the comments below.

Other guest post written for various blog by Karen Austin can be found here.

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