Retirement resorts don't look so rosy in documentary film

Los Angeles Times

When we get to a certain age -- kids launched or launching, our own parents frail or gone from us -- it’s only natural to start wondering about how the years are going to go and what we will do with the rest of them, along with where we will do it.

“Kings Point,” a documentary directed and produced by Sari Gilman, makes you think even harder about those questions. It features five people who years ago did what many older Americans choose to do: pull up stakes and move to a retirement resort where they can dance, play golf and cards or enjoy a broad array of other activities and hobbies cheek by  jowl with other retirees.

But the years have rolled on for Jane, Mollie, Gert, Bea and Frank, and the times are no longer as easy and happy at Kings Point as they were when they first moved to Florida.

Frank is passing his days with Bea but wants to find someone younger. Gert is adamant that she will not move in with her children -- and doesn’t think they would want her to anyway. Mollie, who came to Kings Point with her now-deceased husband after he had a heart attack, regrets that she ever left New York. The five people talk about how hard it is to foster deep friendships where they live, whether they could ever fall in love again and how people at Kings Point keep their illnesses to themselves.

People in Los Angeles can watch the short film through Thursday at the Laemmle NoHo7 as part of the International Documentary Assn.’s DocuWeeks 2012 program.

I spoke with Gilman about the film, which is dedicated to her grandmother Ida Gilman. Here’s some of the interview, edited down for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to make the film?

My grandmother lived [at Kings Point] for 30 years and I visited her from the time I was about 9. I When I was younger, I was really fascinated by the place -- it seemed like summer camp for old people.

[But over time things shifted:] I saw a lot of loneliness, and I saw a lot of people staying in and not going out as much.  If you had your health, that kind of made you popular. And if you didn’t, people stopped coming by. I would hear people at the pool sort of whispering, ‘Oh, Ida --  she’s going down.’

All of a sudden, everyone was going to the doctor instead of going to the clubhouse, but people didn’t want to hear the other person complain. I imagined there was a lot going on internally with the residents there, but they didn’t have an opportunity to talk to each other about it.

When I turned my camera on, they seemed very eager to have someone listen to them.

Were the five people you featured fairly representative of other people living there?

I picked them [because] they had the most complete stories I could tell in a film format. But yes, their experiences were very similar to other people that I interviewed. I think it’s not the case that no one has deep relationships -- I think some people did. But this other side of the picture -- people would say you don’t really make friends,  you just make acquaintances -- was definitely true of a lot of the people I talked to.

Again, not everyone. My grandmother had a  wonderful relationship with a woman who lived across the walk from her who was also widowed early on. But people definitely found it difficult to make lasting deep friendships, I think.

Why might that be?

It’s hard to say. I think its probably a function of a lot of things, not least of which is that it’s a stage in life when you feel you have your friends.

I certainly think that people are less inclined to get attached to people later in life. I’m 43, and I notice it just gets harder to keep yourself open to new experiences as you get older. People shut down a little bit.

But I think that some of it is that people are kind of afraid to hang around with people who are getting sick. One woman who was not included in the  film said that people are afraid that the sickness is going to rub off on you.

Would you want to go to a retirement community? Would you want your parents to?

I would not want to go to one, because I see the negative effects of not living in a  multigenerational place. As a middle-aged person, I  enjoy being around people who are older and younger than me. And I expect and hope that’s going to continue to be the case.

That’s also the case with my parents. They live in New York and have an ongoing debate about where to retire to. My father wants to stay in New York. My mother wants go somewhere warm. But I don’t think either wants to go to a community that’s age-segregated in that way.

Even though I don’t really think that far in advance,  I do think the film made me realize that I have my own fears of dying alone, of being alone when I’m old. I think that the fiim is ultimately about that fear and that desire to have companionship, whether in a lover or in a friendship.

I don’t think that not going to a retirement community is any guarantee that you won’t end up by yourself, but to me, it seems that the concept of age-segregated retirement was kind of an experiment.  And I don’t have the statistics to back it up, but I think as the baby boomers age, fewer people are going to do what that generation of people did. I know a lot of retirement communities are in cities or outside of cities, but I think the idea of going thousands of miles away from your family is becoming less popular.

What’s a better way?

The film doesn’t really provide solutions. And I also don’t know that in 2012 in the U.S. we can suddenly start advocating for children to let their parents move in with them. I feel like it’s somehow too late for that. We value independence so highly -- and I don’t think even if children make parents feel welcome that the parents would automatically want to go live with them.

I do think that there are models out there being developed now -- intergenerational communities -- and I think those hold some promise.

But I also think that part of [the problem] is the model for retirement that we’ve been working with for the past 50 years. We’re living so much longer now that I think we need to rethink what retirement means. The idea of a 30-year extended vacation might not be the most sustainable and advisable thing to do. The problem is not who you’re going to live with and who’s going to take care of you, but how are you going to fill your time when you're 80 years old?

[At a retirement resort,] you’re just stuck in this little bubble where you don’t have any stimulation from the outside world or people from different generations. I think that we have to remain engaged in the world. That itself is kind of an antidote to loneliness: Even if you’re not living with your children, or your spouse has died, if you’re part of a community -- being productive or being engaged in what's going on in the world other than just the shows and the card games -- I think your experience might be a lot more fulfilling. 

Should we be discussing this with our loved ones now?

I would like the film to inspire conversations. Nobody wants to talk about what’s going to happen when we get old. We stave off those conversations until our families are in crisis.

If we have them early enough maybe some of these problems can be staved off.

I had a conversation with my father where I brought it up. I’m very close to my dad, we talk very directly. I said, 'When the time comes, would you rather have me change your diaper or have a stranger change your diaper?’ He said, ‘Honestly, I think I’d rather have a  stranger  do it.'

It’s OK to have those conversations.

 

 

 

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