Oscar-Nominated Documentary Goes Deep Inside a Retirement Community
Premiering on HBO March 11, 'Kings Point' holds a mirror to aging — and finds us
Gary Drevitch is senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health & Well-Being channels. Follow Gary on Twitter @GaryDrevitch.
Life in retirement communities is a subject that has become a cliché on screen through the typically condescending or whitewashed approaches of sitcoms, films and reality shows.
The Oscar-nominated documentary short Kings Point, in contrast, achieves its significant power by taking jokiness and saccharine out of the equation. The film's elderly subjects, all longtime residents of a predominantly Jewish retirement community in Delray Beach, Fla., are not caricatures. They're real people, living in a stressful, Darwinian social environment and trying to make the best of the hands they've been dealt — or, more accurately, they've dealt themselves.
Sari Gilman, a veteran documentary editor, decided to make Kings Point her first directorial project after repeated visits to the community to see her late grandmother. Ida Gilman was part of a generation of Northeastern adults inspired to leave their homes for the Southeast by the promise of good weather, companionship, activity and, not coincidentally, the chance to own a home for perhaps the first time in their lives. From 1975 to 1980, according to the Census Bureau, more than half a million people over age 55 moved to Florida. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, new condominiums at Kings Point sold for about $25,000.
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"Many people saw this as an opportunity to buy a little piece of the American dream," Gilman says. "It was pitched as a way to retire to a life of luxury and that's how people felt when they first went down there."
Gilman's grandparents moved to Kings Point in 1978, when she was 9. Her grandfather died there several years later. When she visited them as a girl, Gilman recalls thinking of Kings Point as "summer camp for older people." But over the years, she noticed, the residents slowed down, ambulance sirens became more common and more people in Ida's circle began to disappear. Illness, loneliness and a difficult dating scene became the new facts of retirement life.
"I would hear the conversations my grandmother had with her friends," Gilman says. "I knew there was something else lurking there and I wanted to find out more about it."
Her half-hour film, which incorporates footage shot over almost 10 years, focuses on a group of five retirees who came to Kings Point in its early days and who, 30 years later, face the reality of aging in a closed community far from their families.
Kings Point competed for the Academy Award with documentaries about cancer, heart disease, poverty and homelessness (the eventual winner, Inocente), and yet The New York Times, in its review of the nominees, called Gilman's film "the saddest" of the lot.
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Gilman knows that many see her documentary as a cautionary tale, but she believes its message is more universal. "At the beginning, I saw the subjects in a more anthropological way — they were different than me and older than me. But toward the end, I saw myself in every one of them.
"They were going through the same things I was," Gilman says. Gert, for example, calls her friends on a Saturday night because she has nothing to do; Bea "shamelessly" pursues a man in the community, "trying to get something from some guy, but never getting what she wants"; and Frank, a widower, stays in a relationship "that's not really satisfying to him, because he doesn’t want to make a change."
One resident tells Gilman that at Kings Point, "You’re alone, but you’re not alone" — and the director thinks that message resonates beyond South Florida. "We all struggle with the desire for community and independence and try to strike a balance between those two things."
Moving to communities like Kings Point "is a way not to be alone," she says, "and for a lot of people, it still works that way."
For viewers nearing retirement, though, the sometimes harsh realities of life in the community can give pause. One especially challenging aspect of the film is how some residents appear to abandon friends and neighbors in declining health.
"On a very practical level, you don't want to hang out with friends and neighbors who can't be activity partners," Gilman says, "but it's also scary to see somebody who's a reminder of your own mortality. Looking out for No. 1 is a defense mechanism, a natural response. Even though it doesn't look pretty, it makes a lot of sense."
And yet, seeing others ostracized on a daily basis takes its toll on the residents. "I observed a secret shame that some people felt" when they became less independent, Gilman says. "Our culture places such a strong emphasis on staying independent and self-reliant. These are all things everybody wants."
When Kings Point residents began failing to meet those standards, she says, "I noticed almost a self-hating in people." Her grandmother was a case in point: When she started using a walker, she stopped sitting by the pool out of embarrassment.
While the lifestyle portrayed in the film may be falling somewhat out of favor, Gilman is quick to point out that "most people down there really enjoyed themselves for a long time." Many scenes reflect the continued active social life of the community, including dances, card games, exercise classes and afternoons by the pool.
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Of course, for the residents, it's a life that goes on in the absence of their children and grandchildren, who were left behind when they moved to Florida. "It's really important to remember that all the people who went down to Kings Point chose to go there," Gilman says. "There's a stereotype that if only their children would have welcomed them into their homes, it wouldn’t have happened. But many parents don't want to move in with their kids. My grandparents didn't. It was like a badge of middle-class status to say: I don't need to live with my children."
At the same time, she adds, "Suburbia is a hard place to grow old. Our suburbs were developed with young families in mind and a lot of them aren't conducive to aging." And so, thousands left.
Today, four decades after the first wave of retirees descended on Florida's gated communities, changes in the way we retire and age may be making that choice more problematic. "This idea of moving thousands of miles away from your family was an experiment that kind of worked for some people and not others and it may be less popular now," Gilman says, in large part because Americans, on average, have longer life spans.
"I asked everyone in the film, 'When you were my age, is this how you imagined life would be?' Across the board, they said, 'We never thought we'd live this long.'"