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How Movies Depict Caregiving

Portrayals of advanced age in popular culture don’t give us much to look forward to


“La vecchiaia è carogna.”
 
I first encountered that Italian phrase in Dino, Nick Tosches’ wildly imaginative 1992 biography of Dean Martin. It means “Old age is carrion” — not an encouraging sentiment. Taking liberties with his subject, Tosches places the phrase in Martin’s head when he is only 54 years old, but in a particularly bad mood.
 
What is old age today? Although changing attitudes have given rise to the notion that 50 might be the new 30, or 70 the new 50, fictional depictions of advanced age in popular culture don’t give us much to look forward to. This year’s Academy Award winner for best foreign language film, the Iranian A Separation, shows the lead male character’s frantic attempts to keep his family together while endeavoring to do the right thing by his dad, who is hobbled by dementia. The son’s efforts inadvertently cause a chain of events that lead to him getting hauled up on a murder charge, more or less. And the film’s depiction of the old man’s diminished life is unpleasantly potent.
 
Similarly dark, Tamara Jenkins’ 2007 tragicomedy The Savages shows its title siblings, a couple of arty middle-aged fumblers played by Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, reluctantly taking on caretaker roles necessitated by their dad’s illness. That illness, also a form of dementia, is enacted by the veteran actor Phillip Bosco with uncanny commitment — and to heartbreaking effect — even when he’s acting out in the most grotesque way. Which he does in the very first scene.
 
In Sarah Polley’s 2006 Away From Her, a caring husband institutionalizes his Alzheimer’s-suffering wife. He then finds her not only forgetting who he is but forming a strong bond with a fellow patient. The almost inconceivable pain of this situation was compounded for many viewers of a certain age by the fact that said wife is played by Julie Christie, the drop-dead-gorgeous Swinging ’60s icon who, while still a surpassingly gorgeous screen presence, is, to put it simply, not young anymore.
 
If you get past 50 and your parents are still living, movies like these give you a particular frisson. Two frissons, maybe — the first having to do with your responsibilities to your elders; the second, a response to the open question of who will take care of you when you become old and possibly infirm.
 
I myself have never been one to go to art for practical advice on how to live. But I have the feeling that if I did, I’d be mighty disappointed. I mean, what’s the upside of King Lear, right? In real life, there are plenty of examples of vital old age to inspire us: The still-working Julie Christie turns 72 in April, and while Clint Eastwood may now be too craggy even for Mount Rushmore, he’s still churning out something like a feature film every 18 months. Of course, the actual condition of our, you know, mortality means there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to emulate those examples.
 
Meanwhile, the idea of aging we see promulgated in most art is something along the lines of “hope for the best, expect the worst.” Not for nothing did Neil Young once sing, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.
 
On the other hand, Mr. Young himself will turn 70 in 2015, God willing, and he still hasn’t turned down the volume. So you never know. 

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