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If You Could See Yourself at 80, Would You?

Four fifty-somethings said yes, and a new PBS film reveals what they learn

By Grace Birnstengel

It's one thing to conceptualize your future. It's another thing to actually live it. This is the premise of a new reality TV-style documentary from PBS, premiering Wednesday, March 24.

The MIT AgeLab's AGNES aging suit, designed to help younger users walk in the shoes of an older person.
The MIT AgeLab's AGNES aging suit, designed to help younger users walk in the shoes of an older person  |  Credit: "Fast-Forward"

"Fast-Forward" follows four millennials and their boomer parents through an "aging bootcamp" fit with the MIT AgeLab's Age Gain Now Empathy System (AGNES) suit and a full face of professional prosthetics and makeup.

"How am I going to change my life now so it's better when I'm older?"

Together the parent-child duos experience how their bodies, minds and lives might change over the next 30 years, which sparks revelatory conversations about their futures and how to prepare.

After seeing what these families discover, viewers might want to get started on their own future-planning. To that end, Next Avenue partnered with the filmmakers to create a suite of resources that simplify the process of planning with step-by-step instructions for tasks like creating an advance directive.

We talked with "Fast-Forward" producer and director Michael Eric Hurtig, who shares more about what the film uncovered.  

The four families who took an immersive journey 30 years into the future.
The four families who took an immersive journey 30 years into the future  |  Credit: "Fast-Forward"

Next Avenue: Give me an elevator pitch for the film.

Michael Eric Hurtig: 'Fast-Forward' is a movie about traveling into your eighties to consider how it might feel and how you might look, and consider life at that age. It's essential viewing for anybody that expects to get older — and that would be everyone. It's a social group we all aspire to be part of one day, and this film touches all different audiences and all different perspectives. Our resources offer opportunities for you to create your own 'Fast-Forward' experiences.

What was the inspiration for this film?

I've always been a big fan of time-travel films. My mind is always traveling to places beyond where we are now. We knew that we wanted to approach aging from a different perspective, and I thought: 'Wouldn't it be fun to travel through time to try and answer some of these questions [about getting older], like what this new longevity means?' That's why we ended up creating not just a straight-up documentary, but also a hybrid reality-documentary.

The "Fast-Forward" film poster
Credit: "Fast-Forward"

How did your expectations of the process differ from the reality when you were actually filming?

Taking MIT's aging suit and this makeup and all these experiences and giving them to the younger cast members versus the parents had strikingly different outcomes.

The big takeaway for me, looking as an outsider observing, was that younger people sluff it off and say, 'OK, fifty years away, why would I think about this now?' They take it [the AGNES suit] off and think that was a novel experience. Their experience of it and that empathy had them thinking about their parents and how they needed to, or wanted to, change the conversations they were having so they were all set up for aging together.

Then their parents are much closer to their eighties. Roger in Idaho was sixty-five. In twenty years, he would be eighty-five. When [the parents] put on the suit, there was a different outcome because of that proximity in age and a more striking need to think, 'How am I going to change my life now so it's better when I'm older, I have a better experience or my family is better set up?' They really were brought into that presence with greater force.

Next Avenue put together step-by-step instructions to get
plans in place for the coming years and decades of your life.

Ready to get started? Let's go!

Throughout filming, I realized a lot of the drama here was coming from our parents' stories in the film. I have to say that the initial inspiration for the film was to put younger people in these aging suits, and working with our executive producer Bill Baker who himself is in his seventies, we came to this direction of having the families in the film together, and I think that it would be a very different film if the parents weren't in it.

It was surprising to do the makeup with both Susan and Carol, two of the parents. After Susan spent that time [with the makeup on], she really did go through a transformative experience in terms of thinking about getting older.

I was surprised by that because it was a fun thing and has been done in daytime television and in comedies — where people get aged and it's novel and fun and 'ha-ha.' I didn't really realize just how powerful it would be.

Did you try on the AGNES suit?

I did try on the aging suit, as did the other producers. We're all in our thirties, and I took it off in under ten minutes, if not less. I did a little bit of extreme movement once I first put it on and did exactly what the stereotypical younger person does: I tried to fight it. You think at first, 'This isn't so bad. It's just like lifting weights' — mirroring Drey's experience in the film. Then you realize how limiting and constricting it is.

Where are the parent and child 'Fast-Forward' participants now?

I showed the cast members the film recently and did follow-up interviews. We're releasing them after broadcast. We don't want to say anything yet about the outcomes, but what I can say is that the film made a lasting experience on families. I wasn't sure what to expect, because sometime experiences can be fleeting.

What's your advice to people who aren't ready to talk about the future? Or to people who are ready, but maybe their kids or partner aren't.

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My advice would be that there's no reason for this to be a tough subject to talk about. If you can just do your own time-travel experiment to imagine who you want to be, where you want to be, how you want to be when you're older, I think that can be a fun thing to do. It will naturally lead to the tougher parts of the conversation. Not talking about it is going to get you nowhere fast. There's a lot to gain from doing this experiment.

What do you hope viewers take away from watching 'Fast-Forward?'

That this doesn't have to be a dark and terrifying thing. Aging can mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people. One of the film's messages is that aging can equal happier. It's a long period of life that people view in a negative light. That's why we tried to have fun and expose the bright sides of aging.

"Fast-Forward" is available here for streaming on PBS.  

Grace Birnstengel
Grace Birnstengel was an editor, reporter and writer for Next Avenue. She focused on in-depth storytelling and the intersections of identity and aging. Read More
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