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Media Is Bringing Visibility and Universality to Experiences of Aging

Ilyse Veron December 10, 2018
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Entertainment leaders are making headway rolling back ageism with new narratives.

We’ve seen movies and television shows illuminating, in recent years, how aging can have positive side effects. Now, they’re bringing visibility to the role of family caregiving.

“Never underestimate the power of script to change people’s hearts,” advises American University theater professor Caleen Jennings. Jennings taught newly recognized director Elizabeth Chomko before she scripted What They Had. The film, based on Chomko’s grandmother’s struggle with dementia, ran in theaters in fall after securing marquee actresses, influential producers and a marketing partnership with AARP.

In What They Had, a Catholic wife and husband played affectionately by Blythe Danner and Robert Forster face Christmastime amidst the caregiving challenge of Alzheimer’s. Chomko garnered attention by winning the Academy Nicholl Fellowship for her story. She now advises, “the more personal your story is the more universal its reach.”

“Once you know that there are others out there who are struggling like you,” Jennings reflected, “there’s often more of an impulse to reach out, to talk with others, to join forces and to advocate. What Liz has done so beautifully is to remind us that we are not alone.”

New Partnerships Support Media Projects

Health and entertainment are two growing industries. An AARP collaboration with Bleecker Street on a major movie release brings them closer together, observed AARP Editorial Director Myrna Blyth at a screening cosponsored by AARP and the Motion Picture Association of America.

“The ideal result [of the partnership] will be people seeing the movie recognizing themselves as caregivers and coming to us to get the information,” Blyth said. AARP has linked multiple magazine stories about the film to research-based answers about caregiving.

Bleecker Street Producer Ron Yerxa, who is known for the irreverent Little Miss Sunshine, said he makes films “because we’re hoping to connect with people and in some way influence the way they think.”

Creators who share this focus may find a willing marketing partner in AARP. Blyth said the 60-year-old enterprise is interested in both creating and supporting new entertainment that relates to its social mission. What’s streaming on Netflix, via Amazon, Apple and cable all show “great potential—that’s where our audience is now looking for entertainment,” said Blyth.

In October AARP also launched Care to Laugh, its first full-length film through AARP Studios. The documentary film features Jesus Trejo, a rising star in the comedy world who brings stories about caring for his aging parents into his standup routine. It premiered on the closing night film of the Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis.

Silent Generations on Screen?
  • 4% speaking roles go to people ages 60 and older
  • 2% of series-regulars are older
  • 30% of all roles for characters ages 60 and older were female.
  • Greater than 50% of programs surveyed had no female senior role
Source Seniors on the Small Screen: Aging in Popular Television Content, USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism
Media Momentum for Change

Entertainers are showing us what The Frameworks Institute recognized in its research around aging: Aging is a dynamic process. As we grow older, we build up wisdom, skills, and insights that power up the communities around us, and how well we thrive as we age is really a question of how well-equipped our communities are to tap into all that momentum.

“Netflix series such as The Kominsky Message, Grace and Frankie, and One Day at a Time have shown us more complex depictions of what it looks like to live longer as characters figure out what’s next,” said Caring Across Generations’ Janet Kim, adding aging is increasingly “more visible, with all the unique pleasures and confusion around aging well and continuing to grow that entails.”

While documentaries like RBG about the “notorious” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg aim to educate about discrimination, sometimes remaking a thriller also changes the takeaway. In the 2018 Halloween film, graying, gun-toting Jamie Lee Curtis shot down a few “grandma” stereotypes.

“Aging looks and feels better in films that don’t patronize older characters and do cast younger ones who appreciate their company,” notes Sarah Pokempner, Director of Development & Education at The Avalon Theatre Project. “Who can resist Lily Tomlin?” she asks. Performances in Grandma (which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Festival) and the more recent Grace and Frankie, which is supported by The SCAN Foundation, caught her attention.

“Social and entertainment media can help change the national perspective that makes us feel like we need to be beautiful in a certain way,” asserts Pamela Saunders, Director of Georgetown University‘s new interdisciplinary program in Aging and Health. “If we can grow old naturally and be applauded for it wouldn’t that be great?”

Ilyse Veron

Ilyse Veron writes about culture, business, health and public policy challenges from the nation’s capital. An Emmy award winner, she also creates content, forges strategic partnerships and enhances others’ brand marketing via Veron Ventures, her independent consultancy.

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