To Order a Copy
“Nobody’s happy to come in here. Nobody would come in here if they had a choice.”
-- Mary Roth, recreation staff member of a nursing home, in “Gert’s Secret”
“One of (my mother’s) famous words to me were: ‘You ever put me in a nursing home, I will come back and haunt you for sure’”
-- Ave Burgess, Acting nursing home Administrator in “Gert’s Secret”
MY MOTHER MADE ME DO IT: THE FILM I NEVER WANTED TO MAKE
My mother made me do it: Rage Against the Darkness are the films I never wanted to make.
Let me explain. In one of the more unusual TV partnerships, my late mother Rose worked as my Associate Producer on 3 Emmy-winning documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: FOUR WOMEN and FIGHTING BACK, for the program "the fifth estate"; and THE LIFER AND THE LADY for CBC's documentary unit. (At work I was the boss; at home she was.)
But this film -- RAGE AGAINST THE DARKNESS, winner of the Best Canadian Documentary Feature Award at the 2003 Hot Docs Festival -- these are the films she was burning to see made...but only if I, her son, made them.
It helps to understand that during our last collaboration my mother was 70 years old. For years she'd been obsessed with getting me to shoot what she swore would be the greatest film I'd ever make: following people through the wrenching transition from home to seniors' home. She badgered me about it, swamped me with research material about the supposed horrors of these places.
Of course this was not just another story to her; she had an agenda. She was terrified her children would send her to a seniors' home but was far too proud to come out and say so. The answer was film, of course, the medium we usually used to tell other people's stories. She hoped I'd be so appalled by seniors' institutions, I'd convince the rest of her children never to put her into one.
She didn't live long enough to put this theory to the test. She died in 1983 while researching my film, THE LIFER AND THE LADY, still living at home. In the months before her death -- when some of her contemporaries were already in seniors' institutions -- she was hard at work, travelling every week to Ontario prisons to interview murderers.
(After her death the murderers' group at one penitentiary sent a lovely, flowery card signed by every member of the group.)
And now it's my turn to worry about it -- personally, I mean, not just professionally. For I, too, share that same dark mole of fear gnawing at the back of every baby boomer's brain: what to do about our aging relatives -- and aging selves?
Thanks to the baby boom, by 2011 the number of people aged 65 and older will have doubled from a decade ago. It's been called the age boom, the new frontier. But that's putting it nicely. The pressures it puts on grown children who feel overwhelmed and burdened are enormous. And lurking beneath is another, darker fear: what will our children do with us when our time comes?
After my mother died I put off making the film for almost two decades; I was too spooked. I finally came to see that any subject with the power to disturb me so would probably make a great documentary.
I believe it's the perfect time for such a film. Baby boomers today -- the largest generation in history -- share a primal fear of seniors' homes that cuts across lines of class, gender, income. Rich or poor, male or female, meek or powerful, we all share a terror of being abandoned by our families to lives of helpless neglect at the hands of uncaring strangers.
There is also (if you'll pardon the expression) a new wrinkle for us baby boomers. Now that people are living so much longer (life expectancy has jumped from 47 at the turn of the last century to 76 today) the traditional dread of seniors' homes is compounded by a new fear: that of lingering on in a helpless, wasted condition for decades longer than our forefathers did.
Yet despite their over-arching place in our subconscious, we know little of the daily life of these places: the routines, the daily dramas, the coping strategies. During our research we found that in many ways they are far better than our darkest fears would have allowed us to believe. Often staffed by awesomely compassionate people these institutions can be literally lifesavers for the lonely, the frail, the malnourished. On the other hand...
This one's for you, Mom. I hope I got it right.
And a message for my own kids: just watch the film, guys. Agenda? What agenda?
(RAGE AGAINST THE DARKNESS is dedicated to the memory of Rose and Martin Kastner)
* * * *
HOW THE FILMS GOT MADE
Recognizing the importance of a subject that haunts so many Canadians (it’s becoming the dark obsession of baby boomers, the largest generation in history), CBC commissioned a series of documentaries following families through the crisis of putting an elderly relative into a seniors’ home.
Moving into a seniors’ home has been called the second worst trauma in life after losing a loved one. Almost everyone I know is worrying about it. And baby boomers are going to be hit especially hard. According to United Nations population projections, close to 1 in 20 boomers are expected to live to 100. That means many from my generation will be spending decades longer in seniors' homes than their parents did. Isn't it time you got to know these places better?
NOBODY WANTED CAMERAS AROUND
But how to get access to this hidden world? Putting a relative into a Home is a supremely touchy time for families; cameras are not welcome. I can’t tell you how many doors were slammed in our faces. And most seniors’ homes are extremely wary of the media. This was without a doubt the hardest project I’ve worked on.
Plus my goal for the series was ridiculously ambitious. I wanted to be there from the first fight in the family over what to do with Mother, through the ordeal of the day when she moves into the institution; and then to film in the belly of the beast -- a year in the life of a seniors’ home -- to show what usually goes on out of sight.
THE HUNT FOR GRABBY SENIORS
Finding our “stars” proved especially tricky. In some ways finding good documentary subjects is not unlike like a casting hunt for the movies at least for narrative-style films like mine. And when you find the genuine article, you know it instantly. For documentary “stars” – just like real movie stars -- have a mysterious chemistry on the screen. As they say in Hollywood: the camera likes them.
To me the cornerstone of a great documentary is great talk. But finding seniors alert and eloquent enough to “carry the picture” (another Hollywood term) was a challenge. It meant ruling out most dementia patients i.e. a good chunk of the population of nursing homes. Often the quest is too daunting for the media. They simply give up. As a result seniors are almost invisible on TV; their children or geriatric experts speak for them. I was determined that in our series the seniors would be the stars, telling their stories in their own words. Everyone else would be supporting cast.
A SULLEN SILENCE
But after my first visit to a nursing home I was in despair, certain I’d made a terrible mistake. “Star” material? Great talkers? Few residents were talking, period. There was often a disconcerting silence in much of the institution. Even in the dining room where people shared the same table every day, most ate together in an odd silence. It was as if illness and/or depression had snuffed out all interest in conversation.
The most surreal, disturbing sight of all: people lined up in front of the dining room door for hours rarely exchanging a word. Just sitting there wordlessly hour after hour, staring blankly at the closed dining room door, waiting for it to open. Some would turn around right after one meal and start lining up immediately afterwards for the next.
It was shocking at first. I was hugely uncomfortable at the sight of so many people in advanced stages of deterioration. I didn’t know where to look
Where would we find our stars, the great talkers who would carry the program??
A DESPERATE SEARCH FOR “STARS”
The search was on and it was all over the map. We canvassed to exhaustion retirement homes, nursing homes, home care workers, visiting nurses, countless help agencies for the aging. They loved the idea but produced almost no seniors. We took to begging friends for interesting cases, becoming complete dinner party bores. Nobody suitable turned up: too old, too feeble, too inarticulate. Or, occasionally, to our delight someone absolutely perfect would appear, a truly unforgettable television character -- who would promptly tell us to get lost, no damn way he or she was going on TV.
Nearly six months later a social worker told us of a candidate who sounded almost too good to be true: Phillip Rowley, 88, a gloriously cantankerous amateur author of funny songs and poems, who, it seems, had been waiting all his life for the stardom he was certain would find him one day. And (bonus! bonus!) he was deliciously venomous on the topic of seniors’ homes. So much did he hate them he was prepared to risk his life living alone at home rather than move into one. We had found our first great story – and co-star of our film Living Dangerously.
Later a chance encounter in the lobby of a retirement home with a couple scouting institutions for a parent led us to another “star”. Ken and Linda Beck were trying to put Ken’s mother, Helen, in the institution – but she was balking, in her quiet but stubborn manner. The tug of war between them became the perfect parallel to the story of Phillip Rowley; we had found the co-star of Living Dangerously. (Her son, Ken, a fireman, felt it was important for the public to share the agonies he was going through in placing his mother).
Our pleas to friends finally paid off. Someone knew of two close sisters, Bunny Drudge and Leona McLeod, whose lives were torn apart when, after sharing an apartment for 30 years, both had to move to different seniors’ homes. Extroverted Bunny was a TV natural (we thought of her as a cross between Norma Desmond and Blanche Dubois) and needed little convincing to participate. But her sister Leona was very shy. However sibling rivalry apparently kicked in and, to our surprise, Leona quickly agreed as well. We now had the stars of a second film, Bunny and Leona.
(Originally the film was titled Rage Against the Darkness; but when we decided to use that title for the whole series we re-titled it Bunny and Leona. Alas it’s been a source of some confusion since under its original title it won several awards including Best Canadian Documentary Feature at the 2003 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival)
When filming began, while one sister – timid, terrified Leona – became almost hysterical at the prospect of the move, the other sister – fun-loving, flirtatious Bunny – couldn’t wait to move to an institution. “Nobody has fun in a nursing home,” she laughed. “Well, well have to change that.”
The star of our last film, Gert’s Secret, just fell into our lap. 101-year-old Gert Stevenson was a surprise hit with audiences at Hot Docs in her cameo appearance as Bunny Drudge’s roommate in Bunny and Leona. We just knew we had to build the next film around her. Did it take much convincing? Hardly. This time the star loved the camera as much as the camera loved the star. Mary Roth, a member of the staff of Gert’s nursing home, went so far as to claim in an interview that the filming gave Gert a new reason to continue living. /font>
WHY ON EARTH DO PEOPLE LET YOU FILM THEM?
People often ask me why anyone would allow a camera crew to film intimate, painful events in their lives. Well, frankly it’s not for everyone. For some the presence of a camera at such times can only add to their distress.
But over the years I’ve learned that filming actually helps some people through a crisis. Years ago I was criticized for filming children dying of leukemia, for a fifth estate program called Fighting Back. But for the main boy in the film, Michael Cluff, the filming served as a useful distraction from the horrors of his advancing disease. For eight hours a day he could almost forget he was a leukemia victim. Instead, he was Michael Cluff, TV star. Thirteen-year-old Michael was the class clown, a born extrovert who loved the camera and mugged constantly. He also made sure we included all the girls he had his eye on in the film. For a few hours a day the filming helped keep the shadows away.
Some of the seniors in Rage Against the Darkness participated for similar motives: they often felt abandoned or at least extremely lonely. "Starring" in a film made them feel special, gave them something to look forward to. Others simply wanted the world to know about the ordeal seniors undergo.
BAD THINGS CAN HAPPEN IN GOOD INSTITUTIONS
And what an ordeal it is. For many, the idea of seniors' homes (that is, both retirement and nursing homes, or long-term care facilities as they are often called) conjures up horror stories of cruel acts perpetrated on residents by staff members, a great concern to be sure, and one addressed memorably by Moira Welsh in a recent Toronto Star series. But alas abuse by staff is not necessarily the worst problem in seniors’ homes. Rage Against the Darkness suggests an even more devastating possibility: that even nice homes with good, caring staff may, in some ways, be hellholes -- raising disturbing questions about the whole concept of seniors’ homes, period.
Clearly seniors’ homes serve an important function. They are beneficial to many residents, providing regular meals to the malnourished, full-time medical care to the unhealthy, and companionship to the lonely. (Indeed one of the seniors in the series thrives after moving to a home.) And clearly some overwhelmed families are incapable of providing the 24-hour care their relatives require. Furthermore the homes we filmed in were all good ones, staffed by what appeared to be competent, caring people. Why is it then that -- even if you know all these things as I did -- my initial impulse on going into these homes for the first time was to flee to the nearest exit?
ALERT RESIDENTS VS. DEMENTIA PATIENTS
Our films suggest some answers. Gert’s Secret, for example, offers a disturbingly raw glimpse of life in an institution, including rare scenes of clashes between dementia patients and ‘alert’ residents angry at having to endure daily their neighbours’ bizarre and sometimes violent behavior. Ironically Gert’s Secret was filmed in a superior home with good, caring staff, which makes the portrait all the more troubling. (This home is trying to raise money to improve their facilities and I think they deserve every penny of it.)
PARKED TO DIE
Equally devastating is always being surrounded by people in advanced stages of decay -- a constant reminder of what horrors lie ahead for you. But in the institution there's no escape, it’s in your face every day. The ancient Greeks used to consult with the Oracles to see what their futures held. But there's no need for Oracles in a seniors' home: your future sits across the table from you at lunch every day and it's usually pretty awful. At least at home in the bosom of your family you don't have to think about these things all the time. But here you know you are parked to die and what could be more depressing? It seems especially harsh to lay this crushing psychological load on the already frail shoulders of seniors. “It’s worse than going to prison,” a resident told me. “At least in prison you know you’re going to be free one day.”
ELDERWORLD, POPULATED ONLY BY THE AGED.
Obviously it's unavoidable sometimes to put a relative in an institution; some families simply have no choice. On the other hand, to walk through an institution and see almost nothing but a sea of white-haired heads is oddly unsettling. It feels so unnatural to remove seniors from all the pleasures of life and put them into these elderly ghettos. It feels uncomfortably like a kind of generational apartheid.
It’s a life you probably wouldn’t wish on a dog. Yet, in some ways we treat our pets better than our parents. "So many (of these residents) are dumped", says Norma Ritchie, daughter of resident Gert Stevenson, in Gert's Secret. "I don't understand how you can do that to anybody." Adds Mary Roth, a staff member at the home: "A lot of their families come and just forget them, unfortunately. I've gone to a lot of funerals and it's surprising because sometimes when you go there are very, very few people there."
And where’s the outrage? Animals rights? What about elderly rights? Have our seniors quietly become (to borrow Pierre Valliere’s memorable description of oppressed Quebecers) the Elderly Niggers of North America? And if you think it's bad now, wait til it's the boomers' turn. Wait til the largest generation in history fills our seniors' homes to bursting. You ain't seen nothin' yet.
ON A LIGHTER NOTE..…
Having thoroughly depressed you by now, I can also honestly say what a delightful surprise it was to see how much humour audiences find in the films. At the Hot Docs screenings, audiences rocked with laughter through much of both Bunny and Leona and Gert’s Secret. The endearing, somewhat eccentric Leona McLeod is a big crowd-pleaser as is, of course, Gert Stevenson, our delightful, feisty centenarian. And in Gert’s Secret screenings, the “wheelchair wars” sequence provokes gasps of incredulous laughter from people apparently quite surprised to find not all seniors are the sweet little old ladies and gents they thought.