A Look at the Land of Our Second Chance

(FRONTLINE's conversation with producer Marian Marzynski, January 26, 1998)
Q: Your vitality and your successful, busy career as a filmmaker seems to put you at quite a distance from thinking about retirement. What was it about this subject that held a special interest for you?

A: I think the interest comes from my early childhood. As long as I can remember, I was not really interested in my peers, but always interested in older people. Fascinated by my parents, my aunts and uncles. I sort of studied them from early age; I thought that's interesting to project where I'm heading. But at different times of my life, "old" meant something else. For a 10-year-old, a 30-year-old is very old. I was going usually 20 years ahead of me, asking my questions. At 40, I was curious about 60 years old. Now I am reaching to people in their 70s and 80s.

We all know what our end is. Right? Our present is pretty technical, our past is interesting and meaningful, but our future is a big question mark. It's a kind of provocation on yourself. How can you outsmart your own life? How are you going to protect yourself from confusion, depression, from being bored, from this American stereotype of retirement: having a heart attack on the cash register in your own store; forced to retire with nothing to do. So, I went to Florida and saw a huge stage, on which old age 'confesses' and I asked myself: what is the American dream for the old - if there is such a thing?

Q: Is Florida representative? Are these condo communities that representative of the way most Americans are living their retirement, or thinking about it ?

A: Obviously, people who move to Florida to retire must have certain means to do so and perhaps they represent only a better-to-do part of the society. However, my interest was more in the state of mind of old age and for this Florida provides a lab. When you go to a restaurant and have dinner in the company of 600 people over 70; when your waitress is 80 years old, you discover this separated society of old, those different lifestyles. And wonder, who those people were in their previous lives? How did they make their money, what was their peak, their success? And now, are they just in decline, or perhaps on a new mission?

On the surface, they sound happy in this restaurant: plenty of time, they dress fancy, lots of make-up on womens' faces, you know, middle class on permanent vacation, with all those cruises, all the jockeying and telling stories. An ongoing party. Now what is inside? How do they cope with the idea of an approaching end?

Q: There is a lot of candor in the way you come right out and talk to someone. Were they surprised by your questions? Did you find that your line of questioning was something that they really hadn't been asked or had to articulate before?

A: Well, probably in the beginning, there was a little shock. But think about it this way. When somebody is calling someone and saying-- "I am coming with my camera crew, and I am from PBS," a totally different line of questions is expected. But here I come, 60 years old, acting like an old friend, because I really need their wisdom for myself, not for PBS. And I ask questions that friends ask one another: How do you feel today? What did you have for dinner? Did your cousin call? Is she still miserable? Okay, did you go to the doctor? How is your leg? You're not looking too happy today. .

So, all the tension of this encounter with television is reduced, and I become really genuine for them. They see on my face that I am approaching their age, I like their company and they may have a good time with me and my camera crew. We have entered their lives. Some of the people (and those people didn't make it into final editing, unfortunately) were suspicious to the very end. They could not make a connection. They could not bridge. They were asking themselves: 'How should we look? What should we say? Why us?' Usually people approached for a documentary who don't have fame, titles, are not established in the media, don't think of themselves as worth filming. You have to convince them about it. So, by cultivating this relationship, spending time together, sharing your own life with them, they start projecting on camera who they really are.

Q: What are some of the most important things that you learned from this journey? The most surprising things?

A: Well, first of all, you know that life is a conversation that is all in our mind, that we are creating who we are by the way of intellectualizing and imagining it, and then we can put ourselves in. But then comes work, professional activities, making our livelihood. In most instances, these are adverse to this type of creating an alert mind of who you are and self confidence and understanding yourself, because it just brings us too close to the tasks of the day, to the family tasks, the professional tasks. And what was frightening - partly expected, but partly unexpected - is how people were admitting that: Why didn't I learn more? Why didn't I read more books? Why didn't I find ways to develop another track than the professional and family track?

Q: Is that uniquely American?

A: Well, we are a society of unique work ethics, we find in work a fulfillment. When I go abroad, I find other work ethics -- the Latin ones, the East Europeans. For them, work is a necessity. Life is family, somebody who is dropping in for coffee....

Q: Relationships.....

A: ....And to make new relationships. People try to outsmart their employers, spending private time with their co-workers, take lots of vacation, etc. And overall, people don't talk with pride about work. Here, work is more important because more people are their own bosses or own properties, because new immigrants come with not much education and make money before they make degrees, beacuse financial success is more important that other statuses.

Q: So. you feel a lot of people are going into retirement--

A: -obsessed by work. Like Herbie. 69. From the textile garment district in New York. A man who grew up and started a family in the fifties. And he thought that he was the epitome, the perfection of the American dream, because he thought that he had a wonderful family and wonderful job. And he was sensitive, and he didn't want to be eaten by the competition or the selfishness or greed of the business. But two things started to collapse early. The textile business started to collapse as the businesses were leaving the United States. And then the wife left him, at the age of 59. And 15 years passed since his early retirement. He was totally unprepared to live alone, without work, to be happy with just himself.

Q: Wasn't he just unlucky? If his wife had stayed with him, he could have adjusted better?

A: Probably, but old age IS about either being divorced or losing the partner. And all at a time when health is already frail. I call it 'the exit from the American dream.' Something you don't talk about. A taboo in a society obsessed about looks and youth. The baby boomers are the first generation that confront this. Head-on. They are the generation of people that lived in peaceful times and enjoyed relative success, spoiled by their parents, and so they didn't experience a lot of trauma in the world, like their parents, who came out of war.

Q: Are the baby boomers going to revolutionize everything? The way we think about retirement, the way it works?

A: They want to do it. And the general concept they seem to have (and some can call it wishful thinking or pipe dreaming) is a retirement without retiring. The abolition of the word! The word retirement is not a nice word. It implies that you are out. And baby boomers don't want to be out. They want to replace a sudden retirement and change by gradually changing gears and pacing from working for a company to working for yourself, to introduce leisure activities and rest early in life.

Q: And fitness?

A: Yes, fitness, a cult of fitness. You know, one thing that we are almost overlooking today (and it's not even in my film): On the golf course you have a lot of teenagers today, something that you didn't have before. Why? Because their baby boomer parents want golf to be part of life early, when everybody's still in good shape and people age together still productive but developing new interests in life. So they don't notice the shock of retirement.

Q: Probably some viewers watching the show, this whole chapter about the baby boomers, would love to have had more of that. If you had had more time, would you have liked to......

A: No, not really, baby boomers are still a professionally active group. Unlike geezers - you know where the word "geezer" comes from?...

Q: No...

A: From the word "disguise." In old days, women who were putting too much make-up on their faces to look younger were called "guisers." Then it became a slang word "geezer," applied to old men. So, unlike geezers who are doing the retirement, boomers are only thinking about it.

Q: They're only thinking about it financially; they're worried about the stock market and 401k.......

A: Right, and that's why the people in my film representing them are professionals in public health, in the science of leisure, etc. I am neither a geezer or a boomer, I am sandwiched between them.

My main interest was in people in transition, in the emotional and psychological coping with old age, a trip to the American psyche, an attempt to define the American way of getting old. Being a super power, having all the means and all the energy, being able to turn the economic trends overnight because of our volume. Can we also put out new trends in our lifestyles? Make our old age a second chance?

Every person that I talked to would dream of having voluntary work that would be fulfilling. Louis has one or two days. He would like to have three or four days. It's one of the most difficult things for the 70-year-old - is to really use his or her energy in a useful way. The red tape is the government and all the institutions. It's called liability; it's very difficult for an institution to accomodate older people who are in frail health and can fall on the stairs, etc. It requires networking between the older people themselves. And there are signs already of this movement in the university world. Florida, in several major universities, initiated something that is called the Elder Institute or Elder Centers, with retired professors or retired professionals offering courses. And they have fun with it. And not only the seniors, but also the young people who want to learn the wisdom.

A kind of a Peace Corps of old age. In a society where families are no longer together, when the wisdom of a parent, of a father, of a mother, of a grandfather, cannot be used because the children live 2,000 miles away. So in the society of this mobility, the elders must adopt other children, other young people to rebuild those family links that had been lost. Speaking of which, Regina is the oldest character in my film. She is 89. She's still able and struggling to keep family links. My mother lived with us for 35 years, to the last day of her life. I think of my mother when I see Regina who wants to be independent and have relationships there. For her, the notion of going to this 13,000-senior-strong Century Village--which has been a marketing success--is bad. Yet this elegant "summer camp" for the elders attractd many Americans from urban areas where personal safety was always a big issue. Here, they have all the buttons to push for their security, but also a big silence, a big isolation...

Q: So you're against this.

A: Oh, bitterly. I would never send my mother there. Regina will say what my mother would say: "What do I need comfort for? The only comfort I need is you." And so says Louis: "The only things that I care about today, is the relationship with my children. "

And yet most people had to turn to marketers and create "happiness" of old age. But old age is not about commodities. It is about feelings... Like Betty Sullivan from my film, who is looking for relationships, coming to the conclusion that it's hard to find one man that shares all her interests. So she needs at least two and she put an ad in the paper screening those people, telling who she is and ending up with an interesting companion. Seniors have a tremendous richness of thought and experiences, and no way to utilize it . And curiously enough, they don't have a public: they don't have a television channel, they don't have a series. They don't have even a talk show. They are "presentable" only when looking phenomenally young...

Q: You're optimistic this will change in coming years?

A: Well, I think that the baby boomers will be much more outspoken, and these things will be the ongoing things. But I would not like to really discount the existing seniors, who have a great story to tell. They are the war veterans. They are the fifties people. I mean, how can we waste what they can offer?


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