Friday, June 20, 2008


I've been spending a lot of time in Victoria lately. It's the retirement capital of Canada. "Home of the newly wed and nearly dead" as the locals put it.

The honeymooners must all be shacked up somewhere because everywhere you go, you only see old people. They're in front of you in traffic, beside you taking forever to pass the "Half and Half" in Starbucks or behind you, hollering "Hold the door!" It's like "Dawn of the Dead" with less brain eating and more shuffling.

The other night, my dad, who's in his mid-80's, was flipping TV channels and landed on the opening credits for "The Sunshine Boys", Neil Simon's comedy about the reunion of two aged vaudeville stars. I'd done the show once as an actor and (eager to avoid the remote landing on yet another Audie Murphy Western) piped up, "Hey, let's watch this! It's really funny!"

Have you ever watched a movie that makes fun of old people with somebody really old? Boy is it not funny.

As Walter Mathau stumbled through the opening sequence, confused and replicating the average day my dad and his friends endure, I suddenly realized how out of touch most of television -- and maybe our whole culture is -- with the subject of aging.

And I started wondering how much television is going to change as that Boomer bubble that's relentlessly pushing the percentage of the population that's over 65 closer and closer to a majority. "NCIS" just might be our cutting edge future.

God knows, the average age of a TV audience is getting up there. The iconic 18-24 demographic who'll apparently buy anything that's got a commercial are either online or gaming or out getting drunk and laid. And anybody between that age and 55 is trying to figure out a way to do the same. Which leaves Gramps and Grammy jotting down the numbers for adjustable beds and fantasizing about those 4 second Viagra moments.

And the reality of their lives isn't what's being reflected to them.

Everywhere you go here, you see elderly people attempting to hang onto some small part of their independence. You can't navigate an aisle at Safeway without noticing an elderly woman struggling to get a box of frosted flakes off the shelves or some guy dependent on the grocery cart to keep him upright and moving forward.

At first it annoyed me that they couldn't just bite the bullet and go into a home. You know, accept that your life has been reduced and get some help making the remaining days a little easier.

And then I realized that's what our culture (and television in particular) sells us -- "Take the path of least resistance". Downsize. Live in a condo close to work. Don't fly. Don't drive. Don't visit countries that won't speak English. Basically, do all you can to eliminate anything that challenges or makes your day difficult.

But up and down my father's street are people his age or older, living in homes that have become elaborate exoskeletons constructed to shield them from the inexorable march of time.

They have handrails on stairs, bathroom walls and next to the bed. There are spots in the garage for their scooters and mobile walkers. Driveways are immaculately groomed in a world where an errant pine cone can catapult you into permanent disability.

It's gotta be nuts to live this way...

Or maybe it's nuts not to...

Watching this daily slow-motion effort to maintain pride, dignity or some semblance of a lifestyle long past, I've begun to see their journey as something noble and inspiring.

It's gotta be tough to lose the sharpness of your senses, the ability to get change out of your pocket or to latch onto a forgotten name. You simply have to respect the courage and determination that makes you keep going. There's something here that says "Life is precious, dammit! Don't let it go without a fight."

It's not at all like "The Golden Girls" and almost shameful that we expect our elderly to face this on their own.

Maybe we don't put them on ice floes anymore. But we certainly keep almost as much distance. The other day somebody told me about a tribe in Africa (or somewhere they'd been) where every child of 13 is assigned an elder in their village. They're expected to help with the older one's chores and use their own initiative to make their lives better. But mostly, they are expected to listen and learn.

Now, I've had too many recent conversations about the varying consistencies of ear wax and how a guy can get through life with three pairs of pants to want to subject anybody else to that.

But I do wonder how different the world might be if -- instead of fuming in the checkout line while somebody counts out exact change, we took a moment to slow down a little ourselves and maybe appreciate how much effort it took to get into that line in the first place.

And I wonder if, in our own efforts as writers to be cool and cutting edge, we're distancing ourselves from the only audience that may actually be paying close attention to what we have to say.

You gotta wonder if the CBC's "Othello" tanked because nobody cared or because they'd have been more engaged by "King Lear" or "The Tempest". Whatever it is, I know that the elderly stereotypes we're all familiar with are going to seem more and more like white haired versions of Stepin Fetchit -- and we can ill afford to alienate anybody else who's still watching TV.


Dwight Williams said...

And maybe this is why the old guard characters of the Justice Society of America comics series maintain and grow popularity over time as well...?

Ken said...

I suppose the question becomes one of demographics: are they're what's driving television content or is the content driving the demographic. You're on to something here, and you're on to it on a few different levels. A) you ask why there's nothing on TV people of a certain age can relate to, B) you imply that there may be a vacuum that will need to be filled as the population continues the age, and C) a man can actually go through life with three measly pairs of pants.

My Dad is always interested in what I'm working on. But the only reason he watches any of the shows I do is because I'm doing them. You point to a gaping disconnect with a colossal segment of the population.

Hmmm...I see financial growth opportunity in your future.