Editor’s Note: Sari Gilman is an Emmy-nominated film editor. Her documentary directing debut, Kings Point, opens in New York on Friday, August 3, and in Los Angeles on Friday, August 10.
Sari Gilman made a film about social life in her grandparents' retirement community
Gilman saw a hierarchy built around residents' health and relationship status
As residents faced illness, Gilman found they were excluded from social circles
In 1978 my grandparents moved from New York City to Florida. Like so many of their generation who had lived through the Depression, they longed to retire to a life of leisure. Lured by the warm weather and the promise of activities galore, for $20,000 they purchased a two-bedroom condominium in a community that had 7,500 others just like it. First-time homeowners, they felt they had bought a little piece of the American dream.
When my sister and I visited, we were fascinated with what seemed like summer camp for older people. There were pools, golf courses, tennis courts, shows, classes and three different clubhouses. There was also a pervasive mentality that sounded awfully harsh to our young ears. We overhead our grandmother being told by a neighbor that she should stop thinking so much about her family up North and embrace her new life in the Sunshine State – a ready-made community of peers residing in brand-new condos with wall-to-wall shag carpeting and ceiling fans.
Grandma and her neighbors took this message to heart: If you stay active and enjoy the warm weather, growing old doesn’t have to be that bad. Even after my grandfather passed, Grandma lived a full, independent life, surrounded by people with similar backgrounds, enjoying occasional visits from children and grandchildren.
But as time went on, I began to notice a change.
Once able to fully participate in community life, my grandmother and her neighbors began to slow down. Friends, spouses and activity partners died. Visits to the clubhouse or the mall were replaced by appointments at the doctor’s office. The sound of ambulances heading to the newly built medical center just down the road became more frequent. Social interaction, once based on the various ways everyone “kept busy,” shifted to common complaints of body aches, limited mobility and serious disease.
Loneliness became endemic. While my grandmother was not interested in finding a partner after my grandfather passed, some residents entered a fierce dating scene. With women far outnumbering men the competition was brutal, and residents had plenty of time to gossip (“I hear she’s got a boyfriend! The wife is barely in the ground.”)
I began to notice that what was at first an opportunity –living among your peers in a community of “active retirees” – was becoming, for many residents, an unsustainable way of life. Yet very few of the people I met there had ever really considered what would happen if they could no longer live independently; most had not had the hard discussion with family members to plan for the “what ifs.”
To add insult to injury, this was not a topic they could talk about with their neighbors. Nobody wanted to hear about it. I noticed an almost Darwinian aspect of social life. If you had your health, you were popular. If not, people stopped coming by. At the pool, I heard the whispers: “Oh, Ida …yeah, she’s going down.”
After two decades of visiting my grandmother and getting to know her friends and neighbors through card games and early bird specials, I wanted to learn more about this uniquely American community, and to explore the interplay between the desire for independence and our common need for community and connection. I began interviewing residents and discovered that they felt safe talking to me about issues they didn’t feel comfortable bringing up with their neighbors. I was a young person, a filmmaker, in many ways an outsider – yet I had grown up among them (I was just 9 years old when my grandparents moved there) and was deeply connected to their culture.
Ten years later, their stories have evolved into a documentary film, “Kings Point.” It is their lives and their voices that, for me, have come to represent the universal longing for human connection, and the complexities of aging in a society that extols the virtue of self-reliance.
After 30 years in Kings Point, my family decided to move my grandmother back up North to an assisted living facility near my parents in Westchester, New York. At 92, her arthritis had gotten so bad that she could no longer take care of herself, a fact that caused her great distress and went beyond frustration to a kind of self-loathing. When she couldn’t lean down to tie her own shoes anymore, she called herself “disgusting.”
Although she was thrilled to see her family on a more regular basis, she missed the home where she had spent the last third of her life. Her loss of independence was devastating to her. Yet she never lost her natural desire for human connection. She bought chocolate to share with the health aides and began participating in card games with other residents. Sadly, a little more than a year after the move, she became impatient waiting for help one morning, stood up to put on a sweater, fell and broke a hip. This led to a rapid decline and she died the following week.
My grandmother’s life trajectory was typical of so may of the retirees who made Kings Point their home, and her story, while not featured in the final cut, was one of the inspirations for the film. She exemplified the push and pull of independence and social connectivity which many of us struggle with, whether or not we live in a retirement community in Florida.
Have you or your elderly relatives experienced any of the challenges documented in ‘Kings Point’? Share your take in the comments section below.