A reel problem for seniors

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

The movie industry is no stranger to criticisms about how it portrays certain groups of people. As evidenced by last year's “#OscarsSoWhite” campaign, Hollywood has a long way to go before it accurately reflects the diversity of the people who pay money to see its films.

Take, for example, seniors. This age cohort is one of the most rapidly growing in the United States, set to double and reach 98 million people by the year 2060. But as new research from the University of Southern California and insurance provider Humana shows, the film industry is seriously lacking when it comes to depicting older adults in a positive light.

The Humana study analyzed the top 100 grossing movies of 2015 and discovered the senior characters were often under-represented, demeaned or mischaracterized. Interviews with more than 2,000 older adults found that they disagree with the labels movies typically place on seniors — words like frail, senile, or a “relic” — instead viewing themselves as highly aware, resilient and physically active.

“Seniors are rarely seen on screen, and when they are, they are ridiculed,” said lead researcher Stacy Smith, Ph.D. “When did we become a society that is comfortable with subtle and stigmatizing stereotypes about a group that have long served as the pillars and stalwarts of our communities?”

The study doesn't touch upon how these portrayals change when senior characters are shown to be living in a nursing home, but I can imagine it's not a change for the better. That thought jumped out at me as I was reading an interview with a local filmmaker who was asked if he'd continue to make movies featuring characters that reflect his age and stage of life when he made them. The interviewer wondering if he could “picture a future when you're in a nursing home making movies about the scene there.”

He replied that he could, but added one caveat.

“People tend to see movies with younger characters,” he said. “I don't suspect Hollywood is financing nursing home stories.”

And for the most part, he's right. Until the silver screen catches up with the silver tsunami, people aren't going to get an accurate picture of long-term care in movies. Their opinions may be tarnished by their personal experiences, or bad experiences they heard about through the grapevine.

That leaves providers to pick up Hollywood's slack. It's up to you to show the public that things aren't all that bad in the long-term care sector, and that your residents have enough energy and spirit to keep up with even the highest-grossing film starlet. Take to social media to show off your facility's unique activities, or submit a stand-out resident or program for our “A Day in the Life” department.

Hollywood may not be aging, but the U.S. population is. As providers who will care for greater numbers of seniors as the years roll on, you can help show the public a picture of them that isn't accurately shown on screen. You might not win an Oscar for your efforts, but your residents will appreciate it — and deserve it.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.