The Perfect Storm of Stigma and Surplus Safety

October 01, 2019
Laura Beck, The Eden Alternative
Reflections from the New York Times, Hollywood, and Life…

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

I watched a movie called Book Club on Hulu recently. Crazy with acting legends, like Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Candice Bergen, it mostly reeked of rom-com. But there was something else… something I don’t often see in mainstream media.

I have become accustomed to seeing older people portrayed as irrelevant, deficient, even silly at times in films. What’s worse is that these characters are often positioned as oblivious to the “sad truth of their own limitations” that only the younger, supposedly wiser people around them are astute enough to notice. The message: these older people just don’t get that their lives are essentially over.

In Book Club, I found a refreshing twist. Here were capable, interesting, vulnerable women sharing a sense of meaning, possibility, and exploration about their later lives… and the buffoons in the film were their younger children who refused to see them as the vibrant, whole human beings that they are. At last, the arrogance of youth is the butt of the joke… not the lives of their aging parents. Throughout the film, Diane Keaton’s character repeatedly endures the insulting, hovering, safety-obsessed, and, at times, invasive rantings of her two adult daughters. Convinced that their mother’s choices will result in hospitalization or worse, they eventually, yet reluctantly, wake up to the folly of their ways.

I couldn’t help but think about the intersection between surplus safety and ageism and ableism. A combination of fear, stigma, and projection can rob us of who we are and the kind of life we wish to live. A recent New York Times article says this occurs due to “mismatched goals” – a rather kind way to put it. In “Think Your Aging Parents Are Stubborn? Blame ‘Mismatched Goals’”, the author quotes a study revealing that 77 percent of adult children surveyed reported stubborn behavior by their parents.

A later study asked 192 middle-aged children to keep diary entries over 7 days. Evaluation of the diary entries revealed that 31% reported “insistent behaviors”, 17% noted “risky behaviors”, and 11% reported both. One wonders about perspective here. Wouldn’t you feel stubborn, if you had to fight on a daily basis to preserve your sense of identity, autonomy, and sense of self-expression?

Check out the full article here. If you are a provider: How can we help family members re-examine and reframe their attitudes about “stubbornness”? If you are a family member: How are you impacted or not by the Times article?  Tell us what you think below.

2 Comments. Leave new

Love the way you connected the dots here, Laura. I found the NY Times article quite off-putting, almost insulting, so thank you for putting the words to what I was feeling. Along with the movie, “Book Club”, there are episodes of “Grace and Frankie” with similar situations of the adult children deciding their mothers are no longer safe at home and talk them into assisted living. The situations in Grace and Frankie are more exaggerated, but it’s definitely about surplus safety. Thanks again for connecting these dots!

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Laura Beck, The Eden Alternative
October 3, 2019 7:50 am

Thanks, Mel! Yes! Grace and Frankie comes to mind as well.

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