In the 21st century, old age has become a structured dependency. Domestic and community roles for the elderly are increasingly restricted, and death and dying have been banalized by insurance companies and hospitals. With so many older Americans struggling to create reasons to get out of bed in the morning, it's little surprise that seniors suffer disproportionately from mental illness. In many ways, retirement has become a period of planned obsolescence: the path from humanity to liminality.
In the last decade, however, some retirees have sought to redefine retirement by establishing affinity-based communities: age-segregated communities where residents share a common kinship. These communities are alternatives to "aging in place," and in many cases reflect a Utopian impulse. Many are organized as collectives, with senior residents in managerial and political roles. "Endless Blocks of Time" delves into the world of these communities, exploring how some Americans are reestablishing the sacredness of death and dying in communities of constructed kinship.
Last January I traveled to Florida to visit six affinity-based retirement communities. I met retirees, listened to their stories, and gathered preliminary footage for my documentary. With funding from this Kickstarter campaign, I will be able to return to each of these communities, and visit four new ones, this winter and spring.
Here are brief descriptions of the communities I've visited thus far:
ShantiNiketan is a brand new vegetarian community that caters to the droves of Indian-Americans who emigrated to this country in the 1970s and are now retiring en masse. The majority of the residents are professionals--doctors and engineers, primarily--who share a secularized Hindu spirituality in which vegetarianism, meditation, and yoga remain vital aspects of life. For many residents of ShantiNiketan, death is imagined immanently, as a “changing of uniform,” rather than as a transcendental passage.
Sun City Center, a 10,000 person retirement community, is one of the largest “active adult communities” in Florida. The community operates as a collective, with no formal government, bureaucratic hierarchy, or structures of power. Instead, the community is self-managed by a fierce spirit of volunteerism and administered by a “community association,” a volunteer coalition that manages Sun City Center’s myriad amenities, including hundreds of clubs and activities. Idleness and inactivity are stigmatized here, as new residents are aggressively encouraged to volunteer and contribute.
Penney Farms is a community for retired Christian missionaries. It was founded by JC Penney in 1926. While the Penney Farms Christians have a firm stake in eternity, they maintain that they are not just waiting for the bus to take them to heaven. They have a lot of work to do here first. Like the Social Gospel, which teaches its followers to prime the Earth for the Second Coming of Christ, Penney Farms instructs its residents to prime those near the end for death and the afterlife.
Bradenton Presbyterian Home is a complex of Section 8 senior apartments that house low-income retirees. Working class seniors have fewer options when choosing to live in a retirement community. A group of women here ritually check up on each other: they don't leave the apartment complex until they have seen the other women open their window each morning.
Lambda Club is a social club for retired gay men based out of a retirement community called On Top of the World. Members of Lambda Club meet three times a week for games, meals, movies, or theater. Many men joined Lambda Club because many of the activities offered by On Top of the World are heteronormative. Others joined the group because there are few venues in Florida for single gay seniors to meet partners. Some expressed a desire that Lambda club would become like a gay “Cheers.”
Manatee RV Park is a trailer and RV park for “snowbirds,” retirees who spend the cooler months in Florida and then return north for the warmer months. The park's auditorium hosts square dancing, zumba classes, and church services. A picnic table outside the auditorium is a nexus for socialization. Residents describe the park as a “big family” that teases "the bejeebers out of each other.”
In addition to these six communities, I will also be visiting the following four communities: The Villages, a retirement community of 50,000 residents where I’ll speak with a retired clown who still performs there; Air Force Enlisted Village, a community for retired widows of air force veterans; Nalcrest, a community for retired postal workers; Warm Mineral Springs, a spa frequented by Russian-American retirees.
$9000 will defray the costs of:
- Purchase and rental of camera and audio equipment
- Transportation, room, and board for myself and three crew members
- Stipends for three crew members
- Post-production (editing, color-correcting, music)
- Submission fees for festivals
A Note About Form
"Endless Blocks of Time" is an ethnography, inasmuch as it researches and documents an aspect of culture. Because they tend to evaluate and assign meaning to the aspects of culture that they represent, ethnographies often end up patronizing the objects of their gaze. In working on "Endless Blocks of Times," I've become aware of my own desire to wield power by showcasing the "primitive beauty" of these "zany old people". To undermine this desire, I will make a concerted effort to implicate myself in the video. It is important to me that the documentary is collaborative, with retirees acting as both documents and documenters. I will make a point of asking retirees about their experience of being documented.
Risks and challenges
I've been working on this project for over a year now, so I'm no stranger to risks and challenges. A friend and I had the idea to make this movie two winters ago when we took a road trip to Florida and found ourselves wondering, "Do they have 'Florida' in other countries?" The phenomenon of retirement struck us as uniquely American in scope and demeanor; there appeared to be a Floridian continuum from Disney World to Retirement Communities. We imagined Florida as a gigantic peninsular storm drain, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the invention of modern retirement. The function of the storm drain was to catch all the old people from the overcrowded north who were beginning to decay, crumble, and fall down, down, down towards the bottom of the country. My friend and I discussed retirement as a secularized heaven-on-earth, an atheistic afterlife.
Soon after our road trip, my friend took his life. In his wake, I became attuned to the impoverished narratives with which friends and I allowed ourselves to talk about his death. "Endless Blocks of Time" is an effort to see whether elderly Americans have a more developed language for dealing with death, or whether they're just as laden with repression around the subject as my generation seems to be.
I will attempt to deal with future setbacks the way I mourned the death of my friend. The emotional component of the disappointment or loss will be reincorporated into the substance of the video.
Of course, there are also material challenges that I have faced and will continue to face in moving forward with this documentary. It has been challenging to navigate the bureaucracies of certain retirement communities. In addition to the communities discussed above, I've contacted at least 25 others whose administrators have been unwilling to work with me.
It has been difficult to work with such a tight budget; up until recently I've functioned as producer, director, crew, and editor, while working two part-time jobs. Pending this Kickstarter fundraiser, I'll be able to expand my crew considerably.
Making a feature-length documentary takes time--years--and in my work, I've learned that there's no hurry. I am patient and devoted to this project, and no matter what, I will press on and finish what I've started.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (40 days)