First published on 21 Mar 2012. Updated on 22 Mar 2012.
I recently watched The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister. The story is a reflection from Mrs Thatcher's point of view; an older lady looking back at her life. It wasn’t so much the film that struck home (although it was very enjoyable); it was more the reaction to the film that interested me.
To date the film has won an Oscar, a BAFTA for Best Leading Lady, a Golden Globe, seven prestigious film awards, plus was nominated for 20 other awards, including two Oscars. Yet it has challenged many viewers and copped its fair share of criticism: the main criticism being the portrayal of Mrs Thatcher with dementia – as someone who has aged and is dealing with memory loss. Even though this is now Mrs Thatcher’s reality and was portrayed with honest dignity, ageing is not seen as being integral to the “Mrs Thatcher” story.
Britain’s current Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been reported as saying that the timing of the movie was poor. "It is a film much more about ageing and elements of dementia rather than about an amazing prime minister," Cameron added. "My sense was it was a great piece of acting... but a film I wish they could have made another day."
We rarely see films that celebrate the whole life of a person – that not only celebrate a person's achievements when they are young, but also openly and honestly deal with issues associated with ageing. The Iron Lady challenges audiences to face the reality that strong, ambitious people also grow old, and that growing old doesn’t mean the story is over – it’s simply the next chapter. Yet critics have struggled with this concept.
Mr Cameron talks about how he wished the film was “made another day” – that is, produced after Mrs Thatcher has passed away. Older people bring so much to the community – wisdom, humour, knowledge, understanding. Too often we recognise this after death, and this is reflected in popular literature.
Let’s look at Harry Potter – the third highest grossing film in history and the bestselling book series of all time. Dumbledore is a secondary main character in this series – he is a 120-year-old wizard and the headmaster at the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Dumbledore acts as a guide and guardian to Harry Potter and is highly intelligent, wise, benevolent and the most powerful wizard in history. But it isn’t until he passes away that Harry fully understands the complex Dumbledore character. And although the audience sees parts of the greatest of Dumbledore, the whole picture isn’t revealed until after he has passed away.
Sadly, this is representative of society in how we connect with older people. How often have you wished you had taken the time to sit with your father, grandma or great aunt while they were still here to tell their own story? Why do we have to wait until someone has passed away before we believe their story is worth listening to and retelling? Why can’t we celebrate someone’s life with them?
The mismatch between literature and reality is the idea that there are only a handful of wise and interesting older people whose stories are worth telling; that the people who ‘deserve’ to be on screen are young, and by young I mean under 50. But everyone has a story to tell, whether it be told in cinemas worldwide to millions of viewers, or simply told in the lounge room of a nursing home.
As a not-for-profit aged care service, at Benetas we encourage people to listen to and respect each and every person who walks through our doors, and also those in the wider community. We believe that our residents are still living their lives and telling their stories.
Encouraging positive, active and healthy ageing is a core part of Benetas’ business and a focus for our research. We work in partnership with organisations to advocate and promote respectful ageing throughout the community. Yet, we can’t expect the film industry to feature and respect more positive and realistic older characters, when we still need to work on promoting this idea at a grass roots level. We need to encourage and promote positive images of ageing at home first, so we can change perceptions on a global scale.
There are still so many unfinished and untold stories. Why not sit down with your grandfather or your mum or your neighbour? Why not listen to their story, to celebrate their life and achievements with them and help them to continue to write the next chapter? Who knows – one day it might even end up on the big screen.
Benetas is a not-for-profit organisation, founded by the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne in 1948. Benetas provides aged care services for more than 4,000 older Victorians each year within its 11 residential care facilities and through its extensive community care programs. Benetas is dedicated to advocating on behalf of all older people and has an extensive Research and Advocacy Agenda.