Thursday, November 19, 2015

Exploring Our Fear of the Elderly in The Visit

This post contains spoilers for The Visit.

There’s a wonderful, sad poem by Philip Larkin about our collective fear of the elderly. It’s called “The Old Fools,” and it goes like this (emphasis mine):

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange;
                                    Why aren't they screaming?

At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
                                    How can they ignore it?
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside you head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
                                    This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
                                    We shall find out.”

(I was going to just post an excerpt, but the poem is so perfect, and so true, that I had to post it all. Really, go back and read it again. Absorb it.)
The poem popped into my head as the credits rolled on The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest fairytale-cum-horror film about two children visiting their grandparents, alone, for the first time. Much like Larkin’s poem, The Visit uses the imagery of the elderly to provoke frightened and disgusted reactions. Both rely on what seems to be an almost instinctual fear of the elderly. The poem begins haughtily removed in its description of the elderly – “Do they somehow suppose/It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools”, “Why aren’t they screaming?” – and becomes more empathetic – “That is where they live:/Not here and now, but where all happened once./This is why they give/An air of baffled absence” – and finally, ends in foreboding. Those final lines, “Well, we shall find out,” are like a reprimand and portent for all. You think old people are scary? Just wait until you become one.
The Visit, on the other hand, is decidedly from a child’s perspective, and necessarily less nuanced in its portrayal of elderly characters. It's a found footage-style film, meant to be a documentary-in-progress made by Becca, one of the two grandchildren. Becca’s mother has been estranged from her parents since Becca was born, but the grandparents reach out, asking to meet their grandchildren. Eager to give their mom some alone time with her new boyfriend (the mother has had a litany of failed relationships for as long as the kids can remember), Becca and her younger brother, Tyler, head off on the train to spend a week with the grandparents they’ve never met before.
At the beginning, Nana and Pop Pop are sweet, if timid and a little odd. The kids are told under no uncertain terms to remain in their bedroom after 9:30 each night, and peculiar things begin happening in those dark hours. Time and again, the kids chalk up strange behavior to the grandparents being “old,” a seemingly innocuous word that nevertheless conjures up all manner of clichés and fears. Those fears, it turns out, are not unfounded: Nana careens around the house in the middle of the night like an animal; Pop Pop forgets where he is or thinks a man on the street is following him. The Visit plays to some of our most deeply rooted phobias, from losing our minds to dealing with gross bodily functions. Things escalate over the course of the film, eventually culminating in the reveal of the Big Twist for which Shyamalan is so well known.
Until the very end, I was convinced that something supernatural was going on in The Visit, but there wasn’t. Everything I, and I’m guessing most audience members, interpreted as horrifying were merely symptoms – normal, albeit unhappy, symptoms – of aging. Everything the characters of Nana and Pop Pop did was something that could happen in real life to a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia, or merely a body ravaged by time. From incontinence, to odd behavior and “sundowning,” to accidentally flashing naked body parts – parts made disturbing only by the fact that they’re somewhat wrinklier than our own naked body parts – these are all the little indignities the elderly may experience on a regular basis. They’re things the majority of us should be used to, since we all have grandparents, aging parents, and older relatives – but we’re not, not necessarily. When you think about it, it’s almost shockingly easy to frighten us when it comes to the elderly.
Perhaps The Visit owes some of its sheer terror to the fact that the audience is seeing it through a child’s eyes. After all, who among us was never at least a little scared of that one relative as a child? You know, the one with the gaudy makeup who smelled weird and left slimy kisses on your cheek? Or the grouchy, liver-spotted grandpa who yelled and pounded his cane on the floor when he made you bring him his coffee? There certainly is a visceral aspect to our fear of the elderly, but I do think it’s more than that. Maybe it’s because we tend to hold the elderly at a distance, even as we grow up; we put them away in homes to be cared for by low-paid workers (signaling that it’s not important, worthwhile work), we don’t often ask them about their feelings or experiences, and too many of us don’t make the effort to connect with them on a meaningful level. As a society, Americans would rather ship off citizens of a certain age than face what is a consistently growing part of our population.
This is all the more troubling when you consider that other countries surpass us so completely in their respect for and treatment of older people. In Japan, there is a national holiday, “Respect for the Aged Day,” that puts America’s (largely ignored) “Grandparents Day” to shame; in Vietnam, elders are recognized as the carriers of tradition, knowledge, and wisdom. And we’re not only ignoble in how we view our elderly; Americans seem alarmingly uninterested in making sure the elderly are properly cared for, both physically and emotionally. While we often lock our aged citizens away in nursing homes with poor conditions and little mental stimulation or human companionship, other countries are searching for more humane solutions. An experimental facility for people with dementia now exists in the Netherlands, where the people living there are free to roam the self-contained, and completely safe, “village.” The residents are able to live as normally and independently as they wish while still remaining looked after. Meanwhile, we Americans struggle to meet the growing demand for caretakers, and continue to undervalue the work of the ones we have.
Maybe it is simply, as Larkin said, that we see our own lonely, addled futures in the elderly. (A recent poll showed that although 70 percent of Americans will likely need long-term care as they age, one-third of those polled said they'd rather not prepare or think about it at all.) But if so, how long can we pretend that “out of sight, out of mind” is a valid or useful response? The elderly population in the U.S. is expected to nearly double in the next 20 years, and it’s obvious we need to find better ways of dealing with that. Giving the elderly a little respect and a voice of their own would be a good start. Until then, movies like The Visit will continue to haunt us in more ways than one.

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