In the following UNFILTERED blog post, CARE director Deirdre Fishel asks all of us to care about an issue, which will inevitably touch the lives of most, if not all, Americans.
I have long had an interest in the lives of older Americans. In 2004, I directed the documentary, Still Doing It, an intimate look at the amazing lives of vibrant women over 65. My mother, at 73, a brilliant, passionate therapist, was a character in that film.
A decade later, however, she was growing frail. Too proud to use a cane, she would lose her balance and fall. It was scary to think of her continuing to live alone, but she was adamant about aging in her home of forty years. My sister and I are both working mothers. We knew that if she wanted to continue to live by herself, an hour away, at some point we’d have to get her help. As I began to investigate the world of paid home care, however, I was shocked by what I found; a largely unregulated system, confusing to navigate and totally uncovered by Medicare.
When I found out that care workers — sometimes dealing with clients with major medical issues or dementia — were making poverty wages, I thought someone had to be making a film about this. When I realized they weren’t I started research right away and joined forces with my friend and mentor, producer Tony Heriza.
Despite being all around us, the day-to-day realities of the frail elderly and home caregiving are largely invisible to the young and healthy. I chose to shoot much of the project myself, so I could be a fly on the wall, and pull back the curtain on that world. Every day I was filming, I couldn’t believe how complex and hard the work is — both physically taxing and emotionally demanding. Many elders are angry about losing their independence and workers must do a dance to protect their client’s safety while helping them to maintain their dignity. What struck me most, however, were the relationships that care engenders, the beauty of hands-on care, the power of one person truly being there for another. It’s a testament to our interconnectedness, a reality that America, with its emphasis on independence, tends to devalue. I felt privileged to bear witness to workers showing up for elders and the trust and gratitude that care inspired.
My appreciation of the work was joined by a growing rage at seeing workers who perform this invaluable service living in poverty. It also became clear to me that, to portray the full picture of this world, the film had to also shine a light on families, who are going bankrupt paying for care. Even at poverty wages, 24/7 care adds up quickly and even upper middle-class families are going through their life savings in a few years, forced to go on Medicaid, a program created for the “poor.” The recent fight over Medicaid highlights how many people depend on Medicaid dollars for their health and dignity. Not only must we fight to protect what we have, I hope the film illustrates that we need to expand programs so that workers make a living wage and families get the support they need.
My mother started using a cane and saw that far from taking away her independence, she stopped falling and felt a renewed sense of well-being. She started getting physical therapy and agreed to have four hours of help per week. For now, she’s lucky that that’s enough care, but at 89 her health could change on a dime. Not only will she likely need more care as she ages, ultimately she too could go through her life savings paying for it; savings she hoped would help pay for her grandchildren to go to college.
The truth is that, as the baby boomers age, we will be faced with a tsunami of need — and the discovery that our elder care system is broken on all sides. Till now, elder care has been seen mostly as a private, family matter. But it is a societal issue that will affect all of us, regardless of race, geographical location or even party affiliation. As Toni Siegel (whose husband Peter a brilliant journalist and CBS executive till he got Parkinson’s) says at the end of the film, “I think we’re…imagining it isn’t going to be us or the people we know. I’ve learned that ability is a temporary thing. If we live long enough, we will be disabled.”
The only way for America to make sure that our elders age with dignity is to put the issue on the public agenda. We hope that audiences who watch Care will become part of that effort.
Deirdre Fishel has a 20-year history of directing both documentaries and dramas which have premiered in competition at Sundance and SXSW and been broadcast in thirty countries worldwide. Deirdre co-wrote a book, based on her award-winning documentary STILL DOING IT: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 65, with producer Diana Holtzberg, published by Penguin Books. Other projects include an on-line documentary, SUICIDE ON CAMPUS produced in conjunction with The New York Times Magazine and THE BOY GAME, distributed by New Day Films. Deirdre attended AFI’s directing program and has an MFA from Hunter College. She is an Associate Professor and the Director of the BFA in Film/Video at the City College of New York.
CARE by Deirdre Fishel and Tony Heriza, pulls back the curtain on the largely unseen world of paid home care. With a vérité eye, it follows the stories of care workers and their clients. CARE will have its national television broadcast premiere on AMERICA REFRAMED on Tuesday, September 5, 2017, at 8 p.m. on WORLD Channel (check local listings).