SENIOR POWER: Long Life Learning

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Friday November 16, 2012 - 11:40:00 AM

Sue Kaufman’s 1967 novel, Diary of a Mad Housewife, was about a woman struggling to find some sense of her own identity within the confines of her role, her lifestyle and her husband’s unreasonable demands. Tina Balser begins an affair with George Prager, a dashing, successful and blatantly sadistic writer. He torments her in much the same manner as her husband plus being unfaithful. She plays with the idea of resisting her psychiatrist-approved feminine role, but decides that for her, there are no other options. She goes back to her husband and begins group therapy. Even many sixties-decade readers were dissatisfied with the story’s ending. 

The movie version was scripted by Eleanor Perry, one of the few women screenwriters in the industry at the time. The hero[ine] could bring herself to have an affair but not to leave her whining boor of a husband… “How’s about a little ole roll in da hay?” Or, propped up in bed, he wheezes: “Tee-een! Where’s my lemonade!” 

Carrie Snodgress was Oscar-nominated for her performance as Tina Balser. (She died in 2004 while hospitalized waiting for a liver transplant). Richard Benjamin played her social-climbing spouse. Frank Langella, then forty-two, was stunning as sexy sexist George Prager. It was as if the part were made for him. 

Flash forward to Langella’s 2012 memoir, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them. The New York Times Book Reviewer observed that his book “celebrated sluttiness as a worthy—even noble—way of life." It’s about sixty-six notable dead (and thus, it would seem, safe) people. Langella’s droppings frequently include “with a woman;” I gave up counting the unidentified women with whom he cohabited or that he referred to companion, wife or his girl. Carrie Snodgress, although deceased, escaped notice. (Wikipedia lists Whoopi Goldberg as his 1996-2001 partner; she dedicated her 1997 book “To Frank…”.) 

Based on Brian Morton’s novel, Starting Out in the Evening is a 2007 filmic psychological drama. Langella (now sixty-nine) plays a once celebrated writer. Forgotten by everyone important to him -- readers, colleagues, critics --, he struggles to complete his final novel, while his forty-year old daughter brings the groceries and struggles with her own problems, to which he seems indifferent. 

A Brown University student wants to interview him for her graduate thesis, which she anticipates will reintroduce the public to his work. He finally agrees to meetings and slowly begins to open up to her as he reluctantly recalls his past. No doubt about it, as an actor, Langella excels. He has won a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Play for his performance as Richard Nixon in the play Frost/Nixon (2006), and later received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for the same role in the film, Frost/Nixon (2008). 

Starting Out in the Evening was shot on location in Manhattan’s upper west side in eighteen days. It is in the public library DVDs collection. 

Robots have potential to help older adults with daily activities (like bringing the groceries…) that may become more challenging with age. But are people willing to use and accept the new technology? A Georgia Institute of Technology study says yes, unless personal care or social activities are involved. After showing adults (ages 65 - 93) a video of a robot’s capabilities, researchers interviewed them about their willingness to accept assistance with 48 common household tasks. Participants generally preferred robotic help over human help for such chores as cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, and taking out trash. But for help getting dressed, eating and bathing, these elders preferred human assistance over robotic. 

In Starting Out in the Evening, Frank Langella played an aging man. In 2012’s Robot & Frank he plays an aged man. The Los Angeles Times calls it “a futuristic comedy, ninety minutes of a buddy caper .” The retired, ex-convict, cat-burglar’s kids are concerned that he can no longer live alone. They are tempted to place him in a nursing home until Frank's son hires a walking, talking humanoid robot programmed to improve his physical and mental health. Initially wary of the robot's presence in his life, Frank warms up to his new companion and uses him to commit a heist in order to win the affection of the local librarian, played by sixty-six years young Susan Sarandon

Kings Point opened in August. Remember the grandmother, played by Shirley MacLaine, and the retirement community portrayed in 2005’s In Her Shoes? It’s not like that. Seventy-eight year old MacLaine is currently appearing in TV’s Downton Abbey, by the way. 

Documentary film director Sari Gilman saw her grandparents' Florida retirement community as a hierarchy built around residents' health and relationship status 

In 1978 her grandparents moved from New York City to Kings Point, Florida. Even after her grandfather passed, Grandma lived a full, independent life, surrounded by people with similar backgrounds, enjoying occasional visits from children and grandchildren. 

If you stay active and enjoy the warm weather, growing old doesn't have to be that bad, Gilman initially concluded. But her grandmother and neighbors began to slow down. Friends, spouses and activity partners died. Social interaction, once based on the various ways everyone "kept busy," shifted to common complaints of body aches, limited mobility and serious disease. Loneliness became endemic. 

Amazingly, few of these people had ever really considered what would happen if they could no longer live independently. Most had not discussed their wishes and plans with family members. Gilman discovered that they felt safe talking to her about issues they were comfortable bringing up with their neighbors, and their stories evolved into the documentary film, Kings Point. (Grandma’s story is not featured but was one of the inspirations for the film.) 

After thirty years in Kings Point, the family decided to move their grandmother to an assisted living facility near them in Westchester, New York. At 92, her arthritis had gotten so bad that she could no longer take care of herself, which caused her great distress. A little more than a year later, she became impatient waiting for assistance, fell and broke a hip, leading to rapid decline and death. 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has included Kings Point among finalists for the Oscar category of Documentary Short Subject. Official nominations are announced in January 10, 2012. 


Research sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts has shown the benefits of local creativity programs for seniors. These include reduced health costs. City College of San Francisco’s Older Adults Department offers free lifelong learning classes designed for people age 55+ at more than 30 locations throughout San Francisco. 

The lifelong learning courses that have been free could become fee-based as CCSF’s struggle to retain accreditation continues. But many elders would not be able to afford to pay for classes and courses. 

Lifelong learning was a key part of California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, intended to give Californians opportunity to upgrade their knowledge to qualify for jobs, learn new skills for personal enrichment, and return for a degree in a new field of study. The classes include English as a second language (ESL), citizenship, and older-adults courses.

San Francisco's Measure A will raise about $14 million annually for eight years for the College. Proposition 30, the statewide tax measure, will prevent automatic spending cuts to higher education, public schools and other state programs. But lifelong learning and other noncredit classes may still be on the chopping block. 

According to its current “Schedule” the Berkeley Adult School’s Life Long Learning Program for adults age fifty and older offers classes at locations throughout Berkeley, including North and South Berkeley Senior Centers. The registration fee is $35.00 per class per student for each course. Courses in this program seek to develop skills and interests that enhance and enrich the quality of life of each participant and the community.