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Still in the Running: Geriatric Myths Reversed in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

September 25, 2012

 Seven British retirees are thrown together when they register at India's Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (BEMH), advertised as a haven "for the elderly and beautiful." The aforementioned come seeking, variously, cheap retiree digs, a fresh start, a hip replacement, closure, a rich husband − and whatever he can get. The result, in a heart-warming movie, featuring the best senior British actors and actresses of their generation, is a series of interlinked plotlines that debunk some firmly entrenched myths of the aging process. What are these myths and how does the movie upend them?


Old people are "past it"

According to this myth, seniors just can't manage; helpless and dependent, they rely on their grown children or other family members to get things done, accepting assistance either grudgingly or anxiously, depending on their personalities. In the movie, though, the choices made by certain characters suggest that such helplessness may be unwittingly enabled or shaped by a well-meaning partner or adult child. For example, Evelyn, newly widowed, and with enormous debts to cover, disproves the myth by bravely meeting the challenges awaiting her. Since her deceased husband never involved her in any household finances, and made all the important decisions himself, when he dies, Evelyn is left not only to deal with his debts, but also with the sense that she didn't really know her husband, a man she trusted implicitly throughout their married life. Despite her apprehension and self-doubt, however, Evelyn, with gentle determination, declines her overbearing son's attempts to take charge. Instead, she sells her London flat, and embarks on a series of "firsts" that ironically echo an adolescent's initial forays into the adult world: she decides to move to India, to the affordable BEMH, and once there, aware that she has a limited income, Evelyn finds a job for the first time in her life, makes money, and ultimately realizes, despite her uncertainty, that she is happy. Watching her walk the streets of Jaipur, India, assailed by the colors, sounds, and smells of a wholly different way of life to the one she left behind, you can feel Evelyn's cautious excitement, her wonder in the direction she has chosen, rather than allowed, her life to take, the truth of her narrative voice-over that “the person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing.”


Old people are set in their ways

Ever heard the one about elderly people digging in their heels, stubbornly resisting change? It's a myth that's hard to disprove, particularly if you've ever tried to convince an older parent or relative to use a cell phone (with larger numbers, of course), give up an impractical home to move closer to you, or even change a brand of detergent. Yet one way or the other, all the characters in this movie deal with change, uprooting themselves from their familiar environments, several of them even bravely confronting the computer, determined to master it. Perhaps the most significant turnaround comes from the tart but timid racist, Muriel, who reluctantly registers at the BEMH when she learns that a stay in India is the quickest way to get a cheap hip replacement. While there, Muriel's prejudicial views towards Indian people slowly dissolve through her growing friendship with a young Indian maid. An untouchable, the maid has always gone unnoticed, until the convalescing Muriel, stuck in her wheelchair, offers her some tips on more efficient sweeping. So in challenging this particular geriatric myth, the movie suggests the elderly can deal with change, but are perhaps more likely to do so when they feel in control of when, and how, change occurs.


Older people differ from younger people in their need for love and intimacy

According to this myth, older people no longer get worked up about romance, love, and intimacy. They're kind of asexual, probably don't even have sex anymore, and if they do, should please keep it to themselves, because the thought of grandma and grandpa getting it on is…disturbing. But BEMH's elderly patrons turn this myth on its head too, displaying lust, love, yearning, and disillusionment, in similar ways to their younger counterparts, which suggests human needs don't change with advanced age, though they may assume different form. Take Norman, the aging player, who comes to India still very much on the prowl, or Madge, who has no scruples passing herself off as the deceased Princess Margaret in search of a new husband. On a more serious note, Graham, a gay high court judge who lived in India as a boy and had his first romantic encounter there, has spent his adult life filled with loss and regret, fearing that his Indian friend may have suffered from the discovery of their relationship. Graham finally returns to India to find him, ultimately reuniting with his friend in a poignant scene. Graham learns his friend has been happy in an arranged marriage, that he was always honest with his wife about his former lover whom he never forgot, and within this environment of shared trust and respect, their marriage thrived. Having obtained closure, Graham feels a sense of deep contentment, but the emotional intensity involved takes a toll on his weak heart. Graham's friend participates in the moving funeral rites, and Evelyn, speaking to his wife after the funeral, realizes that the trust shared by this couple was something she and her own husband never had, despite their seemingly happy marriage. Douglas, one half of an unhappily married couple − whose friendship with Evelyn gradually develops into something deeper while his embittered wife, Jean, remains at the hotel, in denial of her surroundings − tries to comfort a distraught Evelyn. Jean discovers Douglas with his arm around Evelyn, touching off a romantic triangle fueled by disappointment, growing affection, and jealousy. By the end of the movie, Jean has left Douglas, and he and Evelyn are presented as a couple, their affection, triumphing over the odds, a more mature reflection of the young love shared by Sonny, the hotel manager, and Sunaina, the girl his mother disapproves of. The closing scene's depiction of the younger couple riding their motor bike past the elder couple − on a scooter − symbolizes the difference in quality, not kind, when it comes to love and older people.


Now the BEMH is a movie, which suggests it presents an idealized view of age. It’s also true that if we tend to think of the elderly as mentally diminished, it's probably because we can all think of at least one senior relative or acquaintance with an age-related mental-health problem, such as dementia or depression. However, according to the research on aging, while seniors do experience loss and physical decline, most remain in good mental health and experience positive life satisfaction until well into their later years. This means that, given half the chance, the aged are still in the running, and their efforts at resilience, independence, love, and growth, are deserving of our validation, even though they are different to our own, and even though it might feel simpler to just have seniors do it our way. Remember when Mom and Dad's greatest crime was that they just didn't listen? Perhaps, then, the willingness to listen and empathize, might be our greatest gifts to the aged, allowing them a more realistic taste of the delights experienced by "the elderly and beautiful" at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.


References

Carstensen, L.L., & Turk, Charles, S (1994). The salience of emotion across the adult life span. Psychology and Aging, 9, 259-264.


Madden, J. (Director). (2012). The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel [Motion Picture]. UK: 20th Century Fox.


Comments


Chris B

9/26/2012 01:41:45 pm

Kind of reminds me of many here that are planning to retire to Mexico because of how cheap it is to live there!

I hope it's not just older people who see this movie, but also those who need some images of what older people are changed! I haven't seen this movie yet, but I really want to see it because I've heard so many good things about it. :-)


Rivkah Kaufman

9/30/2012 03:30:04 am

Hi Chris, and thanks for your response. I agree that the movie is for people of all ages, as everyone needs to see the stereotypes of aging reversed. And you should definitely try to see the movie if you can!


Claire Holcomb-Drapkin LCSW

9/30/2012 01:29:53 am

All your comments about movie and summary of movie are right on target. As a woman who has, with amazement, watched herself move from the scary 49 to 50, then 59 to 60 and more resignedly from 69 to 70 (I am 73), I have decided it is FEAR in me and others that keeps us from recognizing age as a inevitable factor in life. I simply never believed I would be other than 35ish. As it turns out, I'm a mix of ages. My arthritis and cardiac problems I have to fight to keep from feel old. And old equals helpless. But I am lucky in that my job is an ass-sitting one. As a therapist, I have a caseload of about 22 persons. I am also working on a novel. I've published some in the past but never seriously worked at the craft. My husband and I (third husband/no children) talk a lot about how to make each day, week, year as full as possible. As never before I treasure life and time. I think there is no way for agnostic me to sugar-coat my dislike that life ends in what seems to be a END. It makes me angry that I won't see more of space exploration, perhaps take a vacation trip to Mars, and not have to cope with physical ailments which there may be a cure for. I've worked with geriatrics clients once for a year. Two comments; there were among some so much FEAR. As one 91 year old woman said to me. "I am afraid of everything." That comment I keep in mind because I don't want to be like that. And on the other side, richness of life seemed limited only by what was available to do and have. (This was in a rural SC location.) It takes guts to get old. I think a helluva lot more guts to age than be an adolescent which I disliked. I have to tell myself, and bite hard on the belief, that I do have decision-making powers. As long as I have that, limitations are relatively meaningless. I need to respect myself and to feel respected. So, I look at bigotry to older people through the prism of what an older woman, unfortunately me, must do to rid herself of her own bigotry and fear. Fear is the worst to grapple with. Yesterday rather sums up my current life. I thought sadly of a good friend whose memorial service was being held in a far away city. I sent flowers and a donation to her charity of choice. My husband and I went out to a seafood restaurant we both like and I did not overeat. I was so aware of older looking/middle-aged women who were too overweight. I am trying to get back to the weight I had when I was young plus 30 pounds. I'm no fool. A little more weight is flattering, and I am not going to be quasi anorexic to wear a one digit size. We both worked on moving books into boxes to be given away, who knows. I decided, with distaste, that I may have to buy some version of a Kindle. I have too many books for house to hold. And we made out our vacation/activity plan for 20l3 with one hoped for vacation in 20l4. We are not rich. We are not poor. We both still work. But our plans generally have one trip to some domestic city, San Francisco maybe, and a lot of three day weekends doing new things or just things we like again. Primarily we did a lot of talking about the death of NY Times Publisher whom my husband respected. We also talked of the major three fiscal crises facing USA, and, of course, the election, with an occasional shiver at Todd Aken's like. In short, we didn't do 'make work." Hobbies for old people." Or, how to keep busy /apple pie and motherhood. Yuck. I am determined to be irreverent, funky, mature, funny, gutsy, willing to be sick if I am sick, willing to ask for help if I need it, keep writing, keep working--in short, keep being a human being. Well, one of my character flaws is verbosity. Sorry for not taking time to be brief. Best, Claire


Rivkah Kaufman

9/30/2012 03:45:10 am

Hi Claire - thanks so much for your comments and your insights. I agree that it takes guts and determination to get older, to push past fear, and keep working, being productive and creative, as you are. I am in my 40s, myself, but one of my jobs is making home visits to elderly holocaust survivors, and the work has given me a new appreciation of the challenges faced by the aged, made me aware of my own mortality, of the way I want to live as an older person, and of the logistics necessary to insure I can do that (getting my finances in order, etc). As for your "tendency" towards verbosity (sounds better than calling it a "flaw"!) I definitely share that with you, so please don't apologize!


Henry Isaacs

10/3/2012 06:35:32 am

Rivkah,

Well written and quite eloquent in your review of the film's overtones on aging and myth-busting. I have to question, however, if the myth of "stubborn, set in their ways elderly people" is really debunked. The very premise of the film is based around a change of scenery, a vacation, a stay in an exotic locale that shares little to no similarities with their past environment. So how "real" can or will a person be when they are on vacation or away from their realities of life? Like we know from the infamous Las Vegas tagline - "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" - isn't it possible that their newfound zest, sexuality, and willingness to change are only temporary changes that are bound to be eradicated once they return to their homes and original lifestyles? Although you are indeed correct in that elderly individuals are brimming with wisdom and knowledge, I don't consider the elderly to be growing in the numerous ways displayed in this film. I do think that, like anyone at any age, when taken to a new environment, surprises can happen. Similar to "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" or "The English Patient", when people are placed in new settings with interesting new people, anyone is bound to be changed and enlightened. What remains to be seen is what happens after they return home from their "Vegas" state of mind - I'd say it's a safe bet that the myth could well live on after the flight home.


Rivkah Kaufman

10/3/2012 02:22:05 pm

Good point, Henry - tks for bringing it up. Change does indeed seem more inviting when you're far from home.


Spencer

1/5/2013 06:30:43 am

This movie, BEMH, also depicts a case of a 'long term relationship that doesn't make sense', as discussed in your article of 10/21/2012. For me, it explores the issue well. I saw the film some time ago, but recall that it shows the weary 'same old same old' patterns of dysfunctional communication, the pain of being trapped in a relationship from which (it seems) there is no escape, the secondary gains and something of the glue that kept it together. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


Rivkah Kaufman

1/6/2013 12:45:17 am

Yes, Spencer, it does - thanks for pointing that out!


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