Outsourceing the Elder Within

Outsourcing the Elder Within I recently re-watched the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel after seeing a televised interview of Dame Judi Dench at Oxford Union regarding her role in the movie. I studied literature as a graduate student at Oxford. As I realize now, great universities such as Oxford are wasted on the young and immature. Nonetheless, studying literature afforded me the opportunity to expand my understanding of the human condition, specifically the process of emotional maturation. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not a movie about aging or the elderly per se’ although it seems that way to many viewers and critics alike. It is a morality play about discovering the “elder” that lives within each and every one of us regardless of our age. If we ignore our inner elder and allow ourselves to become “elderly” (despite spending a fortune on “anti-aging” elixirs), it means that we have outsourced our innate wisdom and emotional maturity in order to secure the approval aka acceptance of people we believe are more important than ourselves. I grew up on eastern Long Island. My father was a commercial fisherman as were all my male ancestors who arrived here from Holland since the late 1700s. My mother owned an antiques store for over sixty years. Early in their marriage when they bought their water front property on Three Mile Harbor in the 1950s their monthly mortgage was $15 a month with a ten year mortgage; some months they didn’t think they could make ends meet but they knuckled down, sacrificed, and fulfilled their commitment. Today people laugh when I tell them of mom and dad’s experience, but everything is relative to the times in which we live. As my parents’ sole child, my childhood was spent with remarkable aged men and women: Dutch fishermen whose entire careers were devoted to making their living at sea where they spent days pulling up nets onto their draggers and filled them with literally tons of fish. Each autumn these men would all sit in a big circle outdoors repairing their massive albeit tattered nets, telling stories, smoking their clay pipes, and inadvertently teaching me life lessons as I sat quietly listening and watching everything they did and said. My grandmother and great aunt who were 70+ years older than me were my care providers while my parents worked. They were robust, aged women who like the men were wise elders ruled by common sense. In fact, I had never met an “elderly” person until I left Long Island to enter college. There are still a few men and women around the east end like those I’d known in my youth. With the death of each one of them those of us who had known them find that our values are tested and in some instances altered; our sense of community has diminished with the growing influx of non-native residents and tourists who exclusively associate with their own tribes of like-minded people; and, our attitudes are tested by the wanton society we now inhabit in general. When I declared my major in literature as an undergraduate I didn’t understand that the study of literature demanded that I continually grow and expand the breadth and depth of my knowledge. It seems serendipitous that my continued study of literature and the long ago lessons learned from my elders continue to embellish my life-long career as a forensic gerontologist. Perhaps because of my deep regard for the people I’ve met around the world who crystalized the meaning of being an elder, King Lear has always been my favorite Shakespearean play. And, thankfully it was one of the plays produced in Avon the year I was at Oxford. Through Lear I learned that age has nothing to do with wisdom or maturity. Nor does wisdom or maturity have anything to do with authority or politics. So, what is an elder? Each of us has an “elder” within; it is a part of ourselves that can stand back from a situation and see it from different perspectives dispassionately rather than from any particular dogma. An elder is the part of us that quietly inspires others to look within them-selves for direction, for discretion, and for understanding when confronted with a challenge or a thought that we have held onto without question. An elder is the part of us that never gets lost in self-inflicted dementia; a benign forgetfulness of who we really are outside of the influence of others or the circumstances around us. Most importantly, an elder continues to mature and is increasingly able to comprehend life more compassionately, more wholly, and more diversely. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel portrays a plucky group of elderly English men and women, all confronted with a life changing event – the death of a spouse, retirement, health challenges, sexual orientation, insufficient retirement funds, and sheer loneliness. Their respective backgrounds span a broad range: a high court judge’s long held desire to reunite with a homosexual lover from his youth in India; a life-long housewife’s goal of becoming self-sufficient after discovering that her recently deceased husband of 40 years mismanaged their savings leaving her with nothing; a nanny who was dismissed by the family to whom she had devoted her entire career; a couple confronted with the reality that they have nothing in common and need to end their long marriage; and, an old reprobate who simply wants to alleviate his loneliness by finding someone with whom he can share what‘s left of his hopes and dreams. This disparate group of largely unrelated individuals flies halfway around the world from London to wildly chaotic Jaipur, India – the world capital of corporate outsourcing. There, a young man named Sonny is frantically trying to reinvigorate his late father’s decaying dream: a poorly managed and poorly maintained hotel that is literally on the verge of disintegration. The hotel is a metaphor for a vast number of elderly men and women who have years of life left after they retire from their jobs and/or the loss of their spouse but who live without purpose or hope of much more than an uneventful death. In order to reinvigorate the hotel, the completely ill prepared Sonny gets the idea to create a unique niche market. Sonny’s goal is to “outsource” the housing of foreign elderly now that younger generations are too self-involved to provide their relatives with care. The problem is that the hotel is not prepared for guests of any kind, no less aged people who grow more and more physically dependent over time. Nonetheless, with no plan or experience in the management of a hotel; no money to upgrade the facility; and no idea of the difference between elders and the elderly Sonny forges ahead. The only thing he has in his favor is the boundless energy and the naiveté of youth. Meanwhile, the insecure widow, Evelyn, is in need of an income since her husband left her with a false sense of security and a mountain of debt. With no work history she was nonetheless quickly hired by the young manager of a call center to mentor his employees. What she teaches them is to go literally “off script” in order to make a genuine connection with the customer, increase sales and thereby increase profits. Evelyn unintentionally becomes the company’s elder, citing her own experience as a real life customer in order to reprioritize the staff’s approach to the customer. Learning to go “off script” is quite possibly the most valuable lesson in life. Evelyn has become an elder to a whole new generation and in so doing she invigorates the staff and gives them the opportunity to come into their own greatness at a much earlier age. In the end, “outsourcing the elder within” means that you have abandoned your authentic self. This abandonment of your “truth” essentially forebodes social, political and spiritual decay especially if you define yourself by your “connections” and your wealth. Evelyn walked away from all of her connections (family and friends) and discovered that her seemingly financially comfortable life was nothing more than an illusion. In fact, the East End has become the seasonal epicenter for adults who embrace the “Peter Pan Complex”… the illusion of being above the natural laws of maturation and personal responsibility. They equate maturity with age which they fear more than death. In the end, the essence and stalwartness of past generations of men and women on the East End that served as my examples as a child have been all but obliterated. The sense of community, connection, and safety that I grew up with are gone. We have become “the Hamptons”. Nancy R. Peppard, Ph.D. is a forensic gerontologist, author, corporate consultant, world traveler, and an Emmy winning public television writer/producer who always finds her way back home to East Hampton.