Robert DeNiro has been popping up a lot in movie theatres as of late. Throughout his career, he’s played everything from an angry taxi driver, a volatile boxer, mobsters, and many more roles.
Most recently, DeNiro still plays a variety of roles, however, at the age of 72, he’s invariably cast as a widower or retiree. The actor received high praise for his role in the 2015 film, The Intern. The film sent a positive message about hiring seniors in the workplace and DeNiro portrayed a classy “man of a certain age” whose life change is spurred by the loss of his wife and boredom during retirement. He takes a job as a senior intern and interacts with a team of colleagues who are much younger than him that benefit from his experience and charm.
On the flipside, critics panned DeNiro’s latest movie, Dirty Grandpa. Like his character in The Intern, the actor once again played a retired widower who is moved to change his life now that his wife, after a long battle with cancer, was now gone. Unlike the character in The Intern who chose to go back to a work setting, DeNiro’s Dirty Grandpa character took to spring break with his repressed 20-something grandson, urging him to loosen up because life is short… and sometimes merits a road trip overrun with profanity, promiscuous sex, binge drinking, and risky behaviors played for laughs to reset the status quo.
Older Adults Taking Risks
While the plots of both movies may be a little Hollywood and not entirely plausible, they’re entertaining and a playground for an actor to play two very different roles that show myriad ways older adults are aging.
Why is one deemed “appropriate” behavior and the other isn’t? And by whose standards? Both of the actor’s characters interacted with people much younger than them, but in different ways and in different environments. Why is one considered socially acceptable or at least marginally acceptable behavior (given the stereotypes surrounding college spring break) for younger people, whereas another form of interaction is deemed inappropriate for a senior citizen?
Rather than looking at actions as appropriate and constructive versus inappropriate and worthy of ridicule, maybe it’s time to examine the reasons behind why some older adults engage in risky behaviors that some might consider “shameful.”
In 2011, the CDC reported the highest instance of new HIV diagnoses and other STDs was in seniors over the age of 55. Additionally, a 2008 Wayne University study looked into some of the reasons why seniors indulge in risky behaviors such as gambling. Some gamble for reasons like the fun of winning money and supplementing income, while others do it to distract themselves from uncomfortable feelings of loneliness, grief, and loss of friends and loved ones by engaging with the more social aspects of this behavior.
In this spirit (and somewhat reminiscent of the plot of Bad Grandpa) MTV is producing a new reality show called Spring Break with Grandad, coming to the network in summer 2016. The premise involves eight college students, each of whom will be spending spring break in Cancun with their favorite grandparent in-tow. Whether this show will be exploitative of older adults or show them in an endearing light, having fun and bonding with younger people remains to be seen. However, it’s heartening to hear that the senior members of the Spring Break festivities will be giving their grandkids dating advice while on vacation in Cancun. It’s an unusual premise, but there is a lot of potential for good things to happen and stereotypes about aging to be shaken off.
Beyond the character portrayed on-screen in Bad Grandpa, many of the critical reviews of Bad Grandpa called for DeNiro to “be ashamed… be deeply ashamed” and questioned “”Isn’t De Niro at all concerned with his legacy? At all?”
Critics will be critics. It’s their job and, for public figures and actors, it’s part of the job description to allow statements like that to roll off their back. However, for the average person who is simply living their life and aging around a smaller circle of friends and family, statements like this all but remove their personal agency. At what point, do an older adult’s choices cease to be their own and they face pressure to uphold a perceived legacy instead of doing something that makes them happy?
Granted, no one wants to see a loved one make a mistake that could cost them their life, their health, or money. However, barring a condition that impairs their mental faculties, most older adults are capable of articulating why they are engaging in a particular activity and the jolt of adrenaline they receive from it. For instance, look at former president, George H.W. Bush, who celebrated his 80th, 85th, and 90th birthdays by skydiving from a plane. Sure, jumping out of an airplane is a different risk than engaging in whacky hijinx that ensued during the film Bad Grandpa, but risky behavior is still risky behavior.
The interesting thing about Bad Grandpa and what DeNiro subtly conveyed in the role were the parallels between younger people making mistakes as they try to find their way in life and older people who are nearing the end of their lifetime and examining any regrets they may not have addressed when they were younger. As a society, we tend to lord “legacy” over the heads of seniors the same way we taunt younger people with “that’s going to go on your permanent record” in an attempt to make them behave in ways that fit within roles that have been designated for them based on age.
Growing up, your parent or older loved one was likely your hero, and it can be hard watching your heroes age or do things you might not necessarily agree with. However, it can be a fine line between caring and “parenting” them by trying to chide them for behaviors we may deem unfitting someone their age.
While you certainly want to protect older parents and loved ones the same way they cared for you when you were young, it’s important to try to understand where they’re coming from, let them have a little fun (safely!), and ask them for advice from time to time. Aging doesn’t mean you have to stay at home and let life pass you by.