Melissa Harris-Perry: This week, the US hit a grim milestone. More than 800,000 of our family, friends, and neighbors have been lost to coronavirus, and it's our elders who've been most brutalized by this pandemic. Nearly 75% of COVID deaths in the US have been among those 65 and older, or as this week's New York Times headline laid bare, one out of every 100 older Americans has perished.
Now, I can't help but wonder if the pandemic would be so politically charged and polarized if one of every 100 American children had died in less than two years. Perhaps this pandemic has revealed some of the ways our policies and practices treat older Americans as disposable, and disposable is precisely how aged-based discrimination in the workforce can leave many seniors feeling. Recent reporting by Bloomberg points out that the number of people 55 And up in the workforce is down by 2 million compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Yes, there are a number of factors contributing to this statistic, but being unable to work is truly devastating for those whose financial need makes it essential that they remain employed decades after first earning AARP membership. The National Council on Aging reports that 15 million Americans ages 65 and older are economically insecure, with incomes falling below 200% of the federal poverty line.
Duty Free is a new documentary, airing as part of the Independent Lens series on PBS through December 21 and it chronicles a rather incredible mother-son adventure ignited when after decades of labor, a 75-year-old woman is unceremoniously terminated. I spoke with the filmmaker-
Sian-Pierre Regis: Sian-Pierre Regis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: -and with his mom, who's the real star of this film.
Rebecca Danigelis: Rebecca Danigelis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I asked Rebecca to tell me what losing her job in her 70s was like.
Rebecca Danigelis: At 75 years of age, I was restructured from my job. I had worked 40 years in the hotel industry in Boston, never called in sick, never been absent, never was a day without work. If I left one hotel after 10 years as a night manager, I started the next morning at my new hotel. I ended up working for 10 years in a building, which originally was not a hotel, but I was invited to restart a hotel there for the company, which I did and I happened to live in the premises and I was heartily surprised when one day at four o'clock I was called to the office and say, "We appreciate everything you've done for us, however, today is your last day we are restructuring." Gobsmacked was I.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Your son described that moment in the film and he says that you lost not only your job but that for you, work had always been your core, may not always because we also learned when you first begin working but in your adulthood, it had been such a core sense of who you were and you say in the film that you lost not only a job but a family, say more about what work meant to you beyond a paycheck.
Rebecca Danigelis: It gave me a sense of purpose. I made the mistake that many career women do is I let my work define me and especially in hotel when everything has to be perfect. You carry it over to your private life and for 24 hours a day you're dressed as though you're going to get called any minute, which indeed I was living in the hotel. Calls any minute you have to look your best. Everything has to be right. You depend upon a crew of people who work so hard. As a team, you make it perfect for the guest who's paying so much money to stay there.
I lost that. I didn't have much time with my own family and the room attendants and the Houseman and the workers beside me, I miss them and miss the morning greetings and working with them and smiling with them and eating their varying foods from different countries, and that was a big loss.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sian-Pierre, you responded in so many ways like any young adult child might initially looking to help out financially looking to provide little moral support as your mom looked for new work, but then you came up with something that I'm not sure most of the rest of us would have come up with, can you talk about the bucket list?
Sian-Pierre Regis: I had never seen my mom in the place that she was when she lost her job and was left with just two weeks pay after having worked somewhere, it was the greatest debasement that I had ever seen of my mom and I needed to figure out a way to bring her back because, at 75, you start to worry about what's next for your parent. She had $600 her bank account and I thought, "What can I do to bring this woman back alive again." I don't know how it hit me, Melissa, I don't know where it came from but all I know was one day I woke up and thought she should make a bucket list. We should go on a bucket list adventure to do everything she could never do while she was working.
I pitched it to her and she thought it was the craziest idea ever because what she really wanted, or what she really needed was a job. I put the details to the side and I said, "Just write out the list and we're going to make this happen." That is the backbone of the film Duty Free.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then you all do all kinds of things from I won't give them all away, but boy, that last one, I was not expecting the last one, but let's just start at the beginning. I am going to give away the first one which is milking a cow. Rebecca, can you talk to me about why you wanted to milk a cow?
Rebecca Danigelis: Well, even though I'd heard about people, people would stop by, and over the years, people would come now, say, "Hello, Mrs. X, how are you doing? Welcome back. What are you doing this time you're here, and once time, somebody said, "We're going to over the farm and then go milk a cow." Then it was struck me that's something that is so unusual. That's something I'd want to do one day, who knew that I'd actually put it on my bucket list and go out and actually milk a cow. There are no cows in Liverpool where I grew up. I grew up during the war bombs coming down so it was like a back-to-childhood kind of thing. It was a childhood idea. I loved it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rebecca, you talk about being fired from the job as making you feel discarded, and I'm wondering if at the end of this bucket list adventures project, and the film that has emerged and been nominated for awards if that has in fact been transformed if you no longer feel discarded?
Rebecca Danigelis: Well, I have to say, I wish I could, I may have been discarded by that particular place. However, I have found that I have not been discarded by the social communities that have reached out, and as you said, you can identify yourself with some parts of this movie. I've heard from people all over the world, and many women can identify in the same way to different parts of this movie. I was very honest, a lot of times didn't know that I was being filmed so this is an honest portrayal of me but let me tell you now, if I died tomorrow, it's been the happiest time of my life.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sian-Pierre gave you a great gift in this but the two of you also talk about the gifts that you gave to him as his mother.
Rebecca Danigelis: I'm very proud of him and now our mission is to help all those older people who don't have a son like Sian-Pierre I'm the lucky one. He's my advocate. I want every senior to have an advocate.
Sian-Pierre Regis: If I can just say something really quickly here, Melissa, there are so many stories like my mom's and we've been reached out to by so many people. Part of this making of this film was to make sure that my mom was seen because what happened to her in front of me, was the cruelest thing I've ever seen happen to somebody. This was my mom. It wasn't until my mom was fired, that I realized that at 75 with no money, that she was invisible in this society, and that if I didn't see her, that nobody would.
If we do not do something about older people, "aging out and being discarded" who will lift us up? I hope that this film is the push that young people need to see themselves in their parents.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sian Pierre Regis is director of the documentary, Duty Free. Rebecca Danigelis is the mom and subject of the movie and all of us are apparently a blubbering mess at this moment. Thank you for joining us today.
Sian-Pierre Regis: Thank you so much.
Rebecca Danigelis: Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate.
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