Dustin Hoffman’s film Quartet besides being a gentle gem of acting and film-making, should also be seen in contrast to the state and status of the elderly in America. A Home for Retired Musicians is, of course, a completely unique institution and who wouldn’t like to live out their last days on a bucolic country estate in England, surrounded by people of like interests still engaged in and sharing of their passions, but we must not ignore the grim reality of old age institutions here which, for the most part, resemble dormitories for minimum security prison hospitals . Eldercare in America is in a great conundrum: the Senate is the most elderly branch of government, but with its members having generous retirement plans and substantial accumulated wealth, it tends not to be a personally high-priority issue; and the younger House of Representatives generally thinks only one term to the next, and both political parties seem content to ascribe the misnomer “entitlement” to any federally administered, non-profit insurance program for retired people. So where are we aging boomers to turn?
In the film, the Home for Retired Musicians appears to be maintained by a combination of charitable giving and government subsidy (Maggie Smith’s character, despite having been an operatic diva, is there essentially “on the dole”), but it also operates somewhat like a working, almost “tribal”, commune with classes, lessons, and concerts to supplement its survival. However, while marijuana use seems on the comeback trail (drug use as the curer of all ails never left), one thing we boomers learned in in our hippie days is that communal living and finding tribal compatibility are next to impossible, some might even call it “downright unAmerican”. Classical musicians are unique in that, despite rivalries and jealousies, they embrace both the value of collaborative work and a strong sense of self. For the rest of us, the future is more a toss-up. Perhaps in time, all the new communication technology will change how the next generation relates to one another, but today a distinct worry is that our tendency to individualism, independence, and newness will leave us ultimately isolated, alone,and forgotten.