The Elder Health Tree: A Resource for Healthy & Happy Aging
Guest article by Justin Schein
One day, we may find ourselves in the challenging role of caregiver. If life unfolds as expected, we’ll have a supportive community to help us care for our loved one at the end of their rich and full life. With 10,000 Americans turning 65 daily, the gray wave sweeping across America has left more elders living in isolation. Thanks to modern medicine, we’re living longer and likely with chronic illnesses. Sadly, the family and institutional community support systems that used to aid us in caring for our elders are becoming less accessible. Thus, we’re thrust into caregiving unexpectedly without the logistical and emotional support we need.
I witnessed these dramatic challenges faced by elder Americans and their caregivers in painful detail. What started out as a film exploring the life of my friend, Mayer Vishner, a lifelong anti-war activist and a genuine Greenwich Village character, took a dark turn when I realized how desperately alone and depressed he was. Before long, I became the primary caregiver for the subject of my latest documentary, Left on Purpose.
Mayer was an original member of the Yippies – 1960s activists who perfected the use of satire and sarcasm as tool of political dissent. His youth was filled with optimism that the political change he was fighting for was both possible and imminent. Within a few months though, I began to see the once-engaged activist battling isolation, depression, and substance abuse. Through the process of filming Left on Purpose, Mayer and I became very close. The film shifted to an intimate portrait of the relationship between a filmmaker and his subject. As he became part of my extended family, I began to face the challenges of being a caregiver. I looked for ways to re-engage him with the world, but it was a struggle beyond my power to succeed. Sadly, he took his life.
It was through this experience as friend and filmmaker, I realized that our healthcare system and our society are not prepared to support our growing elder population. Alarmingly, the Trump administration’s recently proposed budget will have a devastating effect on the support systems for many of America’s most vulnerable. The billions of dollars slashed from programs such as the Senior Community Service Employment Program, Meals on Wheels, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, caregiver support, respite care, elder abuse prevention, and supportive housing for low-income seniors will reduce elder Americans’ safety net.
During my six-year friendship with Mayer, the Left on Purpose team was inspired to create a tool to help older Americans, their loved ones, and caregivers prepare for healthy and fulfilling lives as senior citizens. With the support of The Sundance Documentary Fund and AARP of New York. we created the Elder Health Tree. Based on the model of the familiar food pyramid, our goal is to conveniently visualize the different aspects of life older Americans need to consider to live a more balanced life.
Beyond the typical areas of focus such as physical health and economic stability, the Elder Heath Tree also emphasizes the importance of the oft-overlooked social and emotional areas of community engagement and spiritual wellness.
Through an easy-to-navigate website, The Elder Health Tree provides seniors and their caregivers clear bullet point suggestions as well as links to further resources. We hope it will become a valuable tool for individuals to advocate and prepare for a happy, healthy life through their elder years.
Justin Schein has been shooting and directing character-driven social issue documentaries for more than 20 years. As a cinematographer, he has shot over 60 films internationally for broadcasters including the BBC, Discovery Channel. and PBS. His film Left on Purpose premiered theatrically in the winter of 2017 and won numerous awards at festivals, worldwide. It is the intimate story of an aging peace activist who wants to take his own life and the filmmaker struggling to tell his story.