When Rebecca Danigelis, then 75, was fired from her Boston hotel housekeeping job in 2016, she felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under her. With the loss of the job, she also lost the apartment she was able to stay in through the hotel and had no income to care for herself and one of her sons, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and requires emotional and financial support from Danigelis. At a loss, she reached out to her younger son, journalist Sian-Pierre Regis, who decided to take her on a bucket list journey. Regis, a filmmaker, uses Duty Free to document their adventure. AARP talked to both Regis and Danigelis about the project, ageism, and valuing family and things that matter.
What role do you think the younger generation can play for the aging population?
Sian-Pierre Regis: Ageism affects and will affect every age, every color and every gender. We all get old, and yet societal structures — from advertising systems, to the way we code websites and tech, to what we deem “valuable” on the job — work against us once we’ve hit a certain age. I think the younger generation needs to play a large role in the fight against ageism, not only to support a coworker who feels attacked because of their age, help an older person who can’t traverse a website, and show care for someone who might not have a care unit, but because this issue will affect them, too, if we don’t change the system now. Having compassion for these folks who are just victims of our society will key all into the way our society works and help us to build a better one.
Why do think your documentary is so important?
Regis: If we’ve learned anything through the pandemic, it’s that care is essential and that life is fragile. From food drop-offs and check-in calls, we as a nation have realized the transformative power of caring for our loved ones and for strangers. This film amplifies that power through my mom’s personal story. Driven by a desire to make my mom visible, who was rendered invisible by society because of her age, this documentary was born.
And it’s also given folks inspiration to act, to make a bucket list — big or small — that allows them to experience life fully. We’ve provided a bucket list sheet on our website for folks to fill out, and hundreds of people have downloaded it. That shows you that now’s the time that folks are ready to live differently than before the pandemic.
Did you ever imagine that your mom’s story would resonate with so many? What have been the positives and negatives of sharing her story?
Regis: There really have only been positives! I’ve cried a lot hearing from other people about how their own stories of lost jobs or broken family members have affected them. But so many of those folks have found hope in our story and have committed to putting themselves, or a family member, first in their lives moving forward. And that’s such a powerful feeling, to know that you’re affecting folks for the good. We’ve held so many private screenings where we’ve made older folks feel visible, and my mom has begun to think about what’s next for her beyond housekeeping. So many wonderful things have changed. I guess the only negative is that I now need to swat men away from my mom’s messages on social media! Seems like some are smitten!
What are some roadblocks you’ve faced in the journey?
Regis: Making a film, no matter who you are, is extremely difficult. The budget and the time needed to make one successfully creates barriers that only the most driven will survive. But what was most frustrating about this journey was that the Hollywood gatekeepers didn’t believe much in it. Very few Hollywood narratives star a 75-year-old everywoman, struggling to survive, despite that being the narrative for so many Americans. It was thanks to our fans and followers, and the journalists who saw the bigger picture — that my mom’s story was increasingly one of so many other women — that lifted this film up. We were on every national network and became a hit on social media with others commenting about being inspired, or moved. It was those people who made Duty Free a hit. And I hope Hollywood listens: We need more nuanced and real stories about our older generations. They deserve their stories to be told.
How did you convince your mom to create a bucket list?
Regis: It was difficult because all she wanted — or needed, rather — was a job. But there’s nothing more annoying than having a son as a journalist, who will pepper you with questions and requests on every call. After call number 10, I think she just made the list to get me off her back! But she’s thankful she did!
What inspired you to keep pushing for the film?
Regis: During the process of making this film, I got to know my mom as a human. Not just as a mother, but a woman who, herself, was tenacious and hardworking, complicated but honest. And the more I got to know about her as a human, the harder I wanted to fight. There is no reason someone like her should work their entire lives and be left to struggle at 75. Not on my watch.
How do you feel the older generation is treated today, given that most cannot afford retirement, and how does your film change that (if at all)?
Regis: It’s heartbreaking to know that the average Social Security payment to folks won’t cover basic rent — not to mention groceries — in many of the nation’s biggest cities. And then on top of just trying to make it, you are so often invisible on the job or in your local community. And by not acting, my generation is only self-harming, as we’ll bear the brunt of age discrimination soon enough.
I think Duty Free not only gives people — both older and younger — inspiration for their Act 3, but I think it also outlines the issues of financial insecurity and care and compels communities to make changes. On our website and across our social media channels, we’re giving people prompts to have discussions about finances; we’re connecting them to organizations who might help them provide care for their families, and we’re being honest about our own struggles of living together, etc. By being honest with our life stories, we hope other people will see themselves and commit to caring for others at every age and in every stage.
How do you think Duty Free is a conversation starter for U.S. residents?
Rebecca Danigelis: So many families aren’t discussing finances until it’s too late. With women my age living longer with less, it’s crucial that families come together to discuss their financial plans so that they, unlike us, aren’t in panic mode when figuring out how their loved ones will survive through their Act 3s. For some people, it might be, “Who will be my financial power of attorney?,” and for others, “Who will be my caretaker?” or “How much are you willing to provide financially to help me make my ends meet?”
But I also hope it’s a discussion on the meaning of work in our lives. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over these last few years of completing my bucket list, it’s that family is everything. Not a job, not a paycheck — though that is important — it’s family. Because they’ll be there in the end.
The documentary shows how you’ve made connections from people around the globe. What do you think resonated with them to reach out?
Danigelis: So many of my new followers lost a job late in life and have shared stories about how hard it was to get themselves off the floor and continue living. Jobs take up so much of our lives. For good and bad, they also determine so much who we are, how we value ourselves, etc. So, when people, like me, are fired or let go due to a restructuring, or age discrimination, or another reason, what do they have to show for themselves? Who are they? These deep existential questions have come up for so many, as they did for me. I was lucky enough to do everything I was never able to do as part of this journey, and it was those adventures with my son that helped me answer the questions that many of my followers still have. I am now the same Rebecca I always was, just stronger.
What message would you give to people who value their career over their families?
Danigelis: It’s simple: Do not let your work define you. Family is everything. Invest time in those you love, because you will be able to count on them to invest time into you when you most need it.
What change do you want to see in society for people who are similar to you — those who have worked multiple decades and then feel dispensable?
Danigelis: We are working hard through the film’s impact campaign to work with “bucket list employers” who are willing to commit to their older workers. Thanks to a worker handbook, every employee knows what happens on their first day of work (sick days, insurance, pay, etc.) but very few know what happens on their last. I want to see a last page in the handbook that outlines exactly what should be expected from employees and employers on that last day should they be restructured like me, what resources will be made available to help them find a new job, how much pay will they receive. To be left, like me, with just two weeks’ pay after working so long is unconscionable and wrong. I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.
Why do you think creating a bucket list is important?
Danigelis: So often, we spend our lives doing things to please other people at the expense of our own happiness. Everyone deserves to experience joy and have the opportunity to do the things that move them, that fill them with pride, that make them happy and fulfilled. After such a long and hard year of the pandemic, I think all ages are thinking about what they want from life, and what they want to experience. It’s really the perfect time to begin dreaming about what’s next for you, and a bucket list is the perfect start.
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