Documentary Puts Face on Financial Insecurity, Ageism and Other Issues
'Duty Free' explores the pain of being downsized and the joy of real happiness
En español | News stories today often focus on grown kids moving back home to live with their parents. But the subject of a new documentary, Duty Free, turns that scenario on its head. It is the story of Rebecca Danigelis, who is downsized at work, after a lifetime of sacrifice as a single immigrant mother raising two boys, one with special needs. To buoy her spirits, her youngest son takes her on a bucket-list journey to experience all the things she never could while she was working. The film ends with her becoming a roommate (in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic), at age 79, of her 36-year-old son, Sian-Pierre Regis, and his partner in their New York City apartment.
The many aspects of this story make it a complicated tangle of single motherhood, family bonds, caregiving for a grown child with mental health challenges, the need for better financial literacy and the stark reality of an ageist culture. It reveals what may happen to seniors when they are not seen as valuable members of the community. But the film is also a cautionary tale about the choices we make when it comes to savings and retirement, especially when living paycheck to paycheck and faced with a sudden life event like job loss. Danigelis spent many years as a hotel housekeeper and raising children. She emptied her savings to give her one son a college education, but that left very little for her own retirement.
The heart of the tale is the love between a mother and her son, who becomes her caregiver by circumstance and is determined to give her the joy that she was able to give him. “My mother worked so hard all of her life and was able to send me to college,” says Regis, who is also the film's director. “When she lost her job and her home, I wanted to make it possible for her to have a little fun.”
Danigelis lived for 37 years in the Boston hotel for which she worked, a holdover tenant from when the building had provided affordable housing for women. “My job defined me,” Danigelis recalls. “I was on call 24 hours, had never missed a day of work or been late.”
When the owners decided to sell the building, they needed her to vacate. Danigelis became increasingly upset at the way she was being treated on the job and fearful of what the future held.
"My mother was the absolute fabric of her workplace, and it was hard to watch this cruel ageism happening to someone I loved,” Regis says. “She was panicked at feeling ‘managed out’ and anxious about what she would do next. As I learned more about the universality of her plight, my instinct as a journalist and filmmaker was to pull out my camera and start filming."
One day, Regis came home to a voice mail message from his mom, who was crying and said she had been fired. As he began to educate himself about her rights, he became more outraged at the way older people are treated in our culture today.
"Our mindset is that the older generation is expendable and disposable,” Regis observes. “My generation needs to change this mindset, to care more about our elders and create better systems to support their inclusion.”
Unemployed and soon to be homeless, his mother became one of the one quarter of U.S. adults who have no retirement savings. In fact, a mere 36 percent of Americans think that their retirement planning is on track.
Making dreams come true
With his mother having no job prospects and nowhere to live, Regis needed to give her a renewed purpose, a sense that life was worth living, even without employment. And that's where the idea of a bucket list came from. He was determined to make his mother's dreams come true, to honor her, after she spent a lifetime sacrificing for her loved ones.
Regis raised $60,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, and then he and his mom began to work down the list, from skydiving to going to London to reconnect with the daughter whom Danigelis sent away to be raised by her sister in England some 50 years ago. She and Regis also embarked on simple joys like learning to milk a cow and hip-hop dancing.
As Danigelis began posting her experiences online, the story went viral and other people began sharing their tales of being downsized as older adults. Regis and his partner, Sam Moll, an NYC dietitian, helped her with tasks like filing for unemployment and Medicare, all made infinitely more difficult during the coronavirus pandemic and due to her lack of computer literacy. They set up Danigelis’ vaccination appointments, helped her apply for jobs and enabled her to get back a sense of control over her life.
"It really hit me that older folks, some of whom have never been taught the ins and outs of the internet, are being completely left out from the job market, from getting vaccines and from communicating with the outside world because they don't have computer savvy. Who's going to help them?” Regis says.
One heartbreaking part of the film is watching Danigelis apply for numerous positions, attend job fairs and career centers, and continually face rejections. “No one in this world is gonna hire a 75-year-old!” she laments.
Understanding real happiness
What makes Duty Free so compelling is Danigelis’ absolute joyous and indomitable spirit. Regis created an Instagram account for his mother (@Rebrexit on Instagram), and she now has nearly 50,000 new friends worldwide who share their own bucket-list stories.
Looking back, Danigelis has gained perspective from the whole experience. “It's really important to live when you live,” she says. “I wasted time by not serving my needs in the way I've served other people, and I'm finally understanding what happiness is."
For Regis, this time with his mother has been a lesson in trying to figure out when he can be selfish and when he must be selfless. “I want my mom to be seen at all times and feel cared for, but I also need to be OK with not being here all the time and nurturing my own relationships.”
The film's release, in theaters and streaming nationwide in virtual cinema platforms, is timed for Mother's Day, but it's also coming out at a time when pandemic restrictions are loosening. “So many people have been separated for a year, and this film is a reminder that we can reevaluate who we are, what work we value, who we care about and who we want to be with at the end of the day,” Regis says. “Being able to help to be an advocate for my mother and have her spend this time living with us has been a true gift.”
Lee Woodruff is a caregiver, speaker and author. She and her husband, Bob, cofounded the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which assists injured service members and their families. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.