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.