By Thomas Goldsmith
The knowledge that 50 friends and neighbors will likely die each year clearly touches a community deeply, even when its residents are past 62 and at different levels of health and activity.
Living with certainties of aging like this — statistics bear them out — as well as the sweetness of later life, emerged recently in an unusual musical theater production: “Movin’.” Independent-living residents of the Chapel Hill retirement community Carolina Meadows wrote, scored, directed and appeared in the one-hour work about newcomers to the setting.
The piece’s dialogue and Broadway-style music address topics of aging such as adjustment to a 62-plus community, changes in identity and romantic attachments, as well as dementia, widowhood and disabling injuries. The plot unsentimentally avoids stereotypes and cliches as two experienced residents introduce six new arrivals to a community like Carolina Meadows.
“The reality is that death is a fact of the village life,” says cast member Phil Carl, the character called “Narrator Two, the Pessimist.”
“Dying is, of course, all around us here as we age, but it feels more noticeable in a community like ours. It can be pretty disorienting to newcomers.”
A knowledge that death will come
Continuing care retirement communities such as Carolina Meadows have multiple levels of care available on the same campus. People who retain their independence can live in separate homes or cottages, many younger residents continue to work. There are more congregate types of care for people who need assistance, and the communities include skilled nursing and sometimes hospice facilities.
Crowds at Carolina Meadows’ three recent packed performances were mostly older, from the different types of living situations on campus, but any interested person could have found illumination in the show’s window into later life. For example, as squeamish as the idea of impending losses may make a younger generation, research on the end-of-life experience has shown that many long-term care residents come to accept the normalcy of death.
“For most, but not all, death was an expected outcome after moving into long-term care,” wrote authors of a 2008 study that included UNC Chapel Hill sociology professor Sheryl Zimmerman. “However, few family members expressed a sense of normalcy regarding dying in long-term care.”
Lighthearted dialogue and songs leaven the intense subject matter of the musical, but the production doesn’t pull punches about what may be ahead each year for the more than 750 residents of Carolina Meadows.
“Every year we say goodbye to 50 friends or so; every year we know it’s so, that 50 more will go,” the cast sings, in lyrics by Hugh Tilson, a resident and North Carolina preventive health physician.
The singers extend the poignance of those thoughts by relating what happens after the death of friends: “As they once stood where now we stand, as we once took their vacant places, now we welcome helping hands, grateful for new hopeful faces.”
‘Easy to break a hip’
There’s a relatively lighthearted look at the perennial hazard for older people of broken-hip injuries. It’s such a risk to older people that in North Carolina there’s the Falls Prevention Coalition, aimed at reducing occurrences — as between 70 and 75 people per 100,000 population over 65 die in the state each year as the result of unintentional falls. That’s about 10 percent higher than the national average.
“It’s so easy to break a hip,” cast member Naomi Eckhaus sings from a wheelchair. “Who knew rehab would be so tough? I want back to bed but I haven’t done enough. Therapist tells me I’m out of shape. I’m three times your age, so give me a break.”
This concern will only increase in time, as those who enter skilled-nursing care are twice as likely to experience hip fractures as the general population, research shows.
Incipient memory loss, along with mood variations, appears in a song called “I’m a Little Worried About Eddie,” as cast member Donna Trohanis sings: “He can get into a mood; even act a little rude, and that is not the Eddie that I knew.”
These lapses could ring true to many North Carolinians, as surveys show that a little more than 10 percent of residents older than 45 had experienced what’s called “subjective cognitive decline.” That’s defined as the “self-reported experience of worsening or more frequent confusion or memory loss within the previous 12 months.”
Positive developments also get their day, as two characters fall in love and get married. And there’s a general sense that things will go well. The cast members’ abilities on stage reflect their choices for independent living in a community, where many eventually transition to assisted living and skilled-nursing centers. The play’s “rules of the road” for new arrivals require some casting aside of hard-earned status markers.
“Stop talking about who you were,” cast members advise. “Nobody wants to see those pictures of your old house, or hear about the waterfall in the backyard, much less your conquest in the boardroom, classroom or courtroom.”
Filling a musical niche
“Movin’” has finished its run, but those involved would like to see the work or its development extended to other facilities — or to Broadway, Tilson said.
The only nonresident appearing was UNC Chapel Hill geriatrician Dr. Philip Sloane. A leader of the initiating team, Sloane wrote several songs, though most were composed by resident and pianist Scott Schillin.
Sloane also made a solo appearance in a number about learning to take life more slowly. Along with director Tilson, he wanted to focus attention on a part of life that’s underrepresented in popular culture.
“There’s a lot of plays about adolescence and young adulthood,” Sloane said as players and audience members bustled around the Carolina Meadows auditorium before the show. “Everything from ‘Hairspray’ to ‘High School Musical,’ all these things.
“But the other time of life when there’s so much happening — emotional changes and personal change — is older adulthood and there’s very little about that. So I think this says things that other musicals don’t say.”