TV Review: Special puts viewers on front line of 'Living Old'

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It's understandable that American TV viewers largely prefer their television light, escapist and entertaining. After all, more people snack on desserts than on vegetables. But every now and then, even the candy-lovers need to let go of their sugar high and crunch on some fiber.

Essie Schiller, 94, and Florence Greco, 90, both live independently and remain good friends.
Click photo for larger image.

'Frontline: Living Old'

When: 9 tonight, WQED.

Tonight's "Frontline" (9 p.m., WQED) is not at all entertaining, but it presents an issue that everyone should take an interest in because they're eventually going to face it, first with older relatives and eventually themselves. The subject: "Living Old."

With typical "Frontline" straightforwardness and sensitivity, producers Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor explore the challenges that await an American population that's living longer but not necessarily better.

"We're on the threshold of the first ever mass geriatric society," says Dr. Leon Kass. Before you start imagining all the "Simpsons" jokes at the expense of Grandpa Simpson that could stem from a statement like that, consider the not-so-funny repercussions. People are living longer, but Dr. Kass says the price that many people pay for an extra decade of longevity is "to suffer from the as-yet-incurable diseases of body and mind."

"Living Old" depicts this in sad, precise detail, introducing viewers to an assortment of elderly Americans. Some are living happily; others are in physical pain. One man endures the dementia-stoked conversations of his wife as they live out their final days together in a nursing home.

Dr. Kass says Americans largely believe family should care for family, but that grows increasingly difficult as families get smaller through diminished birth rates and distance, as children move away from their parents.

"One very telling study shows that only those people who have three or more daughters or daughters-in-law have a better than 50 percent chance of not finishing their life in a nursing home or an institution," Dr. Kass says.

"Living Old" is not a complete downer. It introduces viewers to some feisty, funny characters who have a zest for life. The program doesn't offer a cure-all solution, because there isn't one. But it does raise an increasingly important issue, experts share their advice and viewers are left to ponder what living to a ripe old age will mean to them and to their families.

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at under TV Q&A.


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