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Interview with Andrew Jenks

Andrew Jenks interview

HBO

What inspired you to spend a summer at a retirement community and to make a film about your experience?

Andrew Jenks

I was very close with my grandfather. One day he discovered he had an infection. And the infection quickly spread, and before he knew it, he had dementia and he couldn't remember my name. As a result of that I became curious about who my grandfather was today compared to how he used to be. And while this was kind of all going on, I was living in a dormitory with three hundred 18 to 19-year- olds. So I kind of put two and two together and wondered what would it be like if I was living in a dorm with 300 70 or 80-year-olds, and what their life is like.

When you're in college you're always looking at the future and wondering what you're going to do tomorrow and in 20 years. I wondered if senior citizens were the same way or if they were nostalgic and only looked to their pasts. And that's what gave me the idea to move down to the mecca of all retirement homes, which is Florida.

[I] wondered what would it be like if I was living in a dorm with 300 70 or 80-year-olds, and what their life is like.

HBO

How did you get yourself into a community and gain access to shoot its residents?

Andrew Jenks

We went around and asked all the facilities if we could come and stay. At first we didn't talk about cameras and the documentary. It was just, hey, would you let a 19-year-old live in your facility? And surprisingly, we never even got past that point. It was always, well, you have to be at least 65 years old. We don't allow younger people than that. Finally we found a place that was on board from the get- go, who understood what we were trying to do and granted us full access.

HBO

What were those first days like when the cameras started rolling?

Andrew Jenks

They were incredibly awkward. I mean, there's no other way to put it. To assimilate into a place where there's 300 senior citizens roaming around, and then for a 19-year-old to casually walk in and be one of them is absurd. And then, for a 19-year-old to walk in with two video cameras and two other 19- year-olds who were there for the whole time is even more absurd.

But although the first day or two may have been awkward, the residents, especially those we became friends with, got past it very quickly. I think a lot of the residents were just happy for us to be roaming around. It was kind of a breath of fresh air. They didn't really care about the cameras. They really enjoyed us being there and hanging out with them, playing bingo, going on the weekly field trips, and just talking.

They were always talking about what was on the schedule for today, if bingo was still going to be on time. It was all about living in the moment, and not reflecting on the past.

HBO

What surprised you or stuck with you while you were there?

Andrew Jenks

I think when people think about an assisted living facility their initial gut reaction is all of the negatives involved. And what shocked me was how caring each resident was toward one another. These are people who have lived full lives, who have family and friends, and now they're taken out of that situation and placed in a whole new one and expected to live the rest of their life with people they've never met.

The other aspect of the film which we never expected was how the residents didn't reflect on the past. They weren't sitting around at a table talking about what they did when they were 40, or what they did when they were teenagers, or even what they were doing right before they moved into the facility. They were always talking about what was on the schedule for today, if bingo was still going to be on time. It was all about living in the moment, and not reflecting on the past.

I think over course of the film we get to know the residents at the facility so well. But you never really get to know who they were before then. You only know them as who they are today. And I think in a lot of ways, that's who they want to be known as. They don't want people to come up to them and start talking about the past.

What was also interesting was how each resident would use whatever independence they had to help somebody else out. I found that surprising because these are, ultimately, strangers. And yet they would go out of their way to care for another resident. Every resident would use whatever they had left to help other people.

HBO

What did you learn from your experience? And what do you hope audiences will take away from watching it?

We tend to forget that these are the people that have lived the longest. So why wouldn't you want to learn from the people who have lived life the longest?

Andrew Jenks

First off, the movie is not a treatise on assisted care. We don't throw out stats. This is a movie about the people there and who they are. We went into the experience kind of saying, OK, we're going to make a movie about old people, and then we left saying, OK, this is a movie about Tammy, Bill, Dottie, about all the characters and the friends that we authentically made.

And it seems like we tend to forget that these are the people that have lived the longest. So why wouldn't you want to learn from the people who have lived life the longest? It kind of makes sense. Rather than putting them away, you'd think we would ask questions, and try and understand what it was like. And not just on a personal basis, but also on a historical basis. I was best friends with a woman who had lived through the Great Depression. So they've kind of seen it all.

I think as you get older, at least when you get to that age, a lot of my friends had become incredibly selfless. And it was so not about them anymore. And it also spoke to the fact that they didn't want to be a bother or a distraction to their kids and their grandkids. They didn't want to be a problem. That was the last thing they wanted to do. It was this incredible selflessness that every resident had.

And, I think, with this movie, you can really better understand what it's like to be at that age, and what these people want and feel and need. And I think, after seeing this film, you really have a better understanding of the elderly and how great they are, and how much they can teach us.

Andrew Jenks, Room 335