Normally the job of television commercials is not to remind viewers that one day they will rise from their Barcaloungers and walk in the valley of the shadow of death. But on Retirement Living Television some of the most bracing programming is the advertisements that refuse to soft-pedal what lies ahead. “Let’s face it, funerals are expensive,” says one. “Funerals are very difficult for a family to go through,” says another. One way to delay that walk into the valley is to avoiding falling down in the bathroom, and on RLTV a recurring cast of elderly pitch people (Dr. C. Everett Koop, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Betty White) sell the virtues of their competing monitoring devices.
As has been widely noted, the first of the nation’s baby boomers begin turning 65 this year. They join a cohort of 41 million people—about 13 percent of the population—old enough to receive Social Security benefits. RLTV, now entering its fifth year and reaching only about 15 million homes (Oprah Winfrey’s new network debuted with access to 85 million), aspires to create programming specifically tailored for this group, normally scorned by broadcasters who desperately tout the youthfulness of their audience. It could be argued that much of the broadcast and cable line-up is retirement television: reruns of Golden Girls, The Price is Right, Antiques Roadshow, much of CBS—bloodthirsty older people are maniacs for the CSI franchise.
But RLTV’s mission is to be an alternative to pure escapism or nostalgia. Its task is to convince viewers born before the invention of cable television that they should watch a channel that hour by hour reminds them they’re old and encourages them to do something useful with the time they have left.
RLTV is the creation of John Erickson, 67, a builder of retirement communities who is not yet retired himself. Several years ago he realized that at his largest “campuses,” where 3,000 people lived, most of them didn’t know each other. So he installed community access television and let the residents do the programming. They loved creating shows about their clubs and activities, and the big idea was born. “I wanted to create a lifestyle channel and celebrate the dignity of the aging process,” he said in an interview. “To help people be more active and committed in the community, show how you maintain a better quality of life and make better decisions, about health and everything else.” He also wanted to counter the demeaning, even horrified, portrayals of aging that are standard in the media.
The RLTV programming day has a Benjamin Button quality, becoming more youthful the later it gets. Its morning blocks are devoted to health issues aimed at its oldest viewers. In a recent week the subjects included peripheral arterial disease, macular degeneration, and hysterectomies. Things tend to perk up as the day goes along—there’s a show that profiles obscure but accomplished seniors, and another that tells how older philanthropists and community activists continue to make the world better. Florence Henderson, who looks not much changed from her Brady Bunch days, has an interview show with old but still active celebrities.
The early evening is full of instruction, Fraud Squad TV—how not to get scammed, Retired & Wired—how to figure out those interwebs, The Prudent Advisor—how not to outlive your money. Prime time can take a turn to the sexy. There’s the reality series Sunset Daze: Think of it as Jersey Shore 50 years later, with everyone plopped down in the Arizona retirement community Sun City Grand. It features horny, tattooed, pole-dancing seniors. In one episode, a group of drunken ladies toilet-papers the home of a rare single man, Jack, while he recovers in the hospital from a hernia operation. We see Jack swirl his comb-over as he prepares to hunt for wife No. 4, and after he gets the phone number of a hip-swiveling woman at a bar, he confides to the camera, “I’m back in business. Get me my Viagra!” Inevitably, a resident jumps out of an airplane—skydiving is to active seniors what breast enlargement is to Real Housewives. In this case, the skydiver is literally a flying nun, Anne, who left an Irish convent, got married, and is now making up for those cloistered years.
Erickson says one of his goals is to fight the pernicious ageism that poisons society. “We want to change America’s attitude about aging. We put up a mirror and show this is who you could be and who you are, instead of people shuddering because of wrinkles.” Toward that end RLTV offers its own dating show, Another Chance for Romance, a superannuated version of the syndicated show Blind Date with the same host, Roger Lodge. The difficulty of Erickson’s mission was demonstrated when I tried to get my husband—an aging boomer himself—to watch an episode with me. At the point when Bob, who looked around 70, told his date, Anna, about his stroke (“I kept dialing phone numbers incorrectly, then I went home and collapsed”) my husband bolted from the room and wouldn’t return until I flipped to HBO. I told him he was just being an ageist. He countered that it’s easy to shrug off the disastrous dates of young people—they have tons of other potential partners. But all he could think of watching these old people make conversation over linguine was the cosmic void that awaited them. I said that if he’d stayed, he would have seen the date turned out rather well.
What’s Next is RLTV’s makeover show. An RV pulls up in front of a sad-sack senior’s home and a team of advisors make suggestions for life improvement. In the episode I saw, John, a single sixtysomething who had left Florida to housesit at his daughter’s home in Maryland, had fallen into an isolated rut. The team got him a haircut, new clothes, a fitness plan, membership at an online dating service, and brought him to the local senior center to make friends. In a Borat-worthy episode of miscommunication, John found himself trying to make conversation with a lunchtime group of silent eightysomethings hunched over cooked carrots on cardboard trays. Sherry, the upbeat host of the show observed that making friends is always worthwhile, and who knows, one of those 80-year-old ladies might have a daughter!
On Sunset Daze, before the former nun got in the airplane, she noticed a memorial rock with the names of several people on it—jumpers who found the landing rather harder than expected. There is also programming on RLTV that acknowledges that in the end some kind of final landing awaits us all. A youthful-looking Joan Lunden, the 60-year-old former host of Good Morning America, has a new series called, Taking Care. It is addressed to the people who watch over mentally or physically incapacitated loved ones. “If it’s not at your door, it’s at your doorstep,” she says of the tidal wave of caretaking that will be required for failing old people. Lunden herself is a caregiver, responsible for a mother in her 90s with dementia. (She’s also the mother to two sets of elementary-school-aged twins, produced with the help of surrogates.) I admired RLTV for producing this helpful, honest show, and I found it painful to watch.
Watching RLTV was an immersion in the concerns and passions of the growing numbers of retired people. For the next two decades, as the New York Times notes , about 10,000 boomers a day will reach 65. Many will retire, some never will, some who had planned to will find they can no longer afford it. But there’s no question that boomers will reshape American retirement. This is the first column in a series looking at retirement today, and I’d like your help with ideas—what do you want to know about finances or relationships or work or leisure. Please send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.