I visit my mother twice a week in her nursing home. Depending on my mood or my mother’s mood, the place is achingly sad or oddly uplifting. Sometimes it’s both at the same time in a place bursting with stories. Although a nursing home is not most people’s wish for a last stop, there is a certain camaraderie among the residents. They fall in love, they take classes—as an example my Cuban mother, a lifelong Spanish teacher, offers weekly Spanish lessons to her fellow residents. I’ve gone to a couple of the sessions and it amazes me how quickly her students learn vocabulary and retain it from week to week.
My mother’s Spanish class might be a bright addition to an ongoing series of short documentary videos called “The Last Act.” Created by Tiffany Woolf, 47, and Steve Goldbloom, 34, “The Last Act” not only highlights aging, but honors the process by having elders share their valuable life experiences. Among the well-known video subjects is Norman Lear, creator of classic television sitcoms that include “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Maude.” At 95, Lear is not slowing down. He is working on a new comedy project called “Guess Who Died?” In his characteristic porkpie hat, he notes, “The fact is it took every split second of what I’ve been through to get to this moment.” Marion Ross, who played Mrs. C on “Happy Days,” joins Lear and asserts that, “The big secret of life is that you don’t have a clue of how old you are. You never feel old—the child inside of you is the life force.”
Woolf, who recently spoke to JewishBoston, said that while “The Last Act” was launched this past May, it was an idea she had been incubating for a long time after working in a nursing home during college. A native of Chestnut Hill, Woolf’s parents died in their early 60s. “They left me with a void to fill of what it looks like to live a long and prosperous life in your later years,” she said. “I don’t have those role models in my life.”
A public relations professional, Woolf teamed up with journalist and filmmaker Goldbloom, who also produces a segment on the PBS NewsHour called “Brief but Spectacular.” The name originated with Goldbloom’s grandfather, who would tell his grandchildren that the parts of the High Holiday services they skipped out on were “brief but spectacular.” Goldbloom’s grandfather, Richard, is featured in one of the videos, which Woolf said lead people to explore Jewish concepts around aging. Woolf and Goldbloom brought the project to Reboot, a nonprofit organization that serves as a Jewish think tank dedicated to giving people tools to live a modern and creative Jewish life.
While Lear and Ross lend their celebrity to the series, most of the videos feature average Jewish people from the Los Angeles area doing above-average things. Phyllis Shlecter, who is approaching 90, turned her life around at 82 and became a bat mitzvah. “I was a Rosh Hashanah Jew until 80, when I learned to read Hebrew,” she says. Widowed when she was 49, her late husband is still “the one and only love of my life.”
Dick and Lois Gunther have been married for over 70 years. Lois asserts that, “if you live without joy or understanding, life is hardly worth living.” Over the course of their long and loving marriage, they have each cultivated their own spirituality. Over the years, Lois took it upon herself to become educated in Judaism, and Dick journals about his life on Yom Kippur morning. “I found contentment in my life,” he says. “There’s been a softening, a quieting.” The two also assert that it’s important not to postpone things you want to do in life.
Woolf’s next goal is to inspire people to create their own videos by using something as basic as a smartphone. To that end, she and Goldbloom have developed a DIY toolkit for younger people to engage with their elders. They offer tips for a successful interview and a checklist of what equipment to use. There are also plans to expand geographically. Woolf said her team is talking to nursing homes and Hebrew schools to create a curriculum around “Last Act” interviews.
“These little nuggets of advice can serve as a daily dose of inspiration for people,” said Woolf. She added that “The Last Act” is also a product of its time. “Attention spans are so small from technology, and it’s wonderful when we can use social media to do something good like documenting our elders,” she said.
Find more information about “The Last Act” and a DIY toolkit here.