Sian-Pierre Regis and Rebecca Danigelis, activists and stars of the 2021 documentary ‘Duty Free,’ were the featured speakers in the latest edition of Marymount University’s MUx Speaker Series, a thought-provoking series of presentations and conversations designed to transform motivation into action and ideas into change.
Organized in collaboration with Marymount’s Center for Optimal Aging and Culpepper Garden, Regis and Danigelis participated in a panel conversation, ‘Aging Optimally Against the Odds,’ at the Ballston Center last Wednesday with Dr. Rita Wong, Associate Vice President for Research at Marymount; Ramsey Alwin, CEO of the National Council on Aging; and Marta Hill Gray, Executive Director of Culpepper Garden. The panel, moderated by Gray, was introduced by Sister Jacquelyn Murphy of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM).
Together, panel participants explored ageism, caretaking, economics, harsh realities and boundless joy through the lens of the ‘Duty Free’ documentary. Speakers discussed the film, important facts about aging and caregiving and the impact everyone can make in their own community.
“Advocating for older adults is a very difficult job. There is a sense of indifference in our society towards older adults — that they are past their economic prime and hence, somehow not worthy of our care and attention,” said Gray, who leads Arlington’s premier living facility for low-wealth older adults. “That’s why I was so moved by ‘Duty Free’ and I’m grateful to Sian-Pierre and Rebecca for joining us to shed light on an extremely important issue that our lawmakers, and society at large, often overlook. A number of Culpepper Garden residents are lucky to still be able to work and many have worked throughout the pandemic. Despite that, they are not immune to the economic uncertainty caused by rising inflation and rampant ageism.”
The inspiring ‘Duty Free’ documentary presents the bucket list adventure of a lifetime. When Danigelis lost her job at 75, Regis asked her to think about everything she could never do while she was working. Their quest to fulfill her bucket list brings all of us into the larger conversation about the very real hopes, fears and challenges of aging optimally when your resources have all but disappeared. The film opened in 30 theaters across the U.S., was featured on CBS Sunday Morning and MSNBC and was the second-most watched private screening in AARP history.
“[My mother] came to this country to work hard, to be successful, to ensure her kids were educated, and then at the end, not only is she left with nothing at no fault of her own, but nobody wants to help because she’s ‘too old’ and all these other preconceived notions about her situation,” Regis said during the discussion. “This is happening every day to women over 50, particularly to older women of color, and we cannot allow this kind of society to be. It’s unconscionable and it’s just not right.”
“Rebecca is not alone in the precarity of her situation,” Alwin noted. “47 million older adults in this country are one crisis away — be it losing a job, losing a spouse, a parenting obligation — from the same fate. An average low-wage worker cannot withstand an unforeseen $400 expense because it would create such a shock that it would spiral them into poverty, especially in the absence of the safety net that savings provide. When you look at the national data, over 50 percent of those experiencing homelessness are over 50 years old, and that should alarm us.”
The MUx Speaker Series is a collaboration between Susan Thomas of Marymount’s Saints Service Network and Susan Grunder of Marymount’s Office of Ministry & Spiritual Life. Now in its third season, this event marks the first time that MUx has brought together external speakers and community partners to form a community-focused panel discussion.
“It has always been our goal to open our campus to a larger audience, bringing in nonprofit partners and innovative thought leaders in intentional conversation in order to educate and empower our students, faculty, staff and Arlington County neighbors in the real work of changing our community for the better,” Thomas said.