Filmmaker and visual journalist Sky Dylan-Robbins talks about her documentary short for NBC Left Field, “Millennials Stepping Up: How Will We Take Care of Our Parents?” At this pivotal moment in society, where in the next thirty years the population of Americans over age 65 will double, the video poses the question: Where do millennials fit in? It’s a topic that feels close to home for 29-year-old Sky; besides being intimidated by the prospect of preparing for her own aging, Sky wants make sure her mother is well cared for as she ages. Sky Dylan-Robbins is the founder of The Video Consortium; in In 2018, she was chosen as one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30” in Media. Article and video for NBC Left Field: Millennials Stepping Up: How Will We Take Care of Our Parents?
Music: “Floppy Memories” by Dlay | CC BY NC ND | Free Music Archive
JANA PANARITES (HOST): In a piece she wrote for NBC Left Field, an experimental video unit within NBC News, filmmaker and visual journalist Sky Dylan-Robbins confessed to feeling a bit intimidated by the prospect of preparing for her own aging in addition to making sure her mother will be well cared for, as she ages. The piece, titled “Millennials Stepping Up: How Will We Take Care of Our Parents?” combines traditional journalism in the form of a written explainer with a documentary short video in which Sky profiles people who are navigating “the art of adulting,” as she writes, while they also care for their aging parents.
So how do these millennials do it? And how do they feel about aging and the way America treats older adults? You might be surprised by the answers. We’re going to talk about this and more with today’s guest, Sky Dylan-Robbins. Sky is the founder of The Video Consortium, a creative community of the world’s leading video journalists and nonfiction filmmakers. She was previously Senior Producer of Video at the New Yorker magazine, and in 2018, she was chosen as one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 under 30” in media. Sky Dylan-Robbins joins us from New York City. Sky, welcome to the Agewyz Podcast.
SKY DYLAN-ROBBINS: Hey, Jana, thanks for having me.
JANA: So I would love to put this in context for listeners, if you could just tell us a little bit about your background… where you grew up, if you have siblings, that sort of thing.
SKY: So I am a native New Yorker, I still live here. I went to school in Chicago and I lived in Italy for a little bit, but besides that I have called New York my home. So, you know, I’m happy to always be here. I love this city. I’m an only child, and my father actually died of colon cancer two years ago, and so it’s pretty much my mom and me at this point. I’ve always been extremely close to my parents. Actually, one conversation — that ongoing conversation — that spurred my curiosity about this subject is, my mom has been in the media for a while, she was actually at NBC exactly 40 years, previous to my being at NBC, which is kind of cool. But– so, it’s a nice parallel, but we are making a feature length documentary about death.
And it’s a very personal, kind of very innovative, very out there, documentary about dying, and kind of our fear of it as a society. So we’ve been doing that for a while together, per my father’s passing. And through that, you know, I’ve been talking with my mom a lot about aging. You know, she’s 65, but she’s extremely vibrant and brilliant. And she’s looking into this whole idea of like long-term care, you know, it’s so expensive, how do you even navigate it? What do you need to do?
And, you know, I’m getting older, too. And so obviously, and we’ve just been talking about it, and then I started to talk to my friends about it. And they’re like, oh, I’ve no idea. My parents are getting older too, I don’t even– we haven’t even talked about it. We’re all scared of it. And, you know, hence, this thing kind of came out of that.
JANA: So let’s talk about this giant societal change that you refer to in the piece. What are some of the complications that came up?
SKY: Yeah, so we’re at this very pivotal moment in society, people are beginning to say. I mean, you know, there’s this term, the gray tsunami that people are beginning to use more and more often. You know, within the next 30 years, the American population of people over the age of 65, is going to double by 111%. You know, we’re going to go from like 50 million to like 90 million senior citizens, basically, in America. So America itself is going to completely change. And yet, the societal systems and structures that are in place right now, are not set up to ensure for a very smooth transition, as a society.
And I’ve talked to various people about this, and people who are exploring this kind of situation that we’re all starting to think about and look into, and a lot of people just don’t really know, there is no central, easy system that Americans can kind of just go into and figure out how they can age well — you know, age in place.
You know, baby boomers are kind of leading the charge, and people who are getting older, and, you know, in the 60s and 70s, they pioneered all of these different ways of living life and doing things and you know, they want to age in place, they want to be independent as they get older. And it’s hard to do that, you know, and it’s expensive. So, you know, they’re all these different things that are happening right now. And no one really knows what to do, because no one’s really talking about it.
JANA: Right. You brought up boomers, and I think, you know, every generation has different expectations about what sort of care they want, and deserve. In the case of baby boomers, I think there’s no question that they deserve a lot better than what their elders got, and are going to are going to demand more. I just, I think it’s really funny, because I think they’re fueling this trend that you referred to as aging in place, which, to me is just such a funny phrase to begin with, because it implies that you are literally standing there and aging. You are not moving. But what’s your sense– and again, not that you represent all millennials– but your sense of what millennials will want as they age, vis-a-vis what boomers might want? And even senior seniors.
SKY: Yeah. Well, from what I’ve deduced as a 29-year-old human being, who is still navigating her own, becoming a human being, right? Um, you know, everyone, I think everyone just really wants to be independent, and feel like they can go their own way. And I feel like that’s the big connecting chord, perhaps between all of the generations. You know, we all want to be able to just be human beings by ourselves and do the things that we want to do and the things that we that we love as long as we can, right?
I think the difference between, you know, my generation, and, you know, my parents’ generation is that we, the millennials, are doing things a bit later. You know, a lot of us are still, statistically, living with their parents… like living off of parents. I mean, I personally am not, but like, you know, I have lots of friends who are, you know, we’re all still transitioning to like, what exactly am I going to do with my life?
You know, a lot of people are still feeling that more than our parents did. And so I guess we’re all kind of a bit of a late bloomer generation, so to speak. And so, you know, there’s this thing where our parents are getting older, but we are still trying to figure things out for ourselves. And so that balance, like this guy, Reginald, in the doc that I did, he is still in school, and he’s the primary caregiver for his mom. And they’re– I mean they are 44 million caregivers in the United States today. And a quarter of those are millennials. And that’s the cohort that’s like, you know, increasing and, you know, a lot. And so it’s this, you know, constant tumble of, what do I do? How do I balance it all?
JANA: Right. Well, let’s talk about the process of making the film and how you found the folks you interviewed. And tell us a little bit about Reginald and Rebecca, the two that you profiled.
SKY: Sure. Well, I talked to a lot of people who connected me with a lot of other people. And it was kind of this snowball effect, as it often does, because you know, you always want to, in making something like this, I really wanted to make sure that I captured two, very different perspectives, but also to very representative perspectives. So I reached out to a lot of alliances and organizations, often without a ton of luck, so it goes in one’s reporting process. But then, through one organization, I asked them to make a call from me. And then Rebecca answered the call. And so I talked to her, I talked to her father, we had lunch, and then they allowed me to kind of come into their life.
And so I spent, I spent a few days with them. I even stayed over at their house on Staten Island, so I could capture the kind of late night, early morning, you know when they both go back to the city, or take the ferry to Staten Island. For Reginald, I talked to an organization who connected me with a PhD student who’s studying caregiving in the UK, who connected me with another guy. He in turn made a call out, you know, and then he I found Reginald through him, and then I flew to Tennessee.
JANA: Yes, so let’s just frame it for the listeners.
SKY: So Reginald is 26, and he has a twin, and they were both caring for their mom for a long, kind of period of time, because she’s been sick for a while, but he recently transitioned to being a primary caregiver because the sister is now engaged, which is wonderful, but he’s, you know, balancing school and, and everything else. And he’s also I mean, he’s, like the most eloquent and intelligent 26-year-old, like, humble guy who just connects with you kind of, and he is just so sweet. I was with him for days, and he never stopped smiling.
JANA: He’s basically like every parent’s dream child, this guy.
SKY: Literally. Some of my friends texted me after they watch it, they’re like, My God, is he single? You know? Rightfully so, you know? He’s wonderful.
SKY: Yeah, and a good I think representation of like a great situation, where he’s just really, willingly, helping his mom. And then on the other hand there’s Rebecca, who is a little bit more hesitant, and she’s really still finding her way in life and also wonderful, but this kind of opposite situation where her father’s 75, very on it, and he supports her. She lives in his house, but without her, his life wouldn’t be as supported, I think, as it is, but he still is very much on it. You know?
JANA: Right. Rebecca is the 27-year-old New Yorker who’s living with her dad Floyd, who’s just retired from 35 or 40 years working in New York City.
SKY: Exactly, yeah. Thirty years.
JANA: Sweet guy. I love how Reginald calls out the media’s negative stereotypes of aging, too. He says, you know, it takes away their power. And he talks about what we can learn from our elders. I literally just teared up when he said, “don’t ever think you’re a burden,” to his mom. That was just really so sweet. I was really struck by the dignified portrayal of all the folks that you filmed. They all came across, not in any way demeaned. Which is always tricky. I think, you know, depending on how–
SKY: Thank you.
JANA: Yeah, because even if, sometimes if you’re filming someone, you go for that moment where they are just kind of pathetic. That’s just a side comment.
JANA: In the documentary, Reginald says it’s hard to see a parent transition to becoming more vulnerable. I wonder what your experience of this has been, as a child of someone who lost a parent to colon cancer? What’s that been like for you?
SKY: Yeah. Well, it’s part of this documentary that my mom and I are doing. And, you know, I’m 29, my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer when I was 25? 26? And I think that from the time of that point through his death, which was two years ago until now… like, after he died, and through that, that progression, you know, Rebecca even says this in the doc, she says, I already saw my dad as this, like, strong– as like, the guy, my protector, right?
And now to see him transition– and it’s the same thing with me. And when she said that I was totally struck by that too, because it’s like, your parent is, the person who protects you. Your parent is the person who you look up to.
And it’s like, when you don’t know what’s going on you just look at them and they’re like, everything is going to be okay. But what happens when, you know, that role reversal, right? And I mean, I feel like I became a true adult. I felt like I was living in a bubble, because I am so grateful to have had two absolutely incredible parents who taught me and, you know, my mom continues to teach me so much and I’m, you know, ineffably grateful for that.
But it’s like, to begin to see that transition is definitely tough. But it’s, I mean, whatever, it’s an integral part of life, right? We all go through it.
JANA: Yeah, I think that as a 29-year-old, and your generation, is seeing that a lot more often than my generation. You’re seeing two generations ahead of you. I am a baby boomer. And, you know, I didn’t really see that, you know, because that my grandmother was around for a little while. And so I experienced her aging, but not really my parents aging. Nor their vulnerability, really, cuz they’re these proud Greeks who just think they’re going to live forever. And also come from that generation where they don’t show a lot of emotion, and they don’t complain. Whereas I guess your mom is more willing to show some of her own vulnerability. So it’s a different experience for you.
SKY: Yeah, for sure. What do you think about it? Have you thought about like getting older, and death and all those things?
JANA: Oh, sure. For sure. My mom is 89, she’s still living, and I was her primary caregiver for three years after my father died unexpectedly. But my dad was 79 when he died. So my mother suddenly became this 80-year-old widow who was extremely vulnerable. And I just felt in an instant, this sense that I needed to protect her and needed to take care of her. And that was that instant role reversal. But you know, I was a grown woman who had a somewhat established life by that point. I think it’s very different for millennials. So you alluded a little bit earlier to some of the concerns you had about aging. I wondered if you could maybe expand on that… what concerns you have about your own aging and what frustrations you have felt in the media’s portrayal of aging?
SKY: Yeah, I mean, I think like, the basic thing is that I, you know, our society is so ageist. I mean, sometimes I catch myself even. I think we all do it. But you know, Floyd, and the one thing that I didn’t include in the pieces was, I was having, we had this, like two-hour long conversation, sitting in his bedroom when I interviewed him. And he was like, I’ve been at the Department of Health for 30 years, and at one point they just stopped inviting me to meetings. And, I mean, it’s just like…
SKY: It’s awful. It’s, it’s heartbreaking. And he said, You know what, it’s not just my sector. That happens to everyone. He called this like, it’s like, we’re deadwood. It’s like, you know, once you reach a certain age, you’re just not useful anymore. And yet, that’s so obviously, not true. But like we as a society are so like, youth focused, and everyone’s trying to get plastic surgery to look younger, and we prize youth so much, and yet, in other countries, wisdom is a thing, right?
And we bow down to our elders, so to speak. And here we lock them up. And like, what would our society look like if we utilized the wisdom and all of the amazing things that the older aspects of our population could learn and created this part of society where they could continue to contribute to? You know, like this Floyd is going to retire. What’s he going to do? God knows, because there’s no place– I mean, he could volunteer like, at a homeless shelter, but like maybe he has other skills to contribute that are more… you know…?
JANA: Right. In your documentary, Dr. Fried makes that point when she says, “in America, old age is a roleless, role.”
SKY: Mmm… absolutely.
JANA: It seems like the young folks that are portrayed in your video can’t just pick up and leave. But your 20s are really a time when, typically, this is something you have flexibility to do, right? So are you sensing less of an ability to travel among your peers because of caregiving? Again, not that you represent all of them. And is your own travel impeded in any way right now because of concerns for your mother or other family members? I’m curious to know.
SKY: Yeah. It seems to me, this is not specifically that, but it seems to me that like the majority of millennials are not needing to actually do the caregiving yet. But it’s more of like, we need to start thinking about it. And a lot of us haven’t even broached the subject with our parents, we haven’t talked about it, which is kind of the main point of this doc. But like the first thing is just to talk about it, then, you know, some action can come out of that. But it seems that a lot of our parents are still very healthy, very active, and, you know, more or less, okay, and we can still do all the things that we do as people who are navigating our own way through the world.
Personally — yeah, I mean, I don’t do certain things, so that I can go home and spend some time with my mom every other weekend. You know, instead of going to a party on a Friday night, I’ll take an Amtrak upstate, because, you know, that’s where, before my dad died, my parents moved out of the city. And so, you know, yeah, I don’t do certain things so that I can be with my mom, but it’s not a burden. You know, I mean, of anyone in the world, like, my mom is my best friend, and I cherish those times with her. And so it’s not like I would rather be going to a party or something. But I definitely– my schedule is definitely different than some of my peers who have two parents who are just living their own lives, etc, etc.
JANA: Uh-huh. And is your mom in a house?
JANA: Do you worry about her?
SKY: I do. Yeah, of course, because my parents had this amazing 35-plus-year love story. And yeah, and, and they were, like soulmates and so like, that’s what everyone wants. And then when you lose the other person, it’s like, what do you do? But– I mean, she’s brilliant, and like, still doing her thing, and totally just loving life and enjoying it, etc. As she was with my dad, she’s just– now it’s just her. But you know, I think like, loneliness is a really big thing in society today, you know?
People are more lonely than they ever have been, some folks are saying, and that’s both for older people, it’s for baby boomers, it’s for especially millennials. Is it because of all the technology that we’re on? Maybe. Is it because of the social connections that we’re not taking advantage of? Maybe. But you know, loneliness is a big thing. Lots of things spinning around, I guess.
JANA: I interviewed a woman about your age who was in college when her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. And she made the point that well-meaning articles with advice on how to prepare for your future aren’t much help. So I wondered if you agreed with that? And if so, why? And what would be helpful? What do you want from older adults in terms of leading the way? You or, you know, anyone else you’re hanging out with in your age group.
SKY: Yeah, I mean, I think that the conversation of how they want to age I think, is the most beneficial thing. The fact that like, a third of our population has a living will, you know, like, as in the documentary, Floyd says, we’re so afraid of getting old because we associate getting old with death, and we’re so afraid of death, as a society.
JANA: That was so moving. That was really moving.
SKY: Yeah. And he, as a 75-year-old man who, you know, is closer to death than anyone else in the doc, so to speak, perhaps, he just went right out and said that, and that’s so bold, because we as a society are so afraid to even think about death. And so not having these conversations, a lot of people don’t know what their parents want, or they don’t know what their loved ones want. And so when the time comes, they’re unprepared. And so it seems that perhaps the thing we should be doing is having these hard conversations and talking about, you know, what kind of funeral do you want?
Or like, if you’re incapacitated in some way, like what would you want to happen? Or how do you want to get older? How do you want to be supported, you know? And we’re just not having those conversations, because we’re just so afraid to talk about it. It’s like, Oh, don’t worry, of course, that would never happen. You know, you’re never going to die. We say that all the time. And yet, welcome to life.
JANA: What hopes do you have for this piece? What do you want to come out of it? And do you have any goals in terms of influencing policy? Is that a part of what you’re trying to do?
SKY: To an extent. Actually, my main goal in making this is to make people aware, and feel more comfortable to talk about these harder things. Because, you know, I mean, even Dr. Fried– and I didn’t include this in the in the doc either– she said… we were talking about policy, and how things really have been unchanged for such a long period of time. It’s so weird, because there’s this increasing, like, epidemic or need for things to change, so to speak, and yet nothing is.
And she posed the question, are politicians not touching the subject of aging, and you know, this quote, unquote, gray tsunami that we’re facing, because the politicians themselves are afraid to like be associated with being like older politicians, because we as a society are afraid of aging and getting old? Like, what if politicians attacked this and said, I’m going to make some changes for older Americans? That would be amazing.
Personally, all I want is for people to watch this and think, Huh– maybe I should talk to my mom. Or, Hmm, maybe I should, maybe we as a family should sit down and talk about, you know, making a living well, or what we want aging to look like in our family and how we can support each other to make sure everyone’s wishes are met. I would love for more and more people to see it and share it. Because the point is just to spread the word and get people to talk about it, because it’s a really big issue, as we’re addressing in your wonderful podcast.
JANA: Thank you. So tell us what you’ve been up to since making this documentary short?
SKY: Yeah, about seven hours ago, five this morning. I landed after being in Israel for… so I was selected as Forbes “30 Under 30” in media for this year , which was very exciting. So there’s this global summit where people who were on the “30 Under 30” list met, there was this week-long conference so I just got back from that and I’m going to recover for my jet lag and get on to my next story.
JANA: Okay. We’ve been speaking with video journalist Sky Dylan-Robbins about her piece for NBC Left Field titled, “Millennials Stepping Up: How Will We Take Care of Our Parents?” Sky is the founder of The Video Consortium, a creative network of the world’s leading video journalists and nonfiction filmmakers. Their mission is to promote and foster socially conscious, thought-provoking, truthful storytelling for a new era of media. We’ll have a link on the Agewyz website to Sky’s personal website, The Video Consortium website and of course to the piece we’ve been talking about today, so be sure to check that out. Sky thanks so much for being on the show and keep up the great work.
SKY: Thanks so much Jana, for having me.