"Aging is a moral and spiritual frontier because its unknowns, terrors, and mysteries cannot be crossed without humility and self-knowledge, without love and compassion, without acceptance of physical decline and morality, and a sense of the sacred, " Thomas R. Cole has written in The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America. A fascinating glimpse into this frontier is presented in Sunset Story, an engaging documentary by Laura Gabbert.
Many people still tend to think of senior citizens as a monolithic group when in reality they are all individuals whose differences and idiosyncrasies stand out boldly. That certainly is the case in the friendship between 95-year-old Lucille Alpert and 81-year-old Irja Lloyd. They arrive at Sunset Hall, a retirement community near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, within two weeks of each other and soon form a close bond. Both were intrigued with this assisted-living facility for political progressives. Lucille was a sociologist, and Irja taught special education and won "Teacher of the Year." They both retired at age 76.
Although Irja is confined to a wheelchair after a serious heart attack, she manages to get around without much difficulty. On outings, Lucille pushes her, and we see them together at a favorite deli or in a beauty shop getting their nails polished. The two of them talk about their past and reflect on gender issues, sex, and their physical challenges. The library at Sunset Hall contains large print copies of works by Lenin, and when a folksinger comes to entertain these elders, he sings ballads such as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and union favorites. Lucille keeps up with all the latest news, and Irja attends protest rallies against the Iraq war, bus fare increases, and other causes dear to her heart.
Samuel Ullman has observed, "Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul." Irja is a mentor of conscious aging who is animated by enthusiasm and positive thinking. She needs plenty of spunk to deal with the negativity of Lucille, who tends to always see the cup as half empty. For example, when Irja goes to all the trouble to set up a Jewish ritual for her and other members of the community, Lucille makes it clear that she doesn't like being singled out; she has too many bad memories of the anti-Semitism she endured when she was young. Although her feelings are hurt, Irja continues to lift the spirits of others with her passion for social justice and her optimistic view of things. The final sequences in this extraordinary documentary reveal the nobility and importance of friendship in old age.