Oscar-Nominated 'Amour' Raises Red Flags on Age, Illness and Poverty

The ravages of old age are hard enough when you've got ample resources. What if you don't?

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Amour brings us Georges and Anne, a nice-looking couple in their 80s. They are former music teachers who share a spacious Paris apartment filled with books, records and the sound of their pleasant banter. The two are active and still enjoy one another’s company after decades of marriage; clearly, they are still in love.

Then, fate strikes a blow that is coming to many of us. Anne has a stroke, and begins her painful, crescive descent into total incapacity. After surgery that leaves her partially paralyzed, Anne expresses her wish to stay at home rather than return to the hospital. Georges cares for her as best he can, spoonfeeding her and changing her diaper. Nurses come several days a week, but even so, Georges is overwhelmed by the extent of her need and the horror of watching her decline.

Georges and Anne seem to have ample resources. A maid helps with the cleaning, and the care provided by the highly rated French universal system, which is financed by government national health insurance, appears to be timely and adequate. There are conversations about treatment, children, and the wishes of the dying, but never does the issue of money come up. At least they are spared that indignity.

Director Michael Haneke is not out to make an overt political statement, though the need for assisted euthanasia in old age certainly hovers like a plaintive ghost. For an American audience, what we see in Amour is the extreme hardship of old age and illness -- even under the best of circumstances, where love, money and humane healthcare cushion the blow.

But what happens when the blow isn’t cushioned? That's what more and more Americans can look forward to. According to a study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, the number of Americans spending their retirement years in poverty is on the rise since 2005.

This is happening because pensions are disappearing and the recession has wiped out home equity and savings. Those who lose a job as older workers face an increasingly bleak labor market. Do-it-yourself retirement plans like 401(K)s are leaving many people short of resources in their golden years. And there’s not much older folks can do to lift themselves out of poverty once it sets in.

In America, the chances of poverty increase the longer you live. Almost 15 percent of Americans age 85 and up were living in poverty in 2009. Most of them have serious medical problems, the costs of which are a major driver of economic hardship. Women and minorities are especially vulnerable.

Social Security has not been adequate to the increasing needs of seniors, and yet politicians still talk about cutting benefits and raising the age of eligibility -- moves which, if enacted, will be disastrous, increasing the numbers of the elderly poor. Holding down healthcare costs requires major changes in our system, including allowing Uncle Sam to bargain with pharmaceutical companies (currently prohibited), breaking up monopolies, and eventually, joining the ranks of advanced countries and introducing a single-payer system. And yet cutting Medicare benefits seems to be the only answer many pols can come up with, an idea that not only doesn't solve the problem, but creates more agony.

Many people don't start out poor in retirement, but for Americans, old age is not only the gateway to major heath challenges and life adjustments, but also to penury. In addition to those below the poverty line, there are millions who are “near poor” and struggling to stay afloat.

Haneke's married couple, Georges and Anne, go through enormous emotional and physical suffering in a tale of the ravages of old age. They bring poignancy to the fearful confrontation with mortality we all must face. But their fate is by no means the worst possible picture. Add to this a pile of medical bills, desperate arguments with insurers, and choices between food and medicine and you've got horror on another order of magnitude. Toss in an eviction notice and the nightmare becomes Boschian. And yet this is what millions of people in the richest country in the world are facing. Does any American director have the courage to stare unflinchingly at that scenario? Let's hope so, because the politicians refuse to face reality. And painful as it is, we won't escape it by sticking our heads in the sand.

Lynn Parramore is an author and cultural theorist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.