Bertha Davis and Lillian Ross are new roommates getting to know each other in a scene from And the Home of the Brave.
Photo by Sandy Stillman

A look at intimacy and aging
An interview with Judith Keller
Q Can you tell us about your films and how they relate to relationships among nursing home residents?
Both of my films, And the Home of the Brave and Rose by Any Other Name are dramas set in nursing homes and are really about self-determination and the struggle to maintain one's dignity. In And the Home of the Brave, we explore relationships between roommates, among residents, between caregivers and residents, and with families, all through the eyes of the residents. There are no villains and no heroes. Residents struggle to maintain control over their lives and caregivers strive to provide humane care.
      The idea is that important relationships affect us in our daily lives, no matter what our ages. When those relationships don't exist, we feel lonely and unfulfilled. When they do exist, conflicts sometimes arise. Nursing home residents are no different, except that their immediate environment limits their choices.
      The film is also about residents' strengths and their losses, their rights, and the realities of living
in an institutional setting. Everybody is doing his or her best under difficult circumstances. You see what works and what doesn't work. And there is humor. I believe very much in putting humor in all of my work.
There are no villains and no heroes. Residents struggle to maintain control over their lives and caregivers strive to provide humane care.
I think there is just enough humor in the film for residents and staff to recognize themselves comfortably.
Q What triggered your interest in creating films about issues of aging?
At first, my filmmaking interest began with women's issues as the focal point. As time went on and I became an older woman myself, I started looking at the role of older women and how they just aren't noticed in this country. In our culture, there is an emphasis on youth, as we see in advertising. With the aging boom, these attitudes are changing, but slowly.
       So I thought there was a need to focus on older women, and this led me to explore the nursing home setting where women, after all, are in the majority. I wrote the screenplay for Rose by Any Other Name, which looks at issues of sexuality and nursing home residents.
Q What prompted you to tackle the issue of sexuality, specifically?
       Well, I knew older women, residents in nursing homes, who were passionate and not without interest in sex, but who were never touched and had no intimate relationships because of the difficulties of finding privacy in an institutional setting. Even the physical layout of most nursing homes discourages intimacy between sexual partners. I felt that the issue was being totally ignored.
Rose by Any Other Name, a drama about sex in the nursing home...
       Rose by Any Other Name, a drama about sex in the nursing home, was produced in the 1970s, and the sad part is that it is still valid today. Things have not changed all that much, except that people are more willing to discuss these issues now.
Q How does the film approach the subject?
The film is easy to relate to. It explores people's reactions to a loving relationship between an aging pair of nursing home residents and the pressures brought to bear against its "unseemliness." The audience sees this delightful relationship developing, and does it matter whether we know if they are having sex or not? It's really nobody's business. That's what I hope viewers will come away with.
       Nursing home residents have little control over their daily lives and so little privacy that it's difficult for them to maintain their dignity if they are having an intimate relationship. Everybody knows about it. And with so few men available, it sometimes sets up a competitive atmosphere.
...Important relationships affect us in our daily lives no matter what our ages.
It's a very complex issue. The film always triggers enormous amounts of discussion.
Q How can nursing home assistants apply the film's messages in their daily work?
I think that just being aware of how important friendships are to older people is really important. A nursing assistant might be able to introduce residents to each other who have similar interests or backgrounds. Of course, that means that caregivers must get to know the residents well, which can be an enriching experience for everyone. And of course, we all need to understand that nursing home residents have a right to be treated with dignity and respect, and without judgment, if they choose to pursue an intimate relationship.
Judith Keller, RN, BS, is a writer, nurse, producer of films and videos, and most recently, a playwright. Her films and videos have aired on National Public Television, CBS, cable TV, and are distributed internationally. She has received numerous awards for her work, including the American Society on Aging Media Award, Editor's Choice from the American Library Association, and recognition at the American Journal of Nursing Media Festival, and the American Film Festival. Keller has written on topics of aging for national media outlets.