Five people seated in chairs. Woman at left (Gayle King) gestures

Documentary Sparks Discussion of Healthy Longevity

October 18, 2023

What can a water aerobics class teach us about living a long and meaningful life? A lot, it turns out. A new documentary short film called Below Surface tells the story of one such class at a Connecticut YMCA where older participants join for physical fitness but keep coming back for the friendships and sense of community.

Movie poster with text Below Poster and underwater image of people doing water aerobics

Following a recent screening of the film, an expert panel discussed the issues it raises. Television personality, author, and broadcast journalist Gayle King moderated the discussion. Panelists included Dean Linda P. Fried; Claire Casey of the AARP Foundation; Marjorie Jean-Jacques of the YMCA of Greater New York; and Ashwin Vasan, Columbia Mailman Professor and Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The event took place at Hearst Tower on West 57th Street.

Below Surface is directed by Lukas Hauser and has been screened at numerous film festivals. Its executive producers are Mary Lake Polan and Frank A. Bennack. Polan was inspired to make the film after joining the Connecticut aquafit class featured in the film, finding it a welcoming and non-judgmental space. “That class was the only place I’d been in my entire life where people were accepted because they walked in and smiled,” she said.

A woman with gray hair speaks at a podium

Mary Lake Polan. Photo: April Renae

Over the last century, people have lived increasingly longer lives, largely thanks to public health. If this trend continues, in 10 years, there will be more Americans over age 65 than under the age of 18. Half of today’s 5-year-olds will live to age 100. While the chance to live a longer life is positive, there has been a downside. Many older people live with poor health. Many others are lonely and isolated. “The body keeps the score of loneliness and isolation,” said Commissioner Vasan. “It really takes a toll,” with unwanted health outcomes like diminished brain function and a weakened immune system.

A woman in a yellow jacket speaks at a podium

Dean Linda P. Fried. Photo: April Renae

In 1981, legendary CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite retired at age 65. Not because he wanted to, said Gayle King, but because he was forced to due to his age. “I sit here at 68, and there’s still so much to do,” said King, who co-hosts CBS Mornings while serving as editor-at-large for Oprah Daily. Life doesn’t end at 65, agreed Dean Fried. “Human beings keep growing; they keep developing assets,” she said. “People who are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s can accomplish things that you can’t do when you’re in your 20s.  … There is a huge gap between what people want as they get older and what society enables people to do.”

In Below Surface, when one 90-something member of the aquafit class became unable to drive, the aquafit instructor chose to pick up him and drive him to the pool. The man enjoys the class because it keeps him healthy and connected to friends; it also reminds him of his late wife who also took the class.  The instructor, too, gets more than a paycheck; the film explains how teaching the class helped her get through a dark period in her life.

A seated man wearing a suit and tie gestures

Commissioner Ashwin Vasan. Photo: April Renae

One reason the film strikes a chord is just how rare communities like the aquafit class are. How did this happen? “The problem is we designed out many of the social institutions that brought people together in civic life that build community,” said Dean Fried. “The Y is precious. We have a dearth of places where people can find each other.” At the Y, Jean-Jacques explained, there are “multiple doors” for people to engage; if aquafit isn’t for you, try pickleball or yoga, or maybe, as one member did, start a knitting circle. At AARP, Casey added, older people can volunteer, including through Experience Corps, a program Dean Fried helped develop where older adults teach children how to read, with measurable benefits for old and young alike.

For his part, Commissioner Vasan teased his Department’s upcoming launch of a “massive agenda to organize our city around healthier longer lives,” which he called “the public health project of our time.” Equity will be centered, to make sure the city supports “healthier longer lives for everyone,” he said, including older adults from disadvantaged communities. Dean Fried said we have to keep building programs that give people the opportunity to connect with each other. She concluded, saying, “That’s the fabric of a successful society.”

"Below Surface" Screening and Panel Discussion

Event photos: April Renae