Posted on February 26, 2019 at 1:55 PM
by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.
“One Day at a Time” is the best show on Netflix you aren’t watching. It focuses on an intergenerational Cuban family living in Los Angeles, California. The mom, Penelope, a military vet and now a nurse, struggles with PTSD, anxiety, and depression while raising her two children in a small apartment with her mom, Lydia, played by legendary Rita Moreno. As a single mom, Penelope struggles to balance dating, becoming a nurse practitioner, her military support group, her ex-alcoholic ex-husband, the needs of Alex—her too-cool for school teenage son—Elena—her feminist teenage daughter who recently told the family that she is gay—and her traditional, yet modern mother Lydia. In a comical, yet moving manner, the shows deals with issues of immigration, class, racism, nationalism, living as a LGBTQ person, substance abuse, PTSD, sexual assault, the hardships of acquiring U.S. citizenship, old ways of living versus modern ways of living, dating, teenage life, love, and loss.
Season two ended with the matriarch of the family, Lydia having a stroke and being hospitalized. Season three opened this month with the family taking Lydia home to let her recover from the stroke. In episode three, Lydia has no plans to rest or take her doctor’s advice to take it easy while home. As a former dancer and dance instructor she frequently begins a dance number when concerned granddaughter Elena asks her to use her cane based on doctor’s orders. As Lydia says in reference to the doctor’s advice to stop dancing, “I am fluent in mambo not mumbo jumbo.” When Alex tosses Lydia her cane to use as a dance prop rather than a walking device he is scolded by sister Elena to which he replies, “you’re lucky I talked her out of the fish-nets.” Lydia doesn’t want to sit down. She would rather be out on the town dancing wearing fancy clothes and shoes, going to the opera, and having fun with her friend/almost boyfriend Leslie. Lydia has a zest for life that she refuses to minimize because of her stroke, much to Elena’s dismay.
Elena continuously begs Lydia to slow down but Lydia just dances away. After dancing a little too much and having a slight foot injury, Elena has a heart to heart with her grandmother and expresses how scared she is that if Lydia doesn’t take it easy she could be fatally injured and begs her to put the high heels up in her closet. Lydia tells her that dancing and having fun is just who she is and if she stopped she wouldn’t be herself and she wouldn’t have a life worth living. After agreeing to at least wear shorter heels “if the heels are sufficiently stylish, with a little platform, and a little sparkle,” Elena gives in and the two come to an understanding.
This episode, like all the others, hit very close to home. It reminded me of my family’s own struggles with my grandmother Anita, or as her grandkids called her Nanny at the end of her life. Nanny was my own family’s stubborn, feisty, strong-willed, independent matriarch. Before her life came to an unexpected end, my grandmother struggled with her physical and mental health. We tried to slow her down and encourage her to take care of herself but such advise mostly fell on deaf ears. Like Lydia, she was full of life and zest and couldn’t be stopped. Like Lydia, she was also going to do what she wanted to do regardless of what anyone had to say. One of my last memories of her was when I was driving her to a doctor’s appointment and I asked her if she ever thought about slowing down and maybe moving in with my mother so she could help take care of her. Because I was away completing a bioethics post-doc I even promised to come home more and visit more often. But my grandmother said “Absolutely not. I like living on my own.” Although my family has so many “what-ifs” like “what if she had moved in with my mother and let my mother take care of her, would she still be alive?” I believe, and I hope my family feels the same way, that taking away her independence would have been like taking away dance from Lydia. Lydia is a dancer and my grandmother was a fiercely independent woman. Taking that away from her would have taken away some of the value in her life. Although it was hard for my family to watch, just as it was hard for Elena to watch her grandmother do things that she perceives as reckless with her health, it’s wasn’t our decision to make. It wasn’t up to us to tell her how to live her life when how she lived her life meant everything to her.
This experience with my grandmother and this episode of “One Day at a Time” highlights an issue that many families face with aging loved ones. We want to hold on to them for as long as possible so we feel like we should care for them in what becomes overbearing ways and control their behaviors and actions in a paternalistic manner. But aging doesn’t mean that they must be forced to turn over the reins of their life. Aging does not necessarily mean cognitive incapacity. Aging people should be able to hold on to their autonomy and make their own decisions. As hard as it may be for loved ones to take a back seat, our aging family and friends deserve to live out the end of their life in whatever ways they see fit. If that means staying at home or dancing mamba it’s our responsibility to help them do it, not force our will onto their last days.