- Seeing — and celebrating — older adults on screen can not only open the door to more diverse narratives, but also help us better think about aging, which can be scary to many people.
- From The Nanny‘s Yetta to The Golden Girls, TV has given us some memorable senior characters over the years.
- These characters are a good place to start, though there’s always more we can do when it comes to diverse and authentic representation.
In the next decade, one in five Americans will be a senior citizen — a huge jump from just 8% of the population back in 1950. It’s a demographic that’s growing faster than any other age group, but it’s also one of the least understood and visible in our media.
Exploring the representation of older folk in film, a report called Still Rare, Still Ridiculed points out that when senior citizens do make it on the big screen (which is not very often), they’re likely to be the subject of mockery or pity.
Hiding old people or making them the butt of the joke reveals two things: That we’re scared of aging; and that we don’t see older folk as complex humans with interesting stories of their own, beyond tropes.
And that’s worrisome because, with luck and some healthcare, we’ll likely be older people, too. The more we internalize ageist beliefs, the sadder and shorter our golden years tend to be.
“Children see older people being disrespected and grow up thinking they’re useless, and then they find themselves turning 60 or 65,” says Donna Wilson, RN, Ph.D. “We don’t expect or encourage healthy aging; everybody who hits 65 thinks it’s all downhill from here.”
But knowing and being close to older people can dispel those ideas — and more. Senior citizens have been around for much longer than the rest of us have, and while they may sometimes hold beliefs we view as archaic or outdated, they’ve also had a lot more time to build up some wisdom that they can share with us and provide new perspectives to our own lives.
They’re a reminder of how much has (or hasn’t) changed in the past few decades, and maybe an inspiration for what kind of future we’d like to see once we get to their age, too.
However, if, for any reason, you may not have a lot of older adults in your life right now (especially as they’re at higher risk of falling seriously ill in today’s pandemic), the good news is that there are some pretty great representations of older people on the small screen. Here are some of TV’s coolest senior citizens to know and love.
Grace, Frankie, Sol and Robert of Grace and Frankie
Grace and Frankie premiered in 2015. Since then, it has become one of Netflix’s longest-running originals and arguably, one of TV’s most refreshing and charming comedies in recent years.
The show follows the story of Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda) and Frances “Frankie” Bergstein (Lily Tomlin), opposites and rivals who find themselves leaning on each other when their respective husbands, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), confess that they are in love and want to get married. The decades-long affair comes as a bit of a shock to the women, who must now contend with life after divorce in their 70s.
The show not only provides a touching representation of getting to come out later in life through the stories of the leads’ ex-husbands. Crucially, it also gives us the gift of fun, complex, and relatable older women characters in Grace and Frankie — no small feat in an industry that abandons female actresses once they hit a certain age (only to pair their male former co-stars with younger women) and has brought about the rise of anti-aging clinics.
Though Grace and Frankie’s first season received mixed reviews, the show — like its stars — just gets better with age, showing that you can still live full, passionate, and invigorating lives well into your golden years. It also reminds us that it’s never too late to find your soulmate, both queer and non-queer, romantically or platonically.
Fonda and Tomlin, who are both critically acclaimed and award-winning in their own right, have also been real-life friends for decades now, and spoke about the power of female friendships as they grow older in 2015.
“I wouldn’t know what I would do without my women friends,” Fonda explains. “I exist because I have my women friends… they make me stronger, they make me smarter, they make me braver. They tap me on the shoulder when I’m in need of course-correcting.”
“I’m glad to have you parallel-aging alongside me,” says Tomlin.
Yetta of The Nanny
CBS’s The Nanny is a show that’s criminally underrated. It was a product of its time, to be sure (in one episode that places the show firmly in the ‘90s, Fran tells Brighton, who had a nosebleed, “Hold up your nose. You’re leaving a trail of blood even the OJ jury couldn’t ignore!”). But it also used humor to challenge a lot of ideas people had — and continue to have — about women and aging.
Sure, at first glance, Fran and the show itself don’t look very feminist (Fran Fine is, after all, obsessed with getting married, makeup, and lying about her age). And there’s also some casual transmisogyny and ageism in a few of the episodes that definitely deserve to be aged out of our media. But the show also works to subvert tired tropes about aging and women, and this, I think, is where the show shines.
This is especially true in Fran’s grandmother and fellow style icon Yetta Rosenberg, played by the late Ann Morgan Guilbert.
Yetta wears comfy orthopedic sneakers on account of her age, but she also makes some great fashion choices that TikTok and Depop kids today would eat up.
She wore fanny packs before they were cool again, sported a vintage Tommy Hilfiger tracksuit, and paired lameé tracksuits with big, eye-catching necklaces.
“When [Yetta] walked into a scene,” shares costume designer Brenda Cooper, “I wanted the audience to smile before she even said her first lines.”
And then, when Yetta does speak, we get to learn more about the dynamic character. Her forgetfulness is a running gag, but she’s also more than just a stereotype: She takes on lovers, maintains active friendships with both fellow seniors and the show’s younger characters, and has had a full life we get to learn about in episodes like Yetta’s Letters.
Fran Drescher, star and producer of the show, has also spoken more about aging in recent years. “You can’t overestimate what life experience brings to a person’s aura,” she explains in a 2021 interview. “This needs to be prized, not admonished. I don’t think that the maturing woman should be underestimated or marginalized.”
Lydia Margarita Del Carmen of One Day at a Time
A reimagining of the 1970s sitcom of the same name, One Day at a Time is one of the best shows of the past few years, which makes its cancellation (not once, but twice!) a crime. This version of the show tells the story of a Cuban-American family, and deals with issues like racism, mental illness, sexism, and homophobia in today’s America.
Shaped like a classic sitcom but with progressive values and a refreshing cast of characters, the show’s not-so-secret weapon is Rita Moreno’s Lydia Margarita del Carmen Inclán Maribona Leyte-Vidal de Riera — or Lydia Riera, for short.
I first heard about her and the show thanks to the first clip in the video above, as it was widely shared by queer communities. In it, abuelita Lydia more or less talked herself out of decades-long homophobia in just under a minute — all while using religious arguments.
Aside from her dramatic monologue, she’s also known for wearing makeup to bed, her loyalty to the ghost of her husband, and also being very physically active and sensual well into her 70s.
This last point, which has endeared Lydia to audiences young and old, was made possible thanks to Moreno herself. In a 2019 interview, Moreno shared that she accepted the role on the condition that her character be sexual.
“I think it’s because it’s not seen enough on television and because people have an odd notion of what a woman of 80 – well, actually I’m 87. I’m playing younger. She’s supposedly about 77, 78 something like that — and you don’t see that, but it exists,” she says. “And that’s why I insisted that she be a sexual being.”
One of the few EGOT winners in history, Moreno shows that like her character, she’s far from done with life and creating complex and interesting characters. “This woman, Lydia, is absolutely shameless. She’s vain. She’s a bit of a liar when it’s convenient. The interesting thing about this character is that she has a lot of negatives on her side, but people love her. People love her because of her foibles.”
Elka Ostrovsky of Hot in Cleveland
Before her passing, the late national treasure Betty White starred in TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland, a show about three glamorous 40-something LA best friends who were on their way to Paris when their plane is forced to make an emergency landing in Cleveland. They find out quickly that in this city, they’re considered attractive.
And so, Melanie (Valerie Bertinelli), Joy (Jane Leeves), and Victoria (Wendie Malick) decide to stay, renting a house they grow to love alongside its elderly caretaker Elka (Betty White). Together, the four women learn to celebrate themselves and a city that celebrates them, too — giving us plenty of laughs along the way.
Though all four of the show’s leads are considered old by Hollywood standards, it is Betty’s Elka that is the senior citizen (though she bristles at being called “elderly”). She’s also the one with the sharpest wit.
Though she was originally only set to be in the pilot as a guest star given her busy schedule, she ultimately couldn’t say no when the network ordered more episodes and the producers wanted her impeccable comedic timing and undeniable charm in them.
In the show, Elka initially comes off as just a grouchy, judgmental old woman. But across the series’ six seasons, we find that she’s lived — and continues to live — a fascinating life. This includes escaping from the Nazis, heavy drinking, and continuously attracting men. At one point, she even becomes mayor of Cleveland.
And for the late legend, she recognizes that work like this doesn’t come every day. “At 91,” she said, “where else could I get to be a bride, a jailbird, a college freshman, and a fugitive in Amish country?”
Then and now, years after the show wrapped up, her energy, wit, and joie de vivre are infectious. “The public can’t get rid of me. But I love it that way,” she shared in a 2015 interview. “Work is just a joy. I know it can’t go on forever, but I’m making the most of whatever comes along.”
Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia of The Golden Girls
Of course, we can’t talk about the Betty White and her recent work without also mentioning this classic sitcom.
Aired between 1985 and 1992, The Golden Girls can trace its roots to a parody skit of Miami Vice called Miami Nice, which centered elderly people.
Though the idea for the show was turned down by some, award-winning writer and producer Susan Harris saw potential in the concept, as older adults were not a demographic that had ever been addressed before. Unsurprisingly for those of us who grew up loving the show, the pilot got a standing ovation, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the world of Hot in Cleveland, actress Wendie Malick has been described as the modern-day Bea Arthur, Valerie Bertinelli was seen as the new Betty White, while Jane Leeves became the 2010s version of Rue McClanahan. White herself had become the new Estelle Getty. The show has also been cited as an inspiration behind Fox’s short-lived The Cool Kids.
All these decades later, The Golden Girls remains funny and fresh. Its episodes, which revolved around four very different women in their golden years, tackled not just the realities of aging, but also how older adults can and are often a lot of fun, living full and worthwhile lives past the age of 50. It even covered issues like LGBTQ+ rights, immigration policy, and nuclear war.
Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that the show changed the face of TV — and all of us today are thankful for it.