`What About Mom and Dad?' -- straight talk on caring for the aged

Within this past century we have extended life expectancy by 25 years. But according to What About Mom and Dad (PBS, Tuesday, May 21, 9-10 p.m., check local listings), this new gift of life has found America unprepared. ``Frontline,'' television's only regularly scheduled documentary program, has once again incisively pinpointed a major problem in our society: what to do with aged relatives, especially those who are impaired in some way.

The over-75 group is the fastest-growing segment of our population, and by 2000 the baby-boom generation will be starting to retire. So it is estimated that 17.5 percent of our population will be elderly soon.

This startling film, produced with sensitivity by Ofra Bikel, faces the reality of the situation with sometimes heartbreaking honesty. Is it fair to place the aged in homes when they need special care? At what point does the generation caught in the middle decide to live its own life rather than act as caretakers for relatives? And how do people handle the guilt that goes with most decisions? It's the other side of the coin of the old-fashioned happy extended family.

``Mom and Dad'' is a compassionate survey of the problems facing the first few generations in the ``long-life boom.'' They must learn to handle the normal problems inherent in helping the aged care for themselves or accept proper professional care if it can be offered. The film delves into the practical and financial problems as well as the overwhelmingly disturbing emotional problems.

Many of the case histories will have you wincing, so sad and perplexing are the problems. But they will set you thinking, probing, perhaps even planning.

``Mom and Dad'' is an incomplete film, because there is simply no overall answer to the problems it poses. One day soon, perhaps our society will find the answers to living with the aged, but the answers are not here yet -- and this film makes no attempt to insinuate that it has answers. What is clear, however, is that America must face the problems honestly before it can start solving them.

``Frontline,'' under the aegis of executive producer David Fanning, for a consortium of public television stations --KCTS, Seattle; WGBH, Boston; WNET, New York; WPBT, Miami; and WTVS, Detroit -- performs a major public service with this excruciatingly straightforward film. It forces viewers to look into the mirror of their own future.

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