Known by locals as “the cat man,” Jack Huggins, 67, lives alone with more than two dozen felines in the Toronto house where he was born and raised. He spends his days scavenging his Beaches neighborhood for more junk to crowd his already cluttered residence. Jack is the subject of Mr. Nobody, the first of a groundbreaking, three-part documentary series on the aged created by the National Film Board. Available in video from NFB regional outlets in major cities across Canada, Mr. Nobody and the series’ second offering, A House Divided (the third film begins production this summer), both focus on the difficulties of caring for elderly people. Director Lyn Wright, who began work on the series two years ago, says that there was almost no material available when she began her research. Added Wright: “It seems the films are breaking the silence surrounding this issue.”
Getting older has meant increasing self-neglect for Jack Huggins, who was 65 when Wright made Mr. Nobody. Although he lavishes affection on his cats, Jack has difficulty looking after himself—his house has no hot water, and his legs are disfigured with open sores because of his untreated diabetes. Mr. Nobody, which recently won an award at the American Film Festival in New York City, traces Jack’s struggle after his house is declared a public health hazard. He describes how he was forcefully hospitalized and deemed mentally and financially incompetent. Later,
after he returns home, Jack tells a psychiatrist, “Now, I’m getting treated as if I’m Mr. Nobody, just Mr. Nobody out on the street.” Using community agencies, Jack displays surprising resourcefulness in his efforts to regain his independence. And, despite the older man’s shocking living conditions, the film treats his struggle with compassion and humor.
While Jack’s troubles stem partly from his solitary existence, elderly people who live with their younger relatives can encounter a more disturbing kind of conflict. A House Divided offers several examples of abuse of the elderly by family members. The ailing Muellers, who are in their early 70s, have put their life savings into a house with their daughter and her husband. When the son-in-law begins to verbally abuse them, the Muellers are forced to undergo a painful court case to regain their investment in the house. Another sequence focuses on Margo, 73, a frail woman who endures repeated beatings from her 33-year-old alcoholic son. Explaining why she allowed the violence to continue, she says, “He’s the only family I’ve got.”
A House Divided illuminates a great deal about abuse of the elderly—perhaps too much. In the end, by shifting to a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco and that city’s successful services for the elderly, the film becomes disjointed. Still, like Mr. Nobody, it powerfully exposes a social problem that can only continue to grow as the population ages.
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