Themes of Ageing: Our Souls at Night

Youtube trailer for film Our Souls at Night showing the main characters of the story, Addie and Louis, who embody the themes of aging.

It’s refreshing to see a good film about real life themes concerning the problems of ageing.  The Netflix film ‘Our Souls at Night’ deals with several issues which can have really serious consequences for older people. 

Starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, it’s a beautifully made film, based on the novel written by Kent Haruf. The small town context could be the social circle of any one of us. It’s guaranteed that each of us struggles in some way with one or more of the themes.  Let’s take a look.

The Scourge of Loneliness: An Ageing Problem

The main theme is that of loneliness, one of the biggest problems for older Li. (You get lonely as you age and the loneliness speeds up your ageing.)

Two neighbours. Addie comes over to ask neighbour Louis whether he will come over and sleep with her because she is lonely and can’t sleep.  She says it’s not about sex. They’ve both been widowed for years. Louis wants to think about it. Addie runs off embarrassed and ashamed.

What a proposition!  How brave Addie is to open her mouth and ask!  What if we all did that?  Could we be like Addie and take action to banish loneliness from our lives?

What will People Think? Uncertainty, Embarrassment, Shame

Louis is really uncertain about how to proceed. He’s lonely too, despite being part of the group of ageing older men who regularly meet up locally.  He wants that closer connection that means so much to all humans. Older ones are by no means exempt.  Indeed with deaths in the family and distant jobs for youngsters, loneliness is ever more prevalent for the older generation.  Yet somehow they are not meant to take action against it.

Louis doesn’t quite know what to wear or take with him.  He puts his things in a paper bag.  He calls at the back of the house ‘because people might talk’.   

They debate about what people think, the judgements that they make on your actions. Should the ageing stick to the social rules to which older and younger people alike condemn us to conform? Older people may suffer from the same emotions as adolescents.  

Addie says Louis should come in the front door.  He wants to keep it more discrete.  But next time, Addie won’t answer the back door. 

Struggling with Vulnerability and Rejection

In their embarrassment, they don’t know what to talk about, even though they’ve known each other for more than 20 years.  Louis begins to talk about the weather. Addie thinks there are far less trivial things to talk about. 

And so with difficulty, they start to talk about why they didn’t get in touch when their spouses died.  They didn’t want to intrude.  And there’s an underlying fear of rejection too.  Isn’t that the kind of thing that so many of us struggle with? It’s hard to open your mouth and say that you are lonely.  Harder still to admit vulnerability when you’re ageing.

Eventually they get into bed.  It’s all very strange. Entwined in their own vulnerability but yearning for touch and connection, they haltingly start to bridge the distance between them.  

Maybe we too should think about how we could break free from the coils of our own stories.  The struggle for the life you long for can be so hard and only gets harder as we age further.

Family Guilt That Holds You Back Even When You’re Ageing

The two of them open up about their previous marital and family problems. 

 Louis had an affair with a married woman.  He tells Addie how he moved in with her for a couple of weeks but went back to his wife when he realised he was letting down his daughter.  

The death of Addie’s daughter caused Addie and her husband to be distanced.  They’d both supported their spouses through illnesses despite their problems.  But they both felt guilty about how they had behaved. Louis was labelled for his affair and judged adversely the whole of the rest of his life.

No Exemption from Uncomfortable Gossip for the Ageing

Louis’ daughter calls worried that he didn’t answer the phone.  He says that he didn’t hear the phone when she’d called.  His fears emerge again even if he passes it off as a joke. He suffers the embarrassment of telling lies!  

Even if Louis’ daughter hasn’t heard, the town has. The neighbours noticed the nightly visits to Addie. Gossip spreads! Already labelled as a home breaker because of Louis’ long ago affair, the community reacts with disapproval, turning their backs on the couple.

Louis’ group of men friends in the café laugh at him, complimenting him on his ‘energy’.  It’s uncomfortable to be the butt of sexual jokes and Louis has to walk away.  Addie has an embarrassing discussion with her friend, Ruth, who is at first unaccepting of the relationship. Louis and Addie decide to go out for a revolutionary dinner.  Everyone looks at them.  It feels difficult and uncomfortable.   

Would those kinds of reactions put you off a new relationship?  They can be very difficult to cope with, especially in a small town.  But why shouldn’t ageing people make new, closer relationships? Eventually Ruth expresses her support for the two of them and tells Addie to take the relationship further.

The Pull of the Grandparent Role

Addie’s son, Gene, asks her to look after her 7-year-old grandson, Jamie, because Gene has lost his business and his wife is leaving him.  

At first, Louis doesn’t stay over but eventually they start to behave like a family unit.

With Jamie, Louis builds a train set that he and his daughter had played with. They watch a ball game. Louis thinks the little boy is lonely.  What about a dog? They go to a shelter and adopt a dog.  They go camping and play ball. Jamie blossoms.  We see the difference that grandparents can make in the life of a child. 

Ageing, Loss and the Shortness of Life

Another theme for the ageing – coping with the loss of friends and family.  Gene has to cope with divorce and life as a single parent.  Louis and Addie have told each other how they each had cared for their spouses through to their deaths. 

Addie’s friend Ruth tells Addie that she should have fun with Louis and what about actually going for sex after all?  But then she drops dead one day and we see the sadness of losing friends and going to funerals. 

Addie’s son hears the gossip.  He objects to his mother having home breaker Louis Waters around with his son and takes Jamie home.  Addie really feels the loss of caring for her grandson. The three of them had such fun together.

Do you think life is short? Come join us in our adventures exploring a longer life.

Tiptoeing Further Down the Road: Sex and the Ageing

After Ruth’s funeral, Louis and Addie take Ruth’s advice and go away to a smart hotel, signing in as husband and wife.  They go dancing. 

In bed, they start to get intimate.  No buts!  Another great theme of ageing: are you too old for sex? Addie asks if Louis has forgotten how. They kiss.  It works. 

Louis’ daughter Hollie makes friends with Addie and decides to go off to Europe for an adventure as her father had wanted to do.  She says that her journey is the equivalent of building her own train set.

Louis and Addie’s relationship starts to be accepted as normal in the community. 

Does Ageing Mean Falling Apart or Pulled Apart by Convention?

Another of the scourges of ageing is the loss of physical abilities.  Many older people take a fall and Addie breaks her hip. 

But then when they return home from the hospital, Jamie calls because his dad hasn’t come home.  Addie feels obliged to go and rescue Gene because he says she wasn’t there for him as a child.  Gene is drunk and rants at Addie about her ‘disgusting’ relationship with home breaker Louis and he won’t let Addie speak to Jamie if she continues.

Filled with guilt and sadness, Addie gives up Louis and moves away to look after Gene and Jamie. 

Louis is very down. It seems like a depressing end.  Louis sends Addie the oh so symbolic train set and a phone and eventually she phones him. They agree to talk because it’s lonely at night on your own. 

All Is Not Lost Even When You’re Ageing

It’s rare to find books or films which deal with the problems of ageing in an engaging way. But this film touches on  themes of ageing that make up everyday reality for so many older people.  It’s not sensationalist or violent and it’s very small town, middle class.  It’s about everyday problems arising from the legacy of how you lived life so far, the setting up of expectations and judgements on other people that do not reflect the growth and change that each of us can undergo whatever stage of ageing we have reached.

The acting is of course superb. It’s so believable because we probably all have friends or family who have faced  these problems of ageing. I know that I do.

The themes  challenge our thinking too.  If your spouse dies or leaves, would you have the courage to find a new partner, to reach out and ask for the magic touch of social connection when convention demands that older people don’t need it any more? Could you cope with your family’s disapproval if you took up a new relationship at an older age?  Or are you one of those who disapprove?  Should you rethink your own ideas about ageing?

Do you have a story like this to tell?  Please tell us how you coped with any of these problems of ageing. 

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