Breaking free of industry stereotypes

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Lois A. Bowers
Lois A. Bowers

Incredible. Inspiring. Moving.

Those are some of the adjectives being used to describe a new television commercial featuring Adidas running shoes and an elderly man.

Have you seen it? The spot has not aired on TV. You see, it's not a real commercial. Eugen Merher, a student at the Film Academy of Baden-Württemberg in Germany, wrote and directed it for a class assignment. But he posted the video to YouTube on Dec. 15 (you can watch it below), and since then, it has captured the hearts of Americans and others around the world.

In Merher's project, an older retirement home resident spends his days staring expressionless while eating, looking out the window or sitting on his bed. When he eyes a pair of shoes from his former glory days as an athlete, he decides to put them on and go for a run.

“The finish will make you stand up and cheer,” a Huffington Post article gushed about the ad. But when the 1:39 clip ended, all I felt was sad, because of the way the retirement home and its staff members had been depicted.

The building obviously was old and had seen better days. Perhaps more importantly, however, as the resident tried to leave the home, he was physically restrained by staff members as a nurse looked on, arms crossed and a scowl on her face. After staff members prevented a few additional attempts by the man to go outside to get exercise, the nurse took his running shoes and hid them.

“Where is the person-centered approach to care and service provision?” I thought as I watched. “Maybe staff members were concerned for the man's safety, but why did their actions seem so heartless?”

Ultimately, in the ad, the man's fellow residents showed their support by stealthily returning the shoes to him, cheering him on as he ran through the halls, and blocking staff members from reaching him as he ran for the doors.

See it for yourself below; this column continues beneath the video.

In articles about the commercial, Ad Week, a publication for advertising professionals, described the life of the retirement home resident as “dreary” and “monotonous.” And the Huffington Post article noted that the man's body and soul seem to be “decaying” there.

One Ad Week article noted that the work was flawed in its depiction of retirement homes and their workers, but the ad, named “Break Free,” “has a lot going for it if you're able to look past its flaws,” wrote freelance writer Erik Oster.

The senior living industry can't afford to look past those flaws, even if most members of the general public can. And it appears that most of them can. Is that because they aren't in the industry and so aren't as focused on those aspects of the commercial when they watch it, or is it because they believe that the ad is realistic in its representation of aging and retirement community living?

When a friend of mine liked a post on Facebook, I learned that ScaryMommy.com had shared the video on its Facebook page, so I checked out the comments under the post. There were more than 200 reactions, and most people expressed enthusiastic support for the message of the commercial, although some commenters mentioned that they were saddened by the way the retirement home, staff or senior living industry had been presented. Others, interestingly, said that they worked in the industry and thought that the commercial accurately portrayed it. Scary indeed.

The ad's production values are high, and Merher surely has a bright professional future. We can celebrate the themes of camaraderie and joie de vivre conveyed in the piece, but the only inspiration that those in the senior living industry can take from the spot is the inspiration to improve their communities where needed and to work to change the negative perceptions that others have of them.

Lois A. Bowers is senior editor of McKnight's Senior Living. Contact her at lois.bowers@mcknights.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Lois_Bowers.

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