Episode 86 – “Kick the Can”

How should we live in old age, if we achieve it? How should we evaluate our life  when we are old, and in evaluating it how should we take into account the arc of existence that includes the infirmities and limitations that come with age? How should we care for our elderly parents and others? These are just some of the philosophical questions raised in “Kick the Can.”

“Static” opened with the rather depressing sight of elderly residents of a boarding house passively glued to the communal television set. One resident, however, rejects this lifestyle.  “Kick the Can” is about an older crowd, not at a boarding house, but at Sunnyvale Rest, an old-age home with a full time nurse and full time physician in residence. Like “Static,” “Kick the Can”features a resident who doesn’t fit in, a resident who is not content to bask in the tranquility and calm that his setting provides.

The malcontent in “Kick the Can” is Charles Whitley, who, at the start, believes that his son is coming to rescue him from Sunnyvale Rest. Charles fully expects to move in with his son and young family. But the son quickly disabuses Charles of that plan, and Charles slinks back to Sunnyvale. Charles seems quite healthy and alert. Is it morally permissible to place a parent in a facility, when they are capable of living with the family, and wish to do so? Charles’s son, and later, his caregivers, seem to systematically underestimate his abilities. The more Charles exerts his desire for independence, the more they question his competency. A picture emerges of Charles, and others like him, as victims of a particularly distasteful form of discrimination.

This discrimination – age discrimination  – does seem justified, particularly as we survey the scene of Sunnyvale Rest at the start of the episode, and witness its residents, a motley assemblage of individuals, hunched over, moving stiffly, or not at all, or fixated on itching a hand, or …. It is correct to include these individuals in a group, a group with disabilities or special needs. The philosophical question is how ought we care for this group. Is the care we see in the episode appropriate? Is it required? Is it just?

How we ought to apportion resources for the more senior members of our population is a pressing issue of distributive justice, one taken up by Norman Daniels in ground-breaking work in the 1980s. As the percentage of the population that falls into this category increases the question of the fair allocation of resources to all segments of the population has only become more urgent.

“Though it prompts reflection on such issues,  “Kick the Can” does not raise these macro-level concerns directly. Instead, it focuses in on the psychology of the elderly, their self-conceptions, and the relationship between their self-conceptions and their psychological and physical health. Almost as soon as Charles realizes that his son has not come to save him from Sunnyvale Rest, he is buoyed by a new discovery. He sees a group of kids across the road playing Kick the Can. That sparks his memory of his own childhood, and his imagination. He remembers the “magic” of play, the pure joy of running, shouting, and interacting with others, of engagement in a communal activity.  Charles says to his friend Ben: “Maybe kick the can is the greatest magic of all.” Magic just means excitement, interest, and intense feeling – the magic of a first kiss, which Charles also recalls. He imagines playing Kick the Can, and although others tell him that playing such games is incompatible with being an old person, he refuses to accept such objections. Because he can imagine playing the game, playing it is a possibility for him. He asserts: “I can’t play “Kick the can” alone!”So he seeks and eventually finds collaborators among his equally elderly co-residents, convincing them that it is a possibility for them by getting them to remember their active youth and then imagine engaging in it now.

Engaging in action, whether it is taking a walk, making coffee, or playing a game, requires some awareness of one’s sense of oneself. One has to take oneself to be capable of the actions to be undertaken, and sometimes that includes awareness of one’s identity as a member of a class. When I plan to go scuba diving, I take myself as a member of the class of certified scuba divers. As this episode reminds us, the elderly often confront their membership in the class of old people, and  that it need not, that self-conception can itself be debilitating. Being old is a state of your body, or it is also a state of mind. Charles realizes: “Maybe the fountain of youth isn’t a fountain at all. Maybe it’s a way of looking at things, a way of thinking.”

The faculty that needs to be cultivated and renewed is the faculty of the imagination, which Serling refers to as “the fifth dimension” in the opening for this and other episodes:

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow – between science and superstition. And it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

Charles succeeds in sparking his imagination and that of his fellow residents, except for that of his good friend, Ben, who realizes too late, that he has been left out of their game of  “Kick the Can.”  Serling notes that  “childhood, maturity and old age are curiously intertwined, and not separate.” Ben’s imaginative limitations reveal that Sunnyvale Rest, and anywhere we find the elderly is “a dying place for those who have grown too stiff in their thinking to visit the twilight zone.”

Further Reading:

Daniels, Norman. Just Health Care. Cambridge [U.K.]: Cambridge University Press, 1985, Chapter 5.

Temkin, L.S., 2008, “Is Living Longer Living Better?” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25(3): 193–210.

Williams, Bernard “The Makropulous Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”, Problems of the Self, Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Velleman, J.D, 1991, “Well-Being and Time”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 72: 48–77

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