"Please don't make me leave my home." That's the wording on a sign hung around the neck of Mary Stellar, a 92-year-old with advanced dementia. She's sitting in a wheelchair outside the long-term-care unit of the Motion Picture and Television Fund's retirement home.
Stellar's son, Richard, is rallying families who have loved ones living in the unit to rail against its closing.
"These are the people who built this industry," Richard Stellar says at a podium with an amplifier, "and now you're telling us there's no money to care for them at the last stages of their lives, when it's most needed? How is that taking care of our own?"
'We Take Care Of Our Own'
"We Take Care of Our Own" is the motto of the Motion Picture and Television Fund. For almost 90 years, the fund has supported the people who are the backbone of the entertainment industry — not the highly paid stars, directors and producers, but the below-the-line folks: prop masters, wardrobe mistresses, secretaries, janitors and character actors.
After he finished squeezing toilet paper rolls in the Charmin commercials, Dick Wilson (also known as "Mr. Whipple") spent his last years at the motion picture home, as it's called, being cared for by its staff.
Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for her nuanced portrayal of Mammy in the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind, lived at the home and died in its acute-care wing.
But others coming behind Wilson and McDaniel won't have the acute-care unit as an option. Barring legal action, which the Stellar family and others are considering, it will close in December — a victim of rising health costs. The fund has offered to help relocate and transition those still there. But to people like Richard Stellar, that still feels like betrayal of the fund's original purpose.
High Quality Was The Downfall
The health care at the home is known for being high-quality. Ironically, the fund's board of directors says that impeccable care is what ultimately did it in.
"Part of our problem and our challenge here is, very specifically, the acute-care hospital," admits Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of Dreamworks Animation and a member of the Motion Picture and Television Fund board. Katzenberg says the decision to close the long-term unit, with its hospital, was painful, but the level of care the unit provides is bankrupting the entire fund.
Katzenberg has little patience for Richard Stellar's emotional guerrilla tactics, but he gets it. "You know, if it was my mom in the home, I'm sure I would be doing everything I could to ensure everything possible for her," says Katzenberg.
Ken Scherer is caught between the two sharply disparate points of view. As the CEO of the MPTV Fund's foundation, Scherer is responsible for raising money that pays for the care of all 60,000 members, most of whom are outpatients, and some of whom will be old enough to use the assisted-living part of the home soon. News photos of Mary Stellar with that plaintive sign around her neck make him wince, but he says the long-term-care unit's importance goes beyond just this facility.
"Yes, this is a special place, and yes, the entertainment community keeps it alive — but it's symbolic of what's happening in end-of-life-care in this country," Scherer says. "It's a bigger issue than just this facility."
Still Part Of The Business
The closing of the long-term unit means a once-cohesive community is being dispersed.
Jill Schary Robinson is the daughter of writer and former MGM President Dore Schary. When her husband, Ken Robinson, grew ill with Parkinson's and quickly advancing dementia, he was admitted to the long-term-care unit. Robinson believes her husband would have lost his will to live if he had been anywhere else. She worries that might happen if he is moved.
"What he will miss, and what people don't get, is a part of what they love [being here] is that they're still part of the business," Robinson says.
The walls are hung with old movie stills and photos of stars from the silent picture era. The residents still speak in film references. They're still surrounded by the film industry, even as they're being cared for by it.
Richard Stellar says when his mother visited before her dementia took hold of her completely, "she felt she was back at the movie studio where she worked as a secretary for so many years, and it made her really happy to be there."
Even a very good nursing home will not be able to provide the cultural continuity that residents have enjoyed at the long-term-care facility. The decision to close the unit has been hard for the families involved, who loved that their loved ones felt well cared for and respected.
"It's hard for everybody," Jill Robinson sighs. "And the only people who are not interested in that are the bookkeepers."