Rebecca Danigelis, 78: Persevering

When journalist Sian-Pierre's self-sacrificing mother was fired and evicted at age 75, he decided to help her find joy through bucket-list adventures, and tell her story in a documentary film. Together they are tackling ageism, sparking dialogues, and having the time of their lives.

Sian-Pierre has made a remarkable film about his mom, Rebecca Danigelis, 78, and the difficulties they are overcoming together, called Duty Free. 

My mom grew up in Liverpool. When she immigrated to the US in her early 20s, she landed in Detroit where she began her career working in hotels. Then she had an opportunity to move to Boston, and that’s where she met my dad and had me and my brother. We were raised a few floors up from the hotel where she worked so that she could be “on duty” 24/7. With my dad largely out of the picture, she raised us as a single mom, working non-stop just to put food on the table for us. 

Fired and Evicted at 75

When it came time for me to go to college, she cashed out her 401k and took out loans to be able to afford sending me. My brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 17 years old, so she has been using part of her paycheck ever since to take care of him. 

After 40 years of housekeeping, at 75 years old, my mom was suddenly fired from the hotel. Upon her firing, Rebecca was left with 2 weeks’ pay and told she had to vacate the apartment we had lived in my whole life within  a year.

Now, with the coronavirus delaying her departure from the building, she is in the midst of packing up her apartment in Boston and preparing to leave her life there to come move in with me in NYC. She’ll move in with me in mid-June. 

After my mom was fired, there was the initial work of getting her back on her feet financially and helping her search for a job. I had to teach her how to sign up for LinkedIn and type a resume, things that she has never had to do before. But then I started to see the emotional toll it was taking on her. The grief of losing her job and her “work family” had broken her. Witnessing that and watching her sink lower and lower, I knew I had to do something. 

“The only thing I could really give her was to tell her story”

I am a journalist by trade and so I knew that in the absence of money (I barely have enough for myself) the only thing I could really give her was to tell her story. My goal was just to lift her spirits and help her focus on something else other than the despair of losing her job. I came up with this idea of taking her to do all of the things she could never do because she had worked every day of her life. I asked her to write out her bucket list. And from there, I started to document our journey. With the financial help of some friends, I was able to put together a Kickstarter trailer to begin filming the bucket list adventures. The trailer ended up going viral and was seen over 38 million times on Facebook. The story picked up speed and all of the top media outlets ended up reporting on it. 

My mom has become a social media sensation. She has over 50k followers all on her own (I only have 13k) and she talks to them every day. Over the last few years of filming, it has become so clear to us just how relevant and recognizable this story is. So many people are going through similar situations to my mom in this country and this story shines a light on their struggles and sacrifices. That’s what I hope this documentary does: make these older Americans more visible.

“I wanted to start a dialogue around how we dismantle ageist notions as one intergenerational community”

The film focuses on America’s middle-class baby boomers — and those who will be tasked with helping them through their golden years. I want to not just increase visibility of older folks, but re-characterize them for who they really are: human, capable, productive, useful, beautiful, and important. Too often in America older folks — despite being our own parents and grandparents — are thought of as relics: hardened, unteachable, disposable.

I want to show the world that look, here’s one woman — one of many in her age cohort — who is colorful, malleable and bright. The goal of the film is to start a dialogue around how we dismantle ageist notions and also how we do that as one intergenerational community.

And on Instagram:
Main portraits for this story by Sophie Elgort/Clickhouse NY


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