Ilene Mitnick spent the first 18 years of her life in her parents’ home. Her father, Howie, spent most of the last 18 years of his living in hers.
“I think there are few jobs in the world that are as important as being an adult caring for a parent,” said Mitnick, who welcomed her dad into the home she shared with her wife, Alli Baldwin. “It’s something that you don’t really study, and you don’t prepare for, and you don’t do homework until the day you’re hit with it.”
The St. Petersburg residents became part of a community that’s often hidden in plain sight, joining the estimated 41.8 million adults who serve as unpaid caregivers to a person over 50 in the United States, according to an AARP report released last year.
The couple, along with 94-year-old Howie, are featured in the newly released documentary It’s Not a Burden. Howie Mitnick died shortly after he was interviewed for the piece in 2017.
Presented as a series of vignettes, the 84-minute film aims to “start the conversation” about the diverse ways seniors and their caregivers — be it an adult child, neighbor or longtime friend — confront the often blunt realities of aging and the way familial relationships evolve as a result.
“The message is you’re not alone,” said Michelle Boyaner, writer and director of the documentary. “I don’t think you’re aware of how many people engage in these caregiving roles until you’re in it, and then you see it everywhere. It’s like you’re in a club, and then you spot the special ring that everybody has.”
Filmmakers spoke to over 30 families over the course of six years for the project.
There’s the priest who cares for a community of retired brothers, the 96-year-old actress whose dialogue is more often sung than spoken and the daughter who struggles to find her a quality nursing home, and Howie Mitnick, who for years shared a room with his two grandchildren in Ilene Mitnick and Baldwin’s house.
“It was important to us to not just have adult children talk about their experience,” Boyaner said. “We wanted the parents there, and where possible, wanted them to be involved in the conversation.”
Woven throughout are the director’s experiences with her own parents, particularly her mother, Elaine, a darkly humorous woman with pristinely lined eyebrows, who suffers from early stage dementia as the story begins.
Though filming concluded in 2019, it’s difficult not to see the documentary through the specter of a pandemic that would soon upend the lives of each family and disproportionately impact the elderly, particularly those living in group homes. Eighty percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the United States have been among people 65 or older, and a little over a third of those who died were long-term-care residents.
“In the beginning of this [pandemic], the lives of the elderly were treated like collateral damage, as if there was no value left in them,” Boyaner said. “That was part of why we felt so urgent to try to get this film out into the world — because nothing could be further from the truth. There’s so much life left.”
For Mitnick and Baldwin, being Howie’s caregivers meant getting to see him daily.
“For Ilene’s two children, getting to experience their grandfather at home was a gift,” Baldwin said. “Not everybody gets to experience that wisdom and history, and those kinds of lessons on a regular basis from their grandparent, so that was really beautiful.”
Caregiving gave the couple intimate access to the ways an aging loved one can change over time. After an autoimmune disorder took away his mobility, Howie moved into a nursing home a mile away.
“The last five or so years, he just seemed to have a little bit more of an emptiness in him emotionally that was so unfamiliar,” Mitnick said. “It was as if, day by day, we were losing a little bit more of Howie.”
It was, in an unexpected way, another gift, she said. “We were able to go through that process and mourn it as we went, as opposed to not being close to a parent and just hearing long distance what’s going on,” Mitnick said.
Howie Mitnick died peacefully in his sleep in 2017. Baldwin and Ilene Mitnick moved from Massachusetts to the Tampa Bay area a few years after his death, where they now run the Zest Zone, an essential oils company.
“He was a beautiful man with a beautiful spirit who never let anything bother him,” Mitnick said. “We wanted to share with the world about what it’s really like to be an adult caring for a parent. It’s not always pretty or easy; there’s a lot of heartache and tears and laughter and love. There’s every emotion. But we all go through it.”
It’s Not a Burden premiered this week and is available to watch on most streaming platforms, including YouTube, iTunes and Apple TV.