Monday, August 15, 2011

Elder Care Debate, Gabor-Style

And then there's this:

Zsa Zsa Gabor and her ninth husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt, threw a lavish 25th wedding anniversary party yesterday in Bel Air.

Well, actually, it was 68-year-old von Anhalt who threw the party, ostensibly for his 94-year-old wife, who is ailing from a variety of medical problems.

Gabor's only child, Francesca Hilton (yes, of the hotelier's fame) was not invited, although some of Hollywood's B-listers and a smattering of paparazzi did attend.

More than Meets the Eye

At first, it's easy to fault von Anhalt for his apparently insatiable thirst for publicity, and the press over the mockery they've made of this story. They've both had a field day recently over the ostentation with which von Anhalt continues to buttress the facade of lavish comfort he claims to provide his wife. For yesterday's fete, he took out a $68,000 billboard on Sunset Boulevard proclaiming the anniversary, replete with royal titles ("Princess Zsa Zsa") and an inaccurate website URL. Meanwhile, citing the high costs related to his wife's care, he's put Gabor's hillside mansion on the market for $15 million, despite claims by Hilton that a prenup prohibits him from any claim to it.

The press won't let this story fade for more reasons that just von Anhalt's narcissistic photo-ops, however. There's a real tension here between a woman who might actually be mentally incapable of making her own decisions and her sole heir, who's being kept at arm's length by the domineering ninth husband. Granted, von Anhalt has a certain claim to notoriety, considering his marriage to Gabor has lasted far longer than any of her other marriages, and he's the one who's stuck with her as her health rapidly declined. If he's really got a title, and she's really got only a fraction of her former wealth left, most people in Hollywood wouldn't have batted an eye if he'd just left her for some other lonely Tinseltown has-been with deeper pockets.

After all, Gabor really only made a name for herself - and a small fortune, to boot - by marrying up and up, and parlaying her glamor on the talk shows of television's golden age. She's never built anything, gotten an advanced degree, or been critically acclaimed in any movie or TV show. Even her sister, the equally-glamorous Eva, managed to earn some bona-fide studio credentials by schlepping through several seasons - and muddy farm scenes - on the delightfully daffy Green Acres.

Which probably makes the irony for the last surviving Gabor that much more bizarre. And, even, poignant. She's got a husband from who-knows-where with a royal pedigree likely worth squat who employs a publicist to trot out his frail wife's every ER visit with gusto. She's got an heiress daughter caught someplace between an estranged stepfather's lawyer and a media machine eager to capitalize on what they consider to be a story laden both with voyeuristic fodder and real-time medical ethics:

What to do when families can't agree on elder care?

Indeed, it's a timely topic, with people living longer in North America, and dilemmas regarding debilitating medical issues facing more and more families. Alzheimer's, cancer, and other life-ending conditions strike with more and more frequency, imperiling life savings and meager health insurance policies. Von Anhalt has said that caring for his wife in her dated villa costs about $35,000 a month, and depending on how many nurses she needs and their specialties, he may not be exaggerating. I've done some recent research myself for a dear family member in New York City, and the average stay in an average Brooklyn senior care facility runs almost $10,000 per month if you don't want a city-run home.


Is This a Train Wreck or Not?

Part of me wants to just move along and treat this story for what part of me considers it to be: a sad, gaudy, but private family struggle. Gabor was never known for her discrete taste and modesty, and van Anhalt's camera-mugging at her expense smacks of sleaze.

Yet another part of me, the part dealing with aging loved ones himself, wants to see von Anhalt's side of things; how his wife led a glamorous life, and how he'd like her declining years to at least hold a fraction of that glamor. Perhaps because glamor is really all Gabor wanted out of life, at least publicly; but also to de-stigmatize the aged as a cohort of sub-humans who don't deserve the same pampering and attention they received when they were more vibrant in their earlier days.

It's all part of the story of the validity and sanctity of life, isn't it? Hilton and von Anhalt obviously have issues they need to resolve regarding Gabor's care and finances, but neither one has come out and said Gabor should be shunted off to the periphery of society.

As long as that's the direction our society's overall dialog continues to trend regarding the way we deal with our senior citizens, then maybe having Gabor and von Anhalt star in the tackier parts of the script could give them both some much-needed legitimacy. And make conversations regarding end-of-life considerations less taboo.

After all, life for a 94-year old bed-ridden amputee with marginal cognition skills is still life, that precious gift God gives to each of us. He may be taking the cheesy way of doing it, but for a star of the old Hollywood, Gabor's husband is playing her script to the end.

Sure, it's gilded and shallow. For a couple who built their reputation on such vacuities, however, more of the same at 94 has a certain ring to it.

Even if the "R" in "ring" should be replaced with "BL."

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