Robert Reeves, 78, spends most days lounging by the pool, taking in the low-desert sun with his friends and neighbours. The four of them talk about what's new — recovery from a recent corrective foot surgery, some chronic inflammation issues — and record videos for social media, where they've amassed millions of followers as the Old Gays.
On a blistering afternoon this month in Cathedral City, California, Jessay Martin, 68, headed across the street for the usual poolside confab, stopping to grab a Bud Light Seltzer Pineapple from the fridge on his way out to the patio. There, he sat down in a stuffed armchair beside a well-endowed wooden sculpture of the male form and rubbed sunscreen into his bald pate as the group discussed the day's video concept: an outfit transformation set to rapper Jack Harlow's single First Class.
"I need to wear my pretty underwear for this," Martin said. "I need to have my ruffles on my rump."
It wasn't like the first drag video they did, Bill Lyons, 78, said as he took a sip from his milk chocolate Ensure. He raised his eyebrows, then said in a stage whisper: "Bob didn't wear any underwear."
"Oh, no," Mick Peterson, 66, said under his breath.
Martin laughed and said: "Well, he had on a full skirt!" Reeves, the Bob in question, widened his eyes and played innocent, looking out at the shadows of palm trees glistening in his cerulean pool.
The Old Gays were running behind schedule. They still had to learn a dance and film a usable take before Martin's Tina Turner cover concert that evening. "My music is all I've ever wanted to do, but these videos are like a big dessert in my life," he said. "I live for them; I really do."
Most of the TikTok influencers living in so-called collab houses — mansions where they film content together — are barely old enough to legally sign a lease. But the Old Gays and their fellow "grandfluencers" are proof that recording viral videos under one roof isn't reserved for the young. And while these senior influencers may very much be performing for the camera, they're also sharing a new vision for what it means to live meaningfully with age.
By 2030, 70 million people in the United States will be over 65 years old, according to census data; for the first time, the country will have more seniors than children. Most older Americans live alone or with only a partner, according to research from Pew. And they want to stay that way: A recent AARP survey found that 86 per cent of people over 65 want to age in place rather than in a care home.
But for people who have lost mobility, the rising cost of home care can be prohibitive. Even those who can manage without support face increased risks of loneliness and depression. Rather than rely on younger relatives or paid strangers for care and companionship, why not turn to each other?
"As you get into old age, moving into a nursing home is what's expected, and many older people buy into that plan," Reeves said. "What we're doing, through the strength of our friendships and our mutual support, is changing the course of the way one lives their life."
By the time the Old Gays started posting on TikTok, in December 2020, the four men already had half a century of friendship between them. Reeves and Lyons met in San Francisco in the 1980s. In 2013, Peterson answered Reeves' Craigslist ad for a room in a gay-friendly, nudist-friendly home. In 2014, Martin moved into a house across the street.
A few years later, a younger neighbour, Ryan Yezak, 35, who'd gotten to chatting with the men during his Saturday morning dog walks, suggested they film a few videos for Grindr, where Yezak worked. Soon, though, the men were ready to take their talents to a bigger platform.
Today, they have 7.1 million followers on TikTok and a few hundred thousand on Instagram, among them Rihanna, Jessica Alba, Rosie O'Donnell, Drew Barrymore and Lance Bass. They meet up by the pool each weekday around 10.30am, rehearsing and shooting videos that Yezak edits and posts.
For the outfit transformation, the men stripped down to their good underwear, grabbed gold cardboard letters (spelling G-L-A-M) and lined up by the pool. Between takes, they wore wide-brimmed hats to stave off the 95-degree heat.
"People like the underwear videos a lot, for some reason," Yezak said, waiting for his iPhone to cool down so he could film.
Lyons said, "It's because we're half-nude!" He was wearing low-rise black briefs and loafers, and holding up a bedazzled G.
Though the internet does reward the risqué, the appeal of the Old Gays goes beyond shock value to something much sweeter. When Reeves has a doctor's appointment, Lyons drives him; Martin covers his eyes at raunchy comments from Peterson; Yezak and Lyons get in tiffs about how clean the pool is.
"Yes, we have our family moments," Martin said. "But I genuinely care for this little unit."
The role of a lifetime
Adi Azran, 27, a content producer at Flighthouse Media, a studio that makes TikTok videos, felt like he'd reached a creative epiphany in June when he showed his colleague Brandon Chase, 25, a video by @ourfilipinograndma, in which said grandma delivered a pickup line to the tune of 12.3 million views.
"I was like, 'Dude — old people,' " Azran said. "And he saw the vision."
Over the next few months, Azran and Chase plotted out a scripted series about several retirees living under one roof and cast the roles from hundreds of audition reels; if the success of The Golden Girls or Grace and Frankie was any indicator, they had a hit in their hands. But the plan changed after their first shoot with the actors. "We called them and told them, 'We're throwing that all out the window,' " Chase said. "'You guys can just be yourselves from here on out.' "
So, what do you get when you give six elders and two young producers a ring light and a platform on TikTok? The Retirement House's videos are more silly than shocking: lip-syncing trending songs, playing practical jokes on each other. And though the scenes are still a bit scripted, they're a departure from the actors' previous roles.
"I've been acting for 30 years, and I've done a handful of stuff," said Monterey Morrissey, 71. "And here I am doing 10 seconds on an iPhone, and 3 1/2 million people watch it." (The group has 3.6 million followers on TikTok and 184,000 on Instagram.)
Gaylynn Baker, 85, started her acting career at 19, when she moved from small-town Texas to New York City and joined the chorus on The Steve Allen Show in the 1950s. Sixty-five years later, she's finally found her big break, performing goofy stunts for six-second videos watched on smartphones around the world, at a time in life when most people no longer want to be working.
"The irony, of course, is that we're in Retirement House, but I don't have anything to retire from," she said. "I'm having a great time."
Rewriting the script for old age
On a recent Thursday at the Retirement House — a Hollywood set rented by the hour — there were two shoots going on. In the kitchen, Chuck Lacey, 70, and Jerry Boyd, 76, ate miracle berries before tasting an array of sour foods on camera, reacting to lemon slices and Warheads made sweet. (Boyd, to camera: "You sweet on me? Take one of these pills, and you'll be sour on me.")
On the back patio, Patti Yulish, 81, performed a rap as Azran translated internet slang for her. ("Bubbe," he said, using her character name, "do you know what 'sneaky links' means?")
The silly group antics of the Retirement House are a welcome counterpoint to stories of isolated elders quietly diminishing in nursing homes during the pandemic. "You see so many stories of older people that are not happy, because as you get older, you lose friends, you lose relatives, you don't have people to share your life with," said Reatha Grey, 72. "We're actually building shared memories together — and it's on videotape."
In many ways, Azran and Chase act as stand-ins for Retirement House's young viewers. They're producers, but they're also 20-somethings who went on a Virgin Voyages cruise to the Bahamas with a group of seniors. "All my grandparents live in Israel, so I've never spent much time with older folks," Azran said. "Now I'm filling that void a little bit, realising that they're like us, just a little bit more experienced."
The TikTok account has told its fans "that they don't have to take the usual route into being old", Baker said. "Maybe it's time for us to start getting older in a different way."
Retirement House, for all its artifice, presents a version of ageing full of novelty and active curiosity. "It's not a home, where you need care and somebody to cook for you and bring you your pills," Yulish said. "This is a group of older people who are perfectly capable of doing everything on their own, and having a lot of fun while they're doing it."
'Have the best be the last'
At the same time, more than 1 million seniors in the United States live in nursing homes — and some of them are going viral on TikTok, too.
"At first, it was just a little prank," said Lou Scott, 78, who lives at Burr Ridge Senior Living in Burr Ridge, Illinois. "Then it went viral, and I thought, Hey, maybe I have a hidden talent." He's a regular guest on the Spectrum Retirement TikTok (93,000 followers), which is produced by a company called Spectrum Retirement Communities and features residents from its senior living facilities across the country.
Scott recorded his first video right after a month alone in his apartment, and the response astounded him: thousands of likes and comments from viewers asking him to be their grandfather and hoping to be like him when they're older. "It's brought people to me," he said. "When you get inquisitive, it keeps your mind working, your body working."
The Spectrum Retirement videos offer a more modest vision of ageing in communal living than their Hollywood counterparts do — practical jokes in place of palm-dotted patio parties; fluorescent lights rather than ring lights. But they articulate the same profound message. "People are still people when they live in a senior living home," Scott said.
Baker hopes to show the humanity and joy of ageing in her Retirement House videos. "Being lucky enough to have the last chapter of your life be the best chapter of your life?" she said. "If you have any say-so, for God's sake, have the best be the last."
That sentiment surely guides the Old Gays, four survivors of the Aids epidemic who built chosen families only to watch them disappear. "I never imagined I would make it to my 70s," said Reeves, who found out he was HIV positive in 1987. "At that time, I was watching the slow destruction of my whole circle of friends, and I fully believed I was going to be dead in a year or two."
Thirty-five years later, Reeves sees himself as a voice for his decimated generation. The Old Gays said they are often stopped by young gay fans who thank them for showing what their own golden years could look like. And through the account, Martin connected with the granddaughter of his deceased former lover.
"She called me up and wanted me to be her granddad," Martin said. "It's been so healing for me to talk about him." Their lost friends and partners often come up in their daily conversations around the pool; their shared experience as survivors fuels the wonder and delight of their videos.
They have no interest in abiding by the unspoken rules of ageing, tastefully fading away to make room for the next generation.
"We've got our own plans for our lives," Reeves said. "And by golly, we're going to live."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Charley Locke
© 2022 THE NEW YORK TIMES