Emma’s Blog: The Home – Who Cares?

Research and Development Day London 28.11.12

On Wednesday, I spent the day at the Albany Theatre in Deptford South London with David Slater from Entelechy Arts, Deborah Dickinson from Freedom Studios and members of Entelechy’s Elder Arts group – Thelma, Sheila, Barbra, Margaret, Rosie and Gwen. We all came together to start a process of discussing the experience of ‘getting older’ which will go on to inform and inspire a play, ‘The Home’ that I am going to be writing for Freedom Studios and Entelechy next year.

But you should be warned.  If from that introduction you’re expecting that the day was rather quaint, community artsy and/or worthy but not ‘proper art’, if you read on you’re going to be in for a bit of a shock…

For a start off, the Elders Group is made up of people who happen to be older but who also happen (amongst other things) to be artists. They participate and create art on a regular basis.  Some of the group members (Rosie, Gwen, Thelma and Sheila) have been making work with Entelechy for over 5 years.  They have regular Tea Dances where rehearsed, improvised and spontaneous events/song/narratives and unexpected events interweave. They have been on an art exchange to Brazil.  They have collaborated with artists like Christopher Green http://www.christophergreen.net/ida-barr.html They improvise via Skype with older artists living in Los Angeles. They reinvent the Tempest as ‘Storm in a Tea Cup’ with Brazilian theatre company ‘Casa das Fases’ (http://casadasfases.wordpress.com/

… Oh and their work gets written about. Check out ‘Winter Fires’ (Art and Agency in old age) written by Francois Matarasso. http://regularmarvels.com/  If you do, you’ll find the work of Gwen and Rosie explored / documented within its pages.  Today is the first day I’ve met both women. It also happens to be the day after they attended the ‘Winter Fires’ book launch. Not unsurprisingly they are full of stories about the party and the one to many wine spritzers they had the night before…

Do I have your attention now?

Do they have your attention now?

Funny how when you start to find out the details about older people’s lives that suddenly they seem to become real / tangible / almost like, well, almost like people who matter?

Forgive my slightly provocative beginning? 

I guess I was trying to make the point that discrimination against older people happens so easily because we are so encouraged to see the ‘old’ before the individual person in front of us. They are so often presented to us as a ‘clump of similarity’… And this is one of the things that we hope ‘The Home ‘ will counter / illuminate / explore; the experience of older people in their aging, the joys but also the fears, the realities and the fantasies, the problems and perhaps even some glimmers of what the solution(s) might be…

‘The Home’ is a piece with quite a lot of ambition then!

Because of this, we are taking our time to research and talk and listen. We want to get this show right…

Anyway, I can promise you that if you had spent the day in the room with us yesterday you would be under no illusion about the vivacity and uniqueness of everyone present. I haven’t had a day so full of creativity, communication, meaning, laughter and companionable fun for a long time. It was a remarkable sharing.

We started by writing down things that make us who we are:  Defining memories, favorite foods and drinks, a piece of clothing we couldn’t be without, that kind of thing. We didn’t share these secrets, we sat with them…  We played trust games / we led each other around the room and thought about what it felt like to be cared for in a respectful way.  We imagined a life for a fictional older lady.  We gave her the dream life (a home in Chelsea. Trips to the cinema. Nice meals with friends) and then we asked ourselves what the moment might be that comes and takes that all away from her? What the moment might be that leads to her having to enter the home and leave her life behind? The mood of joy changed. We held each others hands and whispered

‘I heard it was a stroke… I heard it was a fall… She fell and she can’t walk any more… I heard that she is heartbroken, her daughter stopped visiting and everything went downhill from there…’

It was these whispered, shared moments, when her life was stopped in its tracks, that this fictional character really began to take on a life in the room and our hearts.

To have a life and for its joys to be lost in the blink of an eye… Thinking about that with that group of women was extraordinarily moving for me…

David posed us with a question.  He said that often there is no coming back from that moment of change. A care home is entered and the life that was lived and loved is lost forever.

“So? How can we find ways to allow people to come back from a life change moment like that? How can we find ways to allow older people in residential care to really live again?”

I suspect strongly that this question is something that we are going to come back to a lot as we continue with our R+D.

After dinner, we came back to the room and Thelma and Sheila led us in a warm up dance / stomp / clapping / bum wiggling game. It was magnificent. Nothing I can write here can possibly begin to share the incandescent joy / silliness / shared delight of that moment.  We whooped and stomped and laughter rang through the room.

Towards the end of the day we talked about the journey the group is being asked to go on with Freedom Studios and Entelechy as we work towards making this play.  We’re going to be talking about residential care and our fears around it.  We’re going to be talking about a lot of things, which will be difficult. David said that it will sometimes feel a bit scary but ‘we’ll work with love’…  There were nods from group members on hearing this.  The mood in the room seemed to be summed up by Barbra when she responded to David by saying “It’s like death. Many people, they don’t want to talk about death but it’s the most inevitable thing about life. (Going into residential homes) This is the same. So we should be talking about it.”

And that’s exactly what we started to do…

Rosie said that she has spent a lot of time at Manly Court, a home that has strong links with Entelechy.  She said that it is “a beautiful place”. But then she said, even so the thing she finds scary is that “Everything is done for them (the residents). They have to sit. They have to wait. They just sit and wait. Waiting for tea ands meals…”

Another person Barbra) emphatically says, “We are not the same!”

Thelma says “My husband in hospital. He was upset (when I visited) because he had been dressed in odd pajamas. The top didn’t match the bottom. He was special about how he dresses. He was upset. He says to me that he told the nurse that his top and bottoms are wrong. The nurse looks but ignores him. The nurse says ‘no its not’. Says ‘its OK’ and the top was in his locker! And this so upset my husband, he was so special about that”

David says “Such small things matter”

Such small things matter.

I find these stories hard to hear but it’s important that they are heard. It feels important that we are all here today starting a journey together, because as David said as we drew towards the end of the session “I want it put out there! I want things to change! I think about the idea of being stripped and put on a hoist and bathed by a person who doesn’t know my name! That crosses so many lines for me!” As he says this his words are met by nods and murmurs and ‘hmmms’ from every single person in that room. We all feel that way too.

Who wouldn’t?

And so why do we allow that kind of thing to go on in our care homes every day?

Join the conversation about Emma’s Blog: The Home – Who Cares?