I’m at a care home to show a film about the man who pioneered the Paralympics. The film, which is a drama made for BBC 2, is set in a hospital wing during the second world war and I’m hoping it will resonate with the residents. Many of them suffer from dementia and reside upstairs. I focus my attention on the ground floor residents who are still, on the whole, mentally alert.
When I arrive I find familiar faces sitting in their usual chairs. The TV is on though no one is watching it and there is a faint smell of urine. It is ten o’clock in the morning and two men are already fast asleep, their mouths open wide like hungry chicks. There is a general air of resignation and I get the feeling I always get when I come here that not much has happened since my last visit. I spot Irene first, with her bulldog frame and defiant gaze. Irene is suspicious of visitors and is quick to dispel any impression that she is here because she has to be. One of the youngest residents, she is devoid of curiosity and makes it hard for you to warm to her. I go in search of Eric who is in his room reading the paper. I have a soft spot for Eric and my visits are often spent with him. He doesn’t, however, mix with the other residents.
Eric has marked in his diary how he wants us to spend this morning (usually doing emails which, given he is ninety-three is comically slow) but willingly puts his plans aside when I remind him of what I’ve come to do. As he gets ready, I remember the day when this bright, engaging man stopped looking at me with polite reserve and gave me a spontaneous hug as being one that felt like winning the lottery.
We walk back to the sitting room. Eileen, a softly spoken Irish lady, is fussing over Mary who is strapped into her wheelchair to prevent her from falling out. Irene has huge panda eyes that peer out at you sorrowfully beneath heavy folds of skin. I like Eileen. I like the spirited lime-green polo sweater she wears and her desire to help others; though she can be entertainingly loud in her opinions of people she doesn’t like. She wears mittens to keep her hands warm and is urging Mary, who cannot speak, to finish her tea the way a mother would to a child. Mary has four children, Eileen informs me, none of whom ever visit.
I tell Eileen about my talk and the film I’m going to show, hoping to tempt her to join in, but the prospect of moving from her chair seems too much effort and she elects to stay put. While Eileen recounts stories of her days as a nurse and the terrible things she saw on her ward during the war, a lady with a vacant look shuffles slowly round the room. She’s a recent recruit and I suspect is destined, in the not too distant future, for the dementia floor upstairs. When she tries to settle on a coffee table displaying decorative dishes, a neighbouring resident moves, with difficulty, the dishes out of the way and I rush over to help, foreseeing disaster as the lady attempts to lean back against the wall, some eighteen inches away.
They have found a room for me upstairs where there’ll be no distractions. One by one the residents who have shown interest in taking part are brought up. I have been advised against including Irene as she has a tendency to sabotage events. We are a small, motley party and I am a little nervous about how this will go down; Margaret, who I have not met before, is a handsome woman of few words and sits in her chair giving little away. I anticipate she’ll be a tough nut to crack; Eric, who I am relying on for the greatest support, is uncharacteristically quiet, though impresses me with the agility in which he tackles the stairs. I can’t work out what’s different about him today and it takes me a while to realise that some of his teeth are missing. Joan, whose girly persona belies her age, shows more promise and sits with her hands squeezed between her legs like a nervous five year old in primary school. To my delight, Eileen turns up, having been persuaded to join in after all.
Tea and biscuits provide a moment of excitement. I tell them about Ludwig Guttman, the German, Jewish neurologist who came to England during the war and used sport to help revolutionize the way in which spinal injuries were treated. While I am talking, a man called John strolls in to joins us. He has a boyish, mischievous face which is at odds with his startling shock of white hair. He comments frequently, earning himself a disapproving look from Eric. Just as I begin to fear my talk might be highjacked after all, John is told by a staff member to sit quietly and not interrupt, and to my surprise, he does exactly that. I later discover he doesn’t hear very well and so misses everything I say. I hand him my notes to read as the film begins.
I want this to work and sneak frequent looks to gauge their reactions. Ninety minutes is a long time to hold their attention. The forties music is catchy and both Joan and Eileen start tapping their feet – a good sign. Inscrutable, silent Margaret doesn’t take her eyes from the screen so I guess she’s enjoying it, while John spends the whole time leaning forward in his seat as if attempting to lip-read. Eric dozes fitfully and I can’t help feeling a little disappointed. He represents one sixth of my audience and I’d really thought he’d get something out of this (he later tells me he’d had a very bad night and hardly slept).
There is a scene in the film when the patients and doctors have a party to celebrate the end of the war. It is both funny and poignant and gets me every time I watch it. However, I am unprepared by the sight of Eileen whose face suddenly crumples, her mittened hands failing to hide the tears pouring down her cheeks. My first thought is that she is in pain but I quickly realise that the scene has touched her profoundly and she is overcome with emotion. I cross the room and put my arms around this dear old lady who thanks me, over and over again, for showing her the film. When I sit down again I notice that John is now holding Eileen’s hand.
Afterwards, the residents are returned downstairs and to the dining room for lunch. Like all institutions, food is served promptly and no one likes to be late. Irene is holding court at the head of a table and to my surprise I see they have been served wine.
‘How civilized,’ I say convivially.
‘You can’t have any,’ Irene responds baldly. ‘We only get half a glass.’
Joan takes her place next to Irene but it becomes clear that Irene has no interest in asking her about what she has just experienced. Joan smiles sweetly as I bid her goodbye and tells me, very quietly, how the film will stay with her for a long time to come. I leave thinking about this, about Eileen’s tears, the profound effect the film had on her, perhaps rekindling old memories she has of the war and feel the same way, grateful that the film was a success after all and to have shared the experience with them.