‘The future is a fiction’ says a voice on the radio as I drive away from the performance. ‘It’s an imaginary place and it’s wide open with possibility. And as we age the future becomes smaller and narrower…. the infinitely possible becomes probable’
Christopher Green’s ‘The Home’, opening Lewisham’s Age Against the Machine Festival of Creative Ageing, explores the infinitely possible, slipping audiences into the shoes of the UKs 300,000+ care home residents. Incredibly is a 48-hour immersive theatre experience that the less courageous can dip into in bite size chucks. My two portions were the Saturday Afternoon Talent Show and the Sunday morning Non-Denominational Worship and Mindfulness Session. It was a bitter sweet experience.
There were moments of delight. Saturday afternoon was spent in the company of strangers many of who were spontaneously sharing songs, and improvised bits of performance, card tricks, a puppet show, a recitation. Sunday morning brought the opportunity for quietude and reflection. And yet these fragments were all held by the ‘care providers’ within a gentle tyranny of politeness, a controlling glance, a managing stare. We were trapped within a well-oiled machine. The complexities and idiosyncrasies of our lives were being tidied up as efficiently as the water spillages.
On Sunday in the Non-Denominational Worship, after the reading of inspirational texts on ageing and our spiritual journeying in the world people started reaching for their mobiles, searching out and sharing favourite poems. One woman read Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. It ends:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
But here in The Home there was no possibility of the world offering itself to our imagination. In this carefully crafted waiting room for death we were all systematically being locked out of ‘the family of things’. We had no control. No agency.
I’m haunted by a story in Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal where he describes the moment when a new director tool over the management of a failing residential care home in upstate New York: ‘He came to think the missing ingredient in this nursing home was life itself.’ His response was to introduce one hundred parakeets to the home without any prior planning. The birds arrived before their cages. They flew wild throughout the facility. And because the director didn’t quite know what he was doing, suddenly everyone, staff and residents had a new common purpose; a reason to get out of bed in the morning. They had to share responsibility for the care of the birds. Researchers tracked the process of this experiment over two years. The number of drugs that needed to be administered to the residents dropped by 50%.
The performance has left me feeling conflicted. I can’t help wondering: ‘What if’? What if I really could drop into my local care home on a Saturday afternoon to a Talent Show? Maybe I’d even pluck up the courage to play that cello solo. That’s the beauty of ‘The Home’. With one hand it suggests that our care homes could become places of reinvention and possibility. And yet sadly, with the other, it shows us, that for the majority, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
The skies of south London are full of screeching ring-necked parakeets. Maybe in the performance we should have just opened the windows and let them fly in.