Play that challenges some age-old assumptions

Director Tom Wright
Director Tom Wright
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We are living longer lives than ever before and yet ageism is alive and well. Chris Bond went to see a community cast in Bradford who prove you are never too old to try new things.

IT’S midweek in Bradford and a group of people are dancing to Daft Punk’s chart-topping hit Get Lucky and singing along with gusto.

But we’re not in a nightclub packed full of exuberant twenty-somethings, instead we’re at Freedom Studios, in the city’s historic Little Germany quarter, and the people doing the singing and dancing are all pensioners.

They’re part of a community cast, several of whom have never been on stage in their lives before, rehearsing for a new play called Home Sweet Home. Set in a residential care home, it’s based on the stories and experiences of older people in Bradford and explores the issue of ageing while attempting to blow a few myths and preconceptions out of the window along the way.

There’s no doubt that ageing has become a modern conundrum. On the one hand we’re living longer and healthier lives but at the same time diseases such as dementia have become a growing spectre.

So while there are now more people over 65 in the UK than children under 15, rising life expectancy means older people are effectively “younger” and fitter than previous generations.

This idea of people staying healthier for longer is backed up by older people themselves. In a YouGov poll last year, only six per cent of over-65s described themselves as “old” and of the 2,000 people aged between 65 and 93 who took part in the survey, 63 per cent agreed that being old was just a mindset and refused to define themselves as old.

There is certainly no shortage of older role models who are living proof that older people can, and do, make a big difference in the world. At 83, Bernie Ecclestone is still running Formula one, while Dame Judi Dench turns 80 later this year and then there’s the Queen who, at 87, appears to have the stamina of someone half her age.

Nevertheless, ageing remains a big issue and next Tuesday the University of Sheffield is hosting a debate – Too Old and Ugly to be Useful? Challenging Negative Representations of Older People – the latest in a series of debates about old age launched by the British Academy.

But why is it so contentious? Tom Wright, Freedom Studio’s associate director, believes one of the main problems is the way older people are portrayed and the fact they are often reduced to stereotypes. “There’s still this idea that you reach a certain age and you’re just waiting die, that you’re no longer able to make any sort of contribution to the world,” he says.

It’s something he and the creative team behind Home Sweet Home wanted to explore. “Talking to people about old age while researching this production, it’s clear how many of us are terrified about getting old. It is seen as an inevitable process of decline; a loss of our ability to make a difference in the world.

“But we talked to a number of scientists and the big thing that came out is we think there’s an ageing process and inevitable decline, but how active you are in the world greatly affects your chance of having falls or getting dementia. So the more active you are, the more active you’ll remain.”

He says one of the reasons they’re doing the play is to show people you don’t stop learning once you reach a certain age.

He hopes, too, that it will show ageing in a different light. “We thought how can we make a fun, riotous, two-hours night out based around that? And here we are.”

One of the problems we have when discussing the older generation is that it covers a diverse group of people – there’s a big difference between a fit and healthy 80-year-old and one struck down by Alzheimer’s.

“There is an increasing group of older people who are completely isolated and can literally go for weeks without any social interaction,” says Tom. There’s a feeling, too, that once someone is in a care home they’re basically just waiting to die.

But he says it’s not the case. “We spent some time visiting care homes and part of what we’re doing is challenging and prodding these stereotypes to try and encourage people to look again.”

The play, which opens at the Ukrainian Centre in Bradford next month before heading to London and Stockton in the autumn, includes a cast of seven professional actors along with eight amateur chorus members, including four from Bradford.

They are all pensioners aged between 65 and 81, they’re all retired and well and truly outside their comfort zone.

Joseph Dolling, a 65 year-old retired chemical processor, got involved after reading an advert in a local paper. “The nearest thing I’ve done to something like this is karaoke,” he says. Which raises the question, why do it? “Because I’ve never done it before and when you get to my age you may as well try something new.

“A lot of blokes our age tend to just sit and watch the cricket or football, but I think the new generation of people in their mid-60s aren’t like that, they want to do something else.”

At 81, Florence Remmer, a great grandmother and former nurse, is one of the oldest members of the cast. She believes there are some benefits to growing older.

“You do feel invisible but that’s good sometimes,” she says. “There’s two or three things when you get to 80, you never have toothache, which is good. It’s true you do shrink but if you want to get your own way then you just have to play up being the little old lady,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye.

Brenda Halliday did a bit of am dram stuff in her youth but, as she points out, that was 50 years ago. “I came to the workshops to find out what it was all about and thought I’d give it a go, much to my children’s embarrassment.”

The 70-year-old grandmother of three says she’s enjoyed learning new skills and meeting new people. “I’m doing acting, singing and dancing even though I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I’m really enjoying it … 70 is the new 50.”

Not everyone is fortunate enough to enjoy good health in their later years and Brenda says it’s easy to forget that elderly people do still exist once they’re in a care home.

“People don’t know what they were like when they were younger and that’s what the play’s about.

“They are not the shells sitting in the home, they’re alive and this is what people tend to forget. You’re still the same person in here,” she says, tapping her head.

Chris Hyland is 66 and retired three years ago. “I got involved with the theatre because I needed things to do and it was a case of trying things I hadn’t done,” he says.

“Having worked with younger people I’ve found that once they get to know you they treat you just like anyone else.”

But he believes it’s not just about changing younger people’s attitudes to older people. “It’s also about changing older people’s attitudes to themselves, because they aren’t on the scrapheap and we need to show that there is more to life than sitting with their pipe and slippers and watching TV.

“I know a few older people who are a bit down and depressed but they don’t make an effort themselves and the people who do are better off, because you do need something to focus on when you retire.”

Joseph agrees and believes positive thinking can make a big difference. “It’s about saying ‘I can do that’ and that’s what’s so inspiring about coming to a place like this where people want to learn new things,” he says.

“Although come and see us when we’ve finished and we’ll probably have aged 10 years,” he adds, laughing.

• Home Sweet Home is at the Ukrainian Centre, Bradford from April 1 to 5 and then again from September 15 to 20. For tickets call 01274 432 000.