At the beginning of this year an elderly, blind woman died in a care home. My husband and I had been visiting her monthly, on a voluntary basis, to take her out for walks. She could only get about in a wheelchair and unaided would be left sitting in her small room for days on end. The staff in the home offered only the minimum amount of care, and on her death bed when my husband asked if she could have a straw to drink more easily, he was informed that the care home didn’t supply drinking straws for residents.
Fortunately, she had a large group of volunteers who had helped her walk her guide dog (when she still had one) who visited her regularly and gave her some companionship and comfort in her latter years. Her close family had moved to Canada and only when she was very ill did we discover she had family members that lived close by but had never visited.
Some of the issues of loneliness and failing health were looked at in the book by Deborah Moggach, ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,’ Now, you wouldn’t expect these subjects to be a comedy would you? The thread of humour running through the book makes it easier to look at issues around old age which many of us shy away from. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it’s about a group of British retirees who decide to spend their old age in a crumbling hotel-cum-care-home in Jaipur,India. Outsourcing the elderly proves to be a successful formula, giving most of the characters a new lease of life and love.
Although the film simplifies the book’s plot and gives some of the characters a major overhaul it remains true to the optimistic spirit of the original and I left the cinema feeling elated and full of hope. The formidable cast doesn’t disappoint; Judi Dench steals the show and Maggie Smith is brilliant as the curmudgeonly but loveable Muriel. Watch out for Penelope Wilton, a much underrated actor, who transforms the unlikeable Jean into a woman whose desperation about growing old and her failing marriage is palpable under a brittle veneer of happiness. This film crosses the generation divide in its appeal and in the later showing on Good Friday at my favourite Amsterdam cinema, The Movies, the audience were mainly in their twenties and thirties and included the glamorous Dutch actor, Katja Schuurman.
Still, I can’t help thinking this far-fetched fantasy contrasts starkly with the reality of getting old. I don’t see many people hopping over to start a new life in India once they reach their seventies. The picture of a frail old lady sitting in the corner of a room, amongst her meagre possessions, listening non-stop to Radio Noord Holland and reliant on the kindness of strangers, strikes me as a truer picture of old age. Or am I just a pessimist?