A telecare system is a white plastic phone with a big red button. Often perched at the end of a bed or the arm of a chair, the phone can immediately connect someone in an emergency with a member of staff from a care team. The phones are designed to provide independence to older adults but for many, conversations on these telecare systems are their only point of contact with the outside world. “My gran used to ring them all the time,” says Louise Coulthard, “even though you’re only supposed to use it if you fall over or burn yourself. She just pressed it and rang for a chat.”
Edinburgh in August is frantic. Everyone is hungry, exhausted, and the streets almost sway with the weight of hungover students cloaked in rain and sweat, the shower in their too-full apartment having broken that morning. This hive of activity, so busy you almost get sick of pushing through bodies on the Mile, feels far removed from the image of someone sitting in solitude at home, pressing the emergency button of their phone just so that they can hear a friendly voice.
It often seems that the Fringe tends to have a focus on the young, with uproarious ideas celebrated and desperation oozing from keen, clever young things. So how do the two worlds merge? How does a piece that is so delicate, quiet and gentle, focusing on the fragility of older adults, navigate its way through the chaotic tangle of the Edinburgh Fringe?
This year, Theatre Ad Infinitum are bringing back their 2011 hit, Translunar Paradise, [Exeunt review here] a heartbreaking performance exploring an older man’s struggle to recover from his wife’s death. And numerous other shows are tackling the subject of old age at this year’s Festival, including three new plays: The Gardener, Dark Matter and Cockamamy. Each of these three explores a unique area of the ageing process, using different techniques to draw out the nuances of a less independent life.
In Dark Matter, Vertebra Theatre Company harness puppetry, visual imagery and microcinema to reconstruct meaning for retired astrophysicist Alfie. In Cockamamy, Coulthard uses her experience of caring for her grandma to create a bittersweet tale of love and loss. Cumbernauld Theatre’s The Gardener focuses on amateur gardener Fred, who has recently moved into a home after being unable to cope on his own following the death of his wife. Each play orbits around the feeling of isolation. Whether suffering from dementia or simply the baggage of old age, when it comes to the later stage of life The Gardener’s director Tony Cownie says, even if you are “surrounded by people who are good to you and kind to you, what you’ve lost is in the past. It is still a lonely experience.
As age decays body and mind, it becomes a race against time. In Dark Matter, director and co-writer Mayra Stergiou says, time is “a dictator and a companion”, doggedly pushing us through Alfie’s life to find what’s left of him. Time is not such a burden on The Gardener’s Frank. He is able to use his past, his skills and the things he loves. Although on medication, he is in much better health than the protagonists of our two other plays, both physically and mentally. Being in a better mental state allows him to use his past to his favour. A former teacher, he persuades the care staff to allow him to give a series of lectures on horticulture, the first of which we are invited to. “It’s nice to see him use the skills he used in his professional life in this environment,” Cownie says.
For Coulthard, time plays a different role. “Because gran kind of couldn’t really remember much of her past and wasn’t concerned for the future, it was always so present. Everything was just quite alive.” Coulthard’s play is heavily influenced by her own experience of caring for her grandmother. Just from talking to her on the phone, you can tell how much this piece means to her. Though her grandma was never that into theatre, living in the countryside where there weren’t a lot of touring shows, she was intrigued by Coulthard’s life as an actress. It will no doubt be an emotional and exhausting Fringe, but Coulthard is adamant that it is important to remember the funny moments too. “We did laugh a lot. Those moments of light get you through as a carer.” As suggested by the title, Cockamamy highlights the bemusing and hilarious situations dementia can lead to, drawing together the oppositions of pain and laughter.
Humour is also an important part of The Gardener, with a sense of fun a solid tool in Frank’s belt. “It’s just as much a part of life as tragedy or hurt is,” Cownie says.
I remember my grandma telling me that as she has gotten older, she is touched less and less. That realisation made me make a conscious effort to hold her hand and hug her more often. I tell Coulthard this and she recognises the feeling. She used it in her writing. Theatre is a form defined by its use of language, so the rejection of words is equally as suggestive as an acutely carved turn of phrase. “A lot of the time me and Mary [Rutherford, the actress playing Coulthard’s character’s grandma Alice],” she says, “we won’t be speaking a lot to each other, but we’ll be holding each other.”
Similarly, Dark Matter’s use of Bunraktu puppetry lends itself to a focus on movement rather than words. “It might be a cliche but with puppetry, we go against gravity,” Stergiou says. It makes every shrug or subtle look, every struggle, deliberate. Music serves as another form of communication in Dark Matter, with original music composed for the piece by Gregory Emfietzis. “Scientific research suggests that music is a great way to break through barriers of communication in dementia,” Stergiou says. “There are people that forgot their loved ones’ names but can’t forget a lyric from their favourite songs.”
It can be easy to forget the lives the elderly once lived. “There’s something about being hidden away in these homes,” Cownie says. By doing shows like these, he suggests, it’s uplifting to show all sides of a person, “to see that they still have spark, still have something to say, still have something to offer.” He pauses. “There’s a lot we can learn from them.” Each of these shows is a song played, trying to reach back in time and grasp a bit more of the old life.
Old age and dementia will affect everyone at some point, whether first hand or through a relative. Cownie notes, “it is surprising that it is not a theme that more often takes centre stage.” According to the Alzheimer’s Society, one in six of us in this ageing population will develop dementia over the age of 80, and the disease is not discriminatory. It affects people of all race, class and gender.
“In the end,” Coulthard says, “my grandma kept wanting her mum.” Apparently common among dementia sufferers, the disease taps into a child’s first memory and maternal instinct. When performing the show, she often has audience members share this experience. Loneliness can have serious effects both on the carer and the sufferer and a demonstration of loneliness can help us feel less lonely. “It’s a shared experience,” Coulthard says. “A lot of people I’ve talked to say it’s really nice to know that you’re not alone.”