Him and his mum
A word about Tony Robinson’s brave documentary Me and My Mum on Channel 4 on Monday, which we watched last night. It’s part of the channel’s The Trouble With Old People season, the sort of thing they do well, and, as ever, the “money shot” (and I call it this with heavy irony), where Tony cries and puts his hand up to the camera to stop filming, was repeated endelessly in trails leading up to transmission. It’s clear, to the media-literate among us, that a programme isn’t going to get better than this. And indeed, this was the most overtly emotional moment, but the film itself offered so much more than the spectacle of the bloke off of Time Team blubbing. He set out to make a documentary about our disgraceful treatment of old people in this country, both politically and personally (the government grant for those that look after their own elderly or ailing parents is minimal compared to, say, that of a foster parent, and with the ongoing pensions crisis, it’s clear that no provision is being made for the future, despite longer life expectancy), but of course it ended up being “about love”, as the director said off-camera.
Tony’s mum, 89-year-old Phyllis, was in a care home, on the road to dementia but still strikingly lit up by her only son’s presence and able to communicate sporadically. It was hard to watch her being lifted in and out of his car for what turned out to be her last day out – she clearly hated it, although whether it was the pain in her old bones or the fuss and indignity we can never know. Tony was conflicted about the situation. He felt guilty for doing what so many of us do: putting a parent in a home. However, his grown-up kids from his first marriage were obviously really cool with their gran and made visits themselves. (Indeed it was Tony’s daughter’s loving relationship with “Phyll” that broke him up for that shot.) When she developed pneumonia, wiping out her means of speaking, and Tony was advised to let her “slip away”, it felt intrusive to see the family around her bedside as she died, but at the same time, it was a worthwhile spectacle to hammer home the programme’s points. I had been slightly uncomfortable during the film by how many times the old people in question were spoken about as if they were not in the room. Obviously, they couldn’t communicate verbally themselves, but it just felt disrespectful to talk about them while they were still there.
In the end, it was an admirable piece of television. Robinson was a warm host, really genuine with the other elderly folk he met, comforting the wife of 84-year-old John, who, after a fall, was confined to hospital, confused. He was much more communicative than Phyll, however, and asked really pertinent questions of his loving twin daughters as they lied to him (“When you’re better, you’re coming home”). They moved him to a nursing home and within ten days . . . he was dead. This was the actual “money shot” – the door closing on John’s room, the echo of empty promises, the memory of his last question, “This isn’t permanent is it?”
How can we stand by and watch our own parents and relatives end up in these waiting rooms? Home care should be subsidised for those that can’t afford it. It happens to us all. Even the woman who ran Phyll’s care home kept half-joking about “taking the pills” when her time came. It’s not just about money, it’s also about attitude. Look at the old people playing indoor bowls in Sutton in their blazers. Active, socialised, likely to live longer, happier lives. We must not abandon our parents in old age. It’s up to us to keep our families together, I think, to encourage them to go on living, not hide them away, or forget about them.
I fear for Tony Robinson. Both parents died of forms of Alzheimer’s. He’s 59. I hope he’s getting enough fish oils.