NOT Forgotten Lives: Felixstowe 2017 by Julia Jones

Chrissie Harris – the cover girl for Golden Duck’s forthcoming publication NOT Forgotten Lives: Felixstowe 2017 – is 103 years old. This means she has already survived twenty Prime Ministers (not counting repeats) two world wars and any number of domestic and international crises.  I find it comforting to think of Chrissie, living "happily confuddled" in a Felixstowe care home, as I write this on General Election day, June 8th 2017.  Elsewhere there's a pervasive sense of political and economic insecurity and the threat of terrorist attack still officially classified as “critical”. 

I’ve never met Chrissie but I’m certain that she is a very wise woman.That's not just because, at this stage, she may be taking the long view about the relative importance (or not) of staying up all night to watch election results which are going to happen anyway... but mainly because Chrissie had the great good sense to write down some of her own life recollections before "confuddlement" came on. Here’s a sample from our forthcoming booklet: 

My parents had eleven children, but two died at birth. My oldest brother Ernest fought in the 1914-18 war,  but died of pneumonia when he was thirty two. My brother George died of pneumonia when he was nineteen My sister Eva died of diphtheria at the age of seven, before I was born. My brother Reginald was killed in a car accident when he was thirteen, he was a twin so it was especially hard on his twin, Doug.
Times were hard for us on a farm labourer's wage so we had rabbits for food, and grew fruit and vegetables in the garden. We also had five chickens and kept a pig which we killed for food, which we shared with others. All of us lived in a two-bedroom cottage with no indoor toilet, no bathroom and no water indoors, so it was very hard for my mother with two sets of twins to look after, let alone the rest of us.

Standard for the period – well yes, maybe. When my mother and I were collecting and editing the Age Concern essays, back in the mid 1980s, there was much mention of rabbit as a staple of the older country dweller’s diet.  But today, in 2017,  Chrissie’s facts of life seem to come from a different world. Look at that family size, those deaths, that two-room cottage! (H.H. Asquith was PM when Chrissie was born, in case you wondered. Then David Lloyd George as the WW1 carnage began to mount.) Now, in 2017, life expectancy is possibly going up even faster than WW1 brought it down. That's probably not a scientific figure. The only statistic I can remember (as the TV in the next room churns out swings and exit polls) is that a child born in the UK today has a 1 in 3 chance of living to Chrissie’s age. No wonder the political parties are shying away from any serious policies on elder care (bring back Lloyd George, say I). 

What Chrissie's story reminds me is that, in 2017, our UK residential homes are already full of these living repositories of social history.  Every day when I visit the nursing home where my mother lives I meet the Irish centenarian who was born in the year of the Easter Rising. She's tiny, frail, a bag of bones if you spot her on a rare quiet day but how she still strikes fear in English hearts when her wheel chair comes rocketing down the corridor. My son Bertie overheard her setting a care-worker straight: "Get out or I’ll slaughter you!” were her reported words. I cherish this lady and long to know almost any details of her history as she alternately demands a priest to hear her confession or the police to make an arrest. But she too is confuddled. Her emotions are powerful but chaotic.  I don’t know anything about the facts of her life I don’t know who to ask.

NOT Forgotten Lives  is a project for this year's Felixstowe Book Festival -- do join us on July 1st at the Orwell Hotel. It has developed from the Life Stories Network training day that I attended a couple of months ago.  A handful of the stories in our booklet (like Chrissie’s) are properly autobiographical but most are “ghost-written” by care-workers or family members. Be good to your children not just because they’ll be choosing your care home – but because they might be writing the life story that you take in there with you. You'll have forgotten the dates and details: will you therefore be forgotten? Because the more the care-workers know about you the better your care is likely to be.

Care homes have changed / are changing as confuddlement spreads. Here's Alison Hudson, a Felixstowe care home manager writing in NOT Forgotten Lives

I have worked at White Gables Residential Home, Felixstowe, for almost thirteen years. I can specifically remember one day a number of years ago hearing a very eloquent speaker give a presentation about the rise of dementia in the U.K and the consequent effect this would have on care homes. 
Now, in 2017, I can see the real difference, where the residents we are seeing generally have a dementia diagnosis. This has meant that we have had to do a lot of learning, both through experience and training to discover the best way to be able to care for individuals with dementia.

Putting this modest booklet together has not been an easy project. Care home managers and their staff are under a frightening degree of strain: families are uncertain and distressed; the people at the heart of the project are enduring a disease that threatens their very self. Only six of the sixteen residential homes in Felixstowe finally managed to participate -- not a great turnout -- though, as ever, the reasons for that are more interesting than the stark %. I feel that I've learned a great deal from the process of this project and I hope to share that in the final product. The facts of people's lives matter -- and so do their feelings about them. Caring successfully for people with dementia demands a degree of personal knowledge that care home residents, unaided, will no longer be able to give. Those who are wise - like Chrissie -- will set down in advance as many salient facts as come to mind, not just for their own and their families' better knowledge but for all of us who are privileged to share their world. 

Chrissie and friend
in earlier seaside days
Meanwhile we must also ensure that they are not trapped as museum exhibits. Their lives are not over, just because they have moved into residential care. As another Felixstowe care home manager wrote 

"What I'd like is for relatives etc to understand that the more information we have on someone the better we can care for them in a person centred way; that it's not just the basics we need and that with dementia their choices and preference can change. For example someone who has never taken sugar in their tea will develop the sweet tooth of their childhood, or a demure person may start to choose bright red nail polish."

You might think that the message there is not entirely clear but think a little longer and it is. People with dementia are living in the eternal present -- yet their present is imperceptibly determined by their past and we must never never deny them the hope of a future. Of change and choices.

So what will these next days bring to Chrissie and her peers and all the rest of us? A new Prime Minister perhaps? Or the freedom to change your nail polish preferences, even at 103?

But it's night night for now - it's 0100 June 9th 2017 and I'm off to watch the election results -- even if they may not mean so much in the rolling by of the centuries to come.

Julia Jones will be talking about her book Beloved Old Age and What to Do About It at the Felixstowe Book Festival July 1st 2017. There will also be a session on Life Story work and the launch of NOT Forgotten Lives, edited by Julia Jones & Bertie Wheen, published by Golden Duck and free of charge to Festival attendees.


Anonymous said…
This is such an important project, huge congratulations to you for setting it up and achieving it. To get 6 care homes taking part is not bad at all, when you think of all the demands on time and energy of care workers and relatives. But so important, both historically for these unique treasure houses of information, and to the elderly themselves; as you say, the more is known about their lives, the more they can be seen as individual people, not just 'clients', and the better the care. Mind you, I did feel for the care worker yelled at by the lady of 104 - it is rotten to be at the receiving end of people's tempers, even when you know it's all down to dementia.

I can't come to the Felixstowe book festival but I hope your book has a terrific celebration, attracting lots of attention. It deserves it.
julia jones said…
Yes indeed - our care workers and our nurses are too often at the receiving end of the turbulent emotions felt by people living with dementia. Whilst nurses generally have public respect I'm not sure we give sufficient praise and appreciation to the low paid care worker. Though we're quick enough to be horrified (rightly) if any strike back. I was in a care home last week which is involving a psychologist to give STAFF support through a period of change & I thought that excellent. Meanwhile plenty of public thanks -- and decent wages and working conditions -- is the least we can do.
Bill Kirton said…
Bravo for this initiative, Julia. For all the apparent simplicity of Chrissie Harris's recollections of her childhood, they convey - as you say - the daily realities of her time which probably sound medieval to anyone under 20. I'm old enough to remember dray horses, carless streets, rope swings around lamp-posts, gaslights and the rest, and yet I still regret not asking more questions of grandparents, aunts and uncles. They were the repositories of daily truths which never make it to Wikipedia and which, while still in the minds of those who lived them, are the true pulse of history. The book deserves to be a big success.
Dennis Hamley said…
What a wonderful project, Julia. You are right about the old being such a repository of wisdom and experience which shouldn't be lost. I shall never forget the competition I organised in Hertfordshire back in the 80s for the WRVS and the recipients of Meals on Wheels. I set the subject 'Sweet Sixteen', sure that this would bring some World War 1 experiences. The accounts I received were moving, wise, amazingly vivid and also wonderful historical documents in their own right. I remember one lady who, when sixteen, was a kitchen maid in a great house. The mistress of the house had organised a ball for the officers at the local army camp. After it was over and the servants had recovered from their 24-hour day doing their usual duties and then working all night at the ball, they asked if they could have a dance at the house for the ordinary soldiers. The mistress haughtily refused and so they went on strike. And won! What an extraordinary, iconic significant event! I had to use it in Ellen's People, my WW1 novel.

Swan House, Winslow, where my brother's wife is now living, also encourages autobiographical writing. I wonder if a project something like yours could use that as a start. I must ask my brother. No, I can't come to Lowestoft on July 1st. But I'd love a copy of NOT Forgotten Lives.
julia jones said…
Thanks Dennis. Swan House sounds a good place. I wonder whether we coudl persuade them to join JC. Am fascinated by your Sweet Sixteen competition (I remember that episode in Ellen's People - very good) Spent six year through 80s running Age Concern essay competitions - best bit of education I ever did

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