Tom Dening is a Professor of Dementia Research at the Institute of Mental Health, University of Nottingham.
Leicester is at the centre of England but not always at the centre of events. However, it’s had a great few weeks recently. For those of us interested in ageing, end of life and so forth, it’s had double cause to celebrate. King Richard obviously, but also it’s been the last week of a 6-week national tour of the play Inside Out of Mind, which ended its run at the magnificent Curve Theatre.
Richard III, the discovery of his body and his reinterment, captured the imagination not just in this nation but further afield. It is amazing how a collection of bones can catapult us back into mediaeval life, bring to our minds the political instability and intrigue of those times, and conjure up the sounds and smells of battle. The rehabilitation of Richard from the Tudor propaganda offensive is now at least 60 years old (see: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey). What do the recent events tell us about medicine and ageing? The main medical facts are (1) that you can identify dead people from the DNA of their descendants over 500 years later and (2) Richard had a scoliosis but wasn’t as deformed as you’d think from Shakespeare’s account. But it’s the emotional response to the events that’s so powerful. The power of the impulse to identify the man, the instinct that has led 20,000 people to visit a sealed coffin, and the need to rebury the body with due respect, are all very striking. My strongest sense is that there is a feeling of justice and of closure in the sequence of events around the reinterment. What’s amazing is that this non-closure has persisted for half a millennium, long after anyone who knew Richard has passed away. To my mind, it reflects the power of making sure that we get it right at the end of people’s lives.
Inside Out of Mind (IOOM) is a play about people with dementia on a hospital ward. It was written by actor-producer Tanya Myers from a pile of interview transcripts generated by a Nottingham University research project. It features strongly the interplay between patients and staff, especially health care assistants. The play premiered last year in Nottingham and had special performances for health and social care assistants that were supported by workshops to build on their learning from the play. This proved to be a very powerful experience especially as many of the HCAs had not been to live theatre in their lives. This year, with Arts Council support, the play has toured six centres, and there’s something fitting about the coincidence that both IOOM and Richard III finish their journey in the same place and in the same week.
What’s the common thread, apart from the obvious geographical one? I think that it’s the emotional level that’s important. In IOOM, the main character with dementia is French and fought with the resistance, during which time his beloved was shot by the Nazis. There are lingering, wistful references to her throughout the play (snatches of Alouette, for instance) but eventually he achieves closure on her loss by mistaking one of the health care assistants for her and presenting her with a bunch of roses. (Perhaps ironically, they are red, not the white roses that have otherwise dominated the week.) Perhaps the message is to reflect upon our areas of unfinished business and take opportunities to settle it when we can.
Photo credit: Lisby via Flickr