Accommodating Elders
Social Security – Part 23: Reform Dead, For Now

Anarchy in the Old Folks’ Home

GuardianUK Ian Bertram of Panchromatica sent me the link to this story published in the Guardian UK last week.

It is funny and sad and poignant and you’re going to love it.

Copyright rules suggest I should not reprint this in its entirety, but I’m doing it anyway – excerpts couldn’t possibly do it justice and I'm uncertain when it might disappear behind a Guardian firewall. So if you would take an extra second or two to click one of the links to the Guardian, maybe they won’t sue me.

Christopher Manthorp
Wednesday 16 November 2005

As a manager for residential care, you should be above playing favourites. The group of homes in your charge are equal and deserve equal respect. In a long senior management career, I've never achieved this objectivity. I like the ones that residents are most comfortable in.

Now long disposed of by the council, a home in Bradford was the best I ever managed. It was decaying and ugly, a Victorian monstrosity built to express a mill owner's wealth and left by him to the corporation in the hope of avoiding hell. It was badly designed for housing older people then, and would never now pass inspection requirements. Residents slept together in fours and fives, padding half-naked down corridors to dank toilets forced into corners designed for hat racks.

I loved the residents. They were mostly Ukrainians, Poles and Romanians who had come to Bradford after the war to fill the gaps left in the cotton mills. Assimilation with the local community was limited by language problems. They had undistinguished careers, fathered children who got out as soon as they could, and they drifted into alcoholism, poverty and the physical helplessness of old age after a life of labour.

When I was given line management responsibility for the home, its manager was an ex-soldier who had turned it into a kind of boot camp, where he barked orders and expected residents to stand by their beds in the morning. The man who replaced him must have lied carefully at interview. In the then paternalistic and solidly conventional care environment, he was a natural anarchist. He had a good look at the rules imposed on the place, then tore them all up.

Researching the views of residents by the simple expedient of getting drunk with them in the evenings, he and his equally anarchic staff let them have their head. Freed from rules, the residents were monsters. They haunted the local parks, cider bottles permanently in hand, fighting, peeing behind bushes, one or two regularly exposing themselves. They were happy as kings.

It was an exclusively male home - an oddity even in the 1970s - until an enterprising social worker begged me to take in Maria, who would otherwise have been put in a mental hospital. A Jewish Pole, at 17 she was a member of the Joy Division. For those of you too young to know what this means, she had been taken out of a concentration camp and forced into prostitution for German soldiers, while her family starved to death or were gassed next door.

Understandably, she went mad. Violent, alcoholic and asocial, she fled her home country as soon as she could and scraped a living in the grimmest corners of Bradford's poverty traps by methods best not dwelt upon. But my manager, breaking innumerable rules, admitted her as the sole female resident, accommodating her in what was more or less a boot cupboard.

She was immediately at home. All the male residents - widowed, drunk and susceptible - fell courteously in love with her, gratifying her every whim. She picked out the only Scottish resident of the home, a rough-drinking, free spirited street bum. He had found himself with no choice but residential care after he had fallen asleep in the middle of the road and lost both legs to an absent-minded driver.

Invariably and argumentatively pissed, they canoodled in the boot cupboard to the accompaniment of the dreadful country and western records they loved. They fell in and out of love noisily and dramatically two or three times a day, screwing like rabbits. I can't tell you how proud we all were of them.

I was reminded of the home by bumping into an ex-staff member last weekend. Then just a care worker, he now manages a day centre for people with learning difficulties. He's stayed true to the Bradford home's principles. People who attend his centre enjoy themselves as freely and creatively as they can. He's got plenty of support, but real freedom involves real risk. It's always going to be a worry to a particularly hidebound type of senior management. But they're wrong and he's right. Stay free, Nick.

Christopher Manthorp is operations manager for older people's services at Kent county council. He is writing here in a personal capacity.


You were right in your intro - LOVED it! I have seen so many pitiful situations in senior housing and care facilities, not in physical or cleanliness or medical terms, but in the emotional and intellectual clamps that get applied to the residents. They either shut up, fall in line, follow the leader, or they are sent off to dreadful holding tanks for the terminally disturbed.

It would be most gratifying to know that a place exists where free spirits could continue to soar, where people could live out their days as themselves, not some over-medicated cookie-cutter drone.

Mr. Manthorp's writing style, so typically Brit understated, is a hoot. We are left not quite knowing if he intended to be humorous or not. But in the end it does not matter. I can see him being dead serious and hear this being told by a John Clese character in his most serious and oblivious self. Good stuff! Thanks, Ronni.

I absolutely loved this story and its telling. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks for sharing this well-written and interesting article. I had not visited the Guardian's site for a long time, which is a pity. They have really interesting articles.

This is a wonderful story. Don't we all feel we've earned the right to freedom as the years progress?

The one comment I hear from practically all those experiencing the aging of later life is "What bothers me most is, that I don't want to lose my independence!" I know the feeling.

Is being given license to behave in ways society discourages just compensation for having been treated as POW's in a nursing home? Is this not another incident of ageism where the attitude is "isn't that cute?" I never thought achieving the age of 80 or 90 or any age gave anyone the right to disregard the rights of others or to be rude.

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