We learned this week that the older generation can maintain a brighter outlook on life in general by wallowing in nostalgia. A study by researchers at the University of Southampton, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, has concluded that those who are encouraged, for example, to sing old show tunes and popular hits from the past and/or talk about their youthful memories cannot only boost their feeling of self-worth and positivity, but also their memory.
Ignoring the temptation to rant about ‘the art of the bleedin’ obvious’, I can certainly vouch for these findings from personal experience. My mother, who died at the age of eighty-two, spent the last three-and-a-half years of her life in a secure home, descending into Alzheimer’s.
As a regular visitor who occasionally spent time, e.g. when my mother had nodded off in her communal chair, just sitting and watching the establishment’s daily regime and the inmates’ interaction, I felt I learned a great deal about the effects of ageing. The ironic thing about spending any degree of time with dementia sufferers is that one has the opportunity to observe these effects in speeded-up motion.
Received opinion is that, although those with dementia have trouble with short-term memory, they are pretty good at the long-term version. Any of us who has been teased about our alleged ‘senior moments’ may nod in knowing agreement on the first count.
On one of my earliest visits to my mother’s home, where the residents generally sat about like zombies and mundane conversation was stilted and vague, the staff had encouraged me to hang about for the Wednesday morning quiz session.
I did – and the transformation was extraordinary.
At the airing of the very first question those who, minutes before, could barely remember their own name, let alone tell me if they had eaten an egg for breakfast that morning, reacted as if zapped with a thousand volts.
The key, of course, was the ‘subject matter’ of the event – general knowledge between 1945 and 1975, especially television, film, musical and celebrity trivia.
They were like teenagers fighting over a signed picture of Billy Fury. In fact, I’m not so sure that on one occasion there wasn’t indeed a fight between two elderly ladies over a signed picture of Billy Fury. But ask them to name a Bruce Forsyth catch-phrase, or an actress who once played side-kick to Doctor Who, and a volley of several would ring out from around the semi-circle of comfy chairs in the day room.
There were instances of great humour, real and unintentional, of course. One day, asked by the nurse acting a quiz-master what they could remember about Adolf Hitler, one frail little lady in the corner bellowed out, without fear of contradiction: “He was a bastard!”
One of the last few memories or impressions of the past that I retain – erroneously or not – is of social gatherings called ‘Derby [Darby?] and Joan Clubs’ when the elderly would gather, mostly to sing ancient ditties like It’s A Long, Long Way to Tipperary, Side By Side, Get Me To The Church On Time, Underneath The Arches and White Christmas. For me, a youngster at the time, it all seemed very quaint and anachronistic – and, for some reason, I always hated Tipperary anyway, which seemed to have absolutely nothing at all to commend it.
My only concern as I contemplate wrapping my non-singer’s voice around a series of show-stoppers from the Sixties and Seventies in a desperate effort to prolong my useful time in this world, is whether or not I’ll be able to remember the tunes, let alone the words.
Since these days I don’t seem to be able to recall at will anything I’ve done in the last thirty years, I doubt very much I’ll be able to drag back from my mental vaults the basics of anything before then.
Since breakfast I’ve been trying to crack the lyrics to Doris Day’s Deadwood Stage (Whip Crack-Away), from the 1953 movie Calamity Jane, and failed miserably.