Subscriber OnlyYour Wellness

‘Death is like going on the most wonderful holiday without the bother of packing’

Documentary maker Simon Chambers explores the complex issues of caring for older people through his own experience of looking after his uncle

In the documentary film Much Ado About Dying, octogenarian David Newlyn Gale – speaking not long before he died – says that he learned more about life in the last few weeks than in the rest of his life put together. It’s one of many poignant moments in the tender documentary, directed, written and narrated by filmmaker Simon Chambers about caring for his uncle in the last years of his life.

Chambers was living and working in Delhi – making a film about the exponential growth of cars in India – when he started getting daily phone calls from his uncle David saying, “I think I might be dying”.

He put his “Carmageddon” documentary on hold and returned to London “to sort my uncle out”.

Throughout the 100-minute documentary – which will be shown in cinemas across Ireland from May 10th-20th (Q&A with Chambers in Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Cork, Belfast and Derry – times and dates at muchadoaboutdying.com), Chambers brings us through the dramatic highs and lows of an elderly man determined to continue living in his own home.

READ MORE

“I thought I’d come home for two to three months to sort things out for him and then I’d go back, but I never went back [to India],” says Chambers, adding that the idea for making a film came from his uncle, a long-retired actor and teacher. “He loved it. In fact, we got on a lot better when the camera was there. I was aware that actors never feel more alive than when they are performing.”

Chambers says that, initially, he didn’t think the documentary was a good idea. “I thought no one will want to watch a film about an old man dying, but after they’ve seen the film, lots of people come up to thank me for telling their story. We need to have these conversations about who looks after older people,” he says.

Much Ado About Dying – which has many references to Shakespeare’s King Lear – doesn’t hold back on the physical limitations of ageing (eg how David survives mainly on tinned food, keeps warm with plug-in electric heaters and pees and poops into containers rather than shuffle to the toilet with his walking stick), while also capturing how vulnerable an older person living alone is to financial and emotional fraud.

Chambers also clearly portrays the complex emotions of doing your best for someone who has found a way of surviving that isn’t always in their best interests. The fact that Newlyn Gale only came out as a gay man in his 60s and lived alone for most of his life adds another layer of poignancy to the film.

“I did enjoy my uncle’s company,” says Chambers. “He was a lively, fascinating and interesting person. But there were lots of frictions between us – especially when I was quickly doing practical things for him, like cutting his nails because I had to get back to my part-time teaching job.”

People can have problems walking or other physical difficulties but, actually, loneliness is the worst of them all

Chambers says he has learned many things from the experience, the most important of which is that “caring is the most valuable thing you can do with your life, yet it’s the most unvalued [work]”. He says many carers are shunned in social circles. “I’ve heard someone say, oh, I’ve been looking after my mum for 10 years, only to be told ‘good for you’ and then the other person turns their back on them for the rest of evening.”

He also realised that loneliness is the most difficult experience for older people to bear. “People can have problems walking or other physical difficulties but, actually, loneliness is the worst of them all,” he says. His experiences in India and his perceptions of life in rural Italy or France is that older people are more integrated into the social lives of younger generations than they are in the UK and Ireland.

He felt let down by the healthcare system in England when struggling to find supports for his uncle. “One time, I called a social worker – when my uncle came out of hospital after his house went on fire – saying we need some help here. I was told that they had many more difficult cases on their books and at least Uncle David had a nephew who could help you out. They gave me a list of care homes to check out.”

Chambers says having a list of care homes to choose from didn’t “answer the problem of an eccentric, anarchic, strong willed man who wouldn’t do anything he didn’t want to do”.

In the film, we witness how Newlyn Gale initially rebels against going into a care home, yet eventually embraces it when Chambers and his sister find a retirement home for actors. “It feels more like a hotel than an old people’s home,” says Newlyn Gale to camera as he makes new friends and enjoys being looked after by the care home staff.

Chambers says making the no-budget documentary “feels like an incredibly cathartic experience”.

“To make a film, you have to get the story right. It takes a lot of trial and error and I had 40 hours of footage, so it took me about a year of editing it on my own first,” he says. Screen Ireland later came on board to help with further editing and distribution costs, through the collaboration with Ireland-based film production company Soilsiú.

Towards the end of the film, Newlyn Gale says, “death is like going on the most wonderful holiday without the bother of packing”.

In his dying days, Chambers and his uncle’s care home friend Bobby take turns sitting with him.

“I’m looking forward to a kind of bliss,” he tells them as he fades away.

Read More

Recommended