The Great Escaper – An Insight into the Delights & Challenges of Old Age

27.09.2023

I was able to attend a preview this week of the film ‘The Great Escaper’ starring Michael Caine and the late Glenda Jackson. The film (you can see a trailer here) based on a true story, tells the story of Bernard (‘Bernie’) Jordan who ‘escapes’ (with some help from his wife Irene) from their seaside care home flat to attend the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings in France. As you would expect from two legendary actors, the film provides a fascinating insight into the lives of many older people, both positive and negative including a sense of how we can all ‘grow old gracefully’ (including the characters and actors themselves!)

A story of war and romance

In summary, Bernie, who was in the Royal Navy during in World War II makes a last minute decision to travel to France with the help of his trusty zimmer frame to be a part of the D-Day Anniversary events. During the crossing, he meets some other veterans including one who ‘takes him under his wing’ and invites him to join the group while on the trip. The ferry trip brought back reminders of Bernie’s experiences during the war including happy times of his early relationship with his (now) wife as well as flashbacks of the D-Day landings and his first-hand experience of bombings, fear and death. In amongst these serious stories, it begins to emerge (to his surprise) that the media have got wind of Bernie’s story of making his own way to France, and within days he is featured on the front page of national newspapers and on television news! He eventually returns to the UK as a minor celebrity and is able to reflect on his adventure with Irene as they reminisce about their rich and full lives together.

A Glimpse through the shop window of older age

In amongst the main storyline, there are various sub-plots which highlight the experiences, characteristics and contributions of many older people around us of all ages. The key themes which stuck to me were:

  • Invisibility of old age – The film starts with a short scene in which Bernie is queueing at a beachside shop for a drink and as he reaches the front of the queue is rudely interrupted by another customer who takes his place. (If you see the film, look out for Bernie’s revenge towards the end!!) This depiction of older people been seen as ‘less important’ than the rest of society is a pervasive and increasingly common one which we would all do well to acknowledge and challenge whenever we can.
  • Loneliness in old age – As Bernie begins his short ‘adventure’ he knows no-one on the ferry and watches on as groups of veterans sporting their medals enjoy each other’s company and reminisce about the past. It is within this bubble of isolation that some of the most graphic scenes from his life are played out as he recalls his role in the war. In the meantime, his wife Irene is missing her husband who has been by her side for so many decades. Loneliness can affect people for long periods and also for almost fleeting moments, but both are often realities in the lives of older people.
  • Inevitability and celebration of old age – Bernie and Irene are portrayed as a couple who have been in a married relationship for many decades and have each lived through experiences and challenges that many of us today would struggle to live through. A key theme, however, emerges throughout the story in which they both appreciate the good times, acknowledge the challenges and also celebrate the small (and seemingly insignificant) moments in their lives. We can all learn from this simplicity and pragmatism that exists in many of our elders. I visit a gentleman who is 96 years old and it never ceases to amaze me that almost every time I see him, I learn more about his life story, contribution to society and determined character.
  • Hidden Nightmares and Regrets – As Bernie recalls some of the action that he saw as he took part in the D-Day Landings, it emerges that he has been ‘holding on’ to feelings of grief, guilt and regret for much of his life without sharing these feelings with other people. This common pattern is one which is found more often in men as they (we!) are hesitant, or find it difficult, to discuss and share emotions and difficult experiences. It is for this reason that activities and initiatives which enable men to meet ‘shoulder to shoulder’ in order to talk whilst carrying out an activity are so crucial. These include many sports as well as groups such as ‘Men’s Sheds’ and others involving practical activities.
  • Experience & Wisdom – Another side to Bernie is that he is able to act as a positive role model and a good listener to those around him who are going through tough experiences. In two cases, Bernie is able to use his wealth of knowledge to advise, guide and support those during his trip who were facing their own personal challenges and he does this with a sense of calmness and real wisdom. For those of us fortunate enough to have regular contact with older people, we would do well to seek their wisdom and learn from their many life experiences in order that our lives can in turn be enriched. The Bible makes many references to the value of older people – ‘Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?’ (Job 12:12) & ‘Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.’ (Deuteronomy 32:7)

This week, 1st October marks the International Day of Older People. This is an opportunity for us all to recognise and celebrate the incredible contribution that older people bring to our society and also to challenge some of the inequalities that many also face in a world which is increasingly focused on young people and families.

At Linking Lives UK, we run a monthly webinar called’ Power of One’ which provides hints and tips of how we can all look out for and support those around us who may be struggling with loneliness or social isolation. We also work with churches and faith groups to set up befriending schemes and train volunteers in community settings. To find out more about our work, go to www.linkinglives.uk

Jeremy Sharpe
National Director of Linking Lives UK

Funding Update

This year we applied to the National Lottery Community Fund to ask for support for our project....

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