Jean and Norman

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For one reason or another, it's not important now, I got the chance to photograph Jean and Norman at their home in Alsager this week.

I could have been in and out of there in 20 minutes, but when people welcome you in to their home you not only have a duty to show some respect, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't make and enjoy the human contact with your host.  And when you meet old people it is easy show little respect and to ignore the decades of life, love and experience that is being offered to you

I was there to photograph Jean, who now, at the age of 82, has a full time job caring for Norman, who has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for the last 18 months.

Jean and Norman are fiercely independent couple, and had I been a journalist, I could have interviewed them and told you a lot more about them and their lives.  But I'm not.  All I can tell you is what we talked about about for the couple of hours I was there.

They have both had falls that resulted in serious injury and both have spent months receiving treatment for broken bones.  Norman's is the most recent.  After falling he was admitted to hospital for 10 weeks and then discharged to a care home.  After two weeks there, Jean refused to accept that he would have to stay there and brought him home.  She insists that he will spend the rest of his days at home, and if he goes first she will stay in their home until her days are done.

It is an amazing home for several reason.  Most obviously, its a wonderfully preserved example of a late Victorian semi-detached house.  It is newly decorated, has new carpets, and is spotlessly clean.  But these are just banal facts about a Cheshire building.  Far more interesting is that Jean's grandfather built the house in 1902 and that her parents raised their family there, as did Jean and Norman.

Given that Norman has dementia, he's doesn't readily engage in conversation, but when you spend a little time with them both he and Jean are great talkers.  Not in a way that you would expect though.  They don't easily talk about the 'good old days', conversation with them is not a stream of anecdotes, they are much happier talking about their lives now.

I know Jean likes to shop in Asda and she gets her cakes from the local Bakery.  I know that she cooks all their meals, but she no longer bakes because her injury makes it very difficult.  I know her children are close by and her daughter dusts her high shelves, but she generally does her own cleaning.  I know that Norman sleeps well at night and sometimes takes a nap during the day.  I know he watches the television a lot and that he struggles to understand a most of what he sees.  I know he still laughs at Last of the Summer Wine.   I know that Jean gives him cards with letters on and that he solves the word puzzle and then looks the word up in the dictionary.

They love their garden, but they do very little gardening anymore, they have a gardener who cuts the lawn and maintains the borders, but Jean deals with the patio and the pots.  In the winter they sit their lounge with the gas fire on, but in the summer they like to site their conservatory. 

Recently, it's become more difficult for them to get out of the house as Norman can't walk very far and he doesn't like being left alone for too long.  Jean still does her shopping, but tries to be as quick as she can. She used to go to the hairdressers, but now her hairdresser comes to her.  She had an appointment for the afternoon after we met and thought about having the pictures taken when her hair had been done, but decided it wouldn't make much difference.  She also thinks she doesn't take a good picture, not like she did when she was younger.

And then out of the blue comes a confession from Norman.  He used to be in the RAF.  He's 90 years old, so as far as we can figure out he joined up in 1942.  He trained as a pilot at RAF Conningsby and was sent to Rhodesia before the end of the war.  However, the war ended shortly after his arrival and he didn't see active service. 

He tells me that he flew Lancaster bombers, but Jean say's he's never mentioned that before and she thought he flew Spitfires.  She thinks there may be some confusion with his brother, who did fly Lancasters - the picture on the table is his older brother and his crew, who saw action in Europe.  Either way, they both say that he flew several different aircraft during the war.  All that I can add to this debate is that they both agree he trained at RAF Conningsby, which was a bomber command base.

It is such a shame that Norman's dementia stops him from remembering his war time service.

It's really easy to be patronizing about old people, to say we should spend more time with them, that we should listen to them more, that we don't value them enough.  But to me, Jean and Norman are just two ordinary people living through the latest chapter of their lives.  I'm fascinated by their history, and I would love to know more, but I'm also fascinated by their lives now.  I just enjoyed talking to them about everyday things.  I know that when familial generations get together, family stuff often gets in the way of meaningful dialogue, so do yourself a favour and talk to somebody else's old folk, you never know, you might just enjoy it.

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