At the largest retirement village in the UK, more than 400 elderly people are living in a vibrant community. There are activities galore – including quiz nights, bridge clubs and tea dances. Yet in every corner of the home there are lonely and depressed OAPs hiding away from the world.
Grieving Ken Pidcock, for example, who didn’t leave Lark Hill retirement village in Nottingham for two years after his wife’s death; or Victor Chanter, who spent 12 hours a day in his flat watching the comings and goings on his CCTV screen, but rarely venturing out.
So when a group of exuberant pre-schoolers came bursting into the home’s communal room singing Wheels on the Bus, it turned lives upside down. Friendships blossomed across the generations and proved life-affirming for some of those who had felt their lives were ebbing away.
“On the first day, these children came in and saw ten old fogeys sitting reading the papers,” explains Ken, a former PE and maths teacher.
“But in no time they were jumping all over us and we were dancing and playing, too. I was a hermit for two years. But this brought me out of my shell completely.”
When the first series of this Bafta-nominated documentary was filmed in Bristol last year, medical experts proved that, by spending time with children, the old people showed vast improvements in mood, memory and mobility. So this year the producers increased the experiment from six weeks to three months and invited a new group of pensioners, aged 81 to 102, to take part. And the effects were extraordinary.
Take 87-year-old Ken, who had moved into Lark Hill with his wife Barbie. The couple, who were together for 70 years and married for 57, were an active part of the community, but when Barbie died of cancer five years ago, Ken struggled to cope.
“We enjoyed the drama club, the choir and whist,” says Ken, “but those were too emotional for me to do alone, so I dropped out. I hardly ever went out of my bungalow. I didn’t realise how much I depended on my wife socially. We used to go out together a lot, but when she died, it made me realise that she did all the talking. Suddenly I found it hard to break into conversations. I’d find it very difficult to say, ‘May I join you?’ I offered to do this show because as a former teacher I thought I’d be able to help the children. I didn’t think doing it would help me. How wrong could I be? I made new friends and, for the first time in years, I volunteer for everything.”
And while they were all encouraged to mix, some did form special bonds. Ken became particularly good friends with Lily early on in the scheme when the cheeky four-year-old swapped her vegetables for Ken’s chips.
“Lily Bobtail, as she calls herself, is delightful, a lovely little child,” says Ken. “She’s bright, enthusiastic. She comes running up to me and grabs my hands and says, ‘Come on, Ken, let’s play.’ I never dreamt I could interact with a young child the way we do.
“One day I was bouncing her on my knee and pretending to drop her, the way I used to with my grandchildren when they were little, and suddenly there were six of them crowding around wanting to have a go! We must make sure this continues. I’m interested in all these children. I want to see how they grow up.”
Similarly, 97-year-old Dunkirk veteran Victor, who hadn’t left Lark Hill for three years, at first struggled to join in. In heart-wrenching scenes in this week’s first episode, he refuses to waltz because he hasn’t danced with anyone since his wife died seven years ago. Yet he eventually becomes one of the most enthusiastic dancers.
He says now, “I came here when my wife was very ill, and when she died I withdrew. In the past my daughters have come along to tea dances and said, ‘Come on, Dad, let’s dance’, and I wouldn’t. But with these children, I’ve been showing off and jiving away. I do worry, ‘Am I overdoing this? Can I spin around without falling over?’ but I’ve managed and it’s great fun.”
Ken, who in his youth competed in running, tennis, golf and football, had a stroke two years ago, which left him with a tremor in his right hand. But during filming, his grip-strength score had improved by 55 per cent after just six weeks.
“I’ve gained a tremendous amount,” Ken admits. “I’ve had two replacement knees and of course I can’t run like I used to, but I pushed myself more than I normally would and I really enjoyed it. I don’t want to sit in an armchair for the rest of my life. I’m keen to find more things to do because this has opened my eyes.
“And it’s made me much braver socially. I didn’t know any of these adults before. Now we’re all friends and we all chat – when I can get a word in edgeways!”
Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds airs on Channel 4 on Monday 8th October at 9pm