Actor and director Neal Foster has spent years visiting isolated elderly people with Age UK Camden – and his latest show is dedicated to one special lady…
‘I never knew my grandparents. Both sides died when I was very young, and I think this is why I’ve always been drawn to old people. They often have more liberated personalities than younger people and are always very interesting. In fact, the more incorrigible and irascible they are, the more I’m drawn to them.
I’d heard about the Good Neighbours Scheme run by Age UK Camden. The charity matches you up with someone in the area who’s lonely, and I thought that taking part might be a way of vicariously helping my mum. She suffered with severe depression for ten years – in fact, it ended up killing her – and it really frustrated me that I hadn’t been able to do anything to help her.
So I contacted Age UK Camden. They interviewed me and ran a DBS check, then the first person I was introduced to was a woman called Rosemary Zierer. She was 97 when I first met her, and she was an incredible woman.
I visited Rose at her house in Chalk Farm for an hour every week for six years. Mostly we’d talk, or I’d help her with her post and make the occasional cup of tea. She’d tell me all her stories. She was born in 1910 and had had a fascinating life.
One story I found amazing was that her first big love died in WWII, and no one ever replaced him. She eventually agreed to marry another man – who had to propose four times before she said yes – and they were devoted to each other, but she always cried when she talked about her first love. It was quite amazing to see this connection with someone she knew more than 60 years before, and how it still had such a strong effect on her.
Rose died in 2014 at the age of 103. She never had any children, and because she got to such a grand old age, all her friends had died. It must be extremely hard to have no children, no husband and no close family – I can’t think of anything worse. My mum always used to say that the worse thing that could ever happen to you is to be lonely; she said it was much worse than being poor. That’s why the scheme feels so important to me. It’s only an hour a week, but the benefits I and the other person get out of that one hour feel like more than I get out of any other hour in my life. If everyone did the small amount that I’m doing, no one would be lonely.
Unfortunately there’s a big question mark hanging over the Good Neighbours Scheme at the moment because Camden Council has withdrawn its funding. My company, the Birmingham Stage Company, has been touring a production of David Walliams’s ‘Gangsta Granny’ and collecting for the scheme in every theatre foyer the show has been to. Even so, I don’t know if the scheme will still be there to introduce me to someone new once Joy, the lady I’m visiting now, is gone.
The scheme has had a big influence on my company’s work, and the upcoming run of ‘Gangsta Granny’ in the West End is dedicated to Rose – her picture is in the front of the programme. I’m hoping that after this show at least one person will start to think more carefully about the older people in his or her life. If that happens, we’ve made the world a slightly better place.’