This week Fiona Lindsay talks about how retirement is depicted in theatre and how theatre can engage everyone, regardless of age...

Long Day's Journey Into Night

When my grandmother turned 80, she pronounced that she felt the same as she did at 40 and had decided to stop counting her birthdays and not look in too many mirrors. She lived another 15 years after that and died at the ripe old age of 95. Always one to buck the trend, she actually didn’t retire when she was meant to and kept on working for as long as it was possible and allowed.

Elizabeth Lee (my gran) began working at 14, retired at 60, re-trained at 62 and continued to work as a legal secretary until she retired at 82. She had no need to keep on working but there was no need not to as she saw it. She continued to be industrious until the end, terrified that if she stopped working, she would stop altogether.

Her story is typical – perhaps more so for men than women – with years spent carving a career day in day out and then suddenly… it’s all over. For many retirees and many soon-to-be retired baby boomers, the spectre of unstructured time and endless choice causes a certain shudder of realisation that there is no particular requirement to do anything anymore.

There is much talk of making sure you plan well financially for your retirement but not so much about what to do with all the time you’ll have on your hands and how to lead a fulfilled retired life. With life expectancy growing longer, many of us face filling (and paying for) as much as 30 years of non-work life. A daunting prospect.

The workplace can make us feel strong, secure, respected and trusted, and at the pinnacle of knowledge and experience all this vanishes as retirement looms and an uncertain future beckons. Without adequate preparation and understanding, the transition from work to retirement can create a discontinuity that can lead to shock, denial, anger, frustration and, in the worst case, depression.

Shakespeare, Miller, O’Neill, Williams, Ibsen et al write brilliantly about the third age and the attendant feelings that come with sensing that the horizon is drawing in. Plays such as King Lear, All My Sons and Long Day’s Journey Into Night don’t bring much comfort, though, and casual contemporary phrases such as "time flies" suddenly take on deeper meaning.

On the road to retirement many wonder if they have the resources to cope with their new situation. Sometimes the best place to start looking for them is in their own backyard. The recent film Quartet, about a retirement home for musicians and singers, did this and made retirement living seem much better and manageable.

You may wonder why at the prime of my life I’m overly concerned with such matters. Well, for the past few days I’ve been immersed in researching US care homes as part of a new initiative at Digital Theatre Plus. Senior Living (as it’s called that side of the pond) is a big and competitive business in the States and residents that can afford it are offered palatial hotel-style living complete with spa facilities, mini malls and entertainment complexes. We’re thinking that there may be a place for Digital Theatre Plus on their enrichment programmes. There is no doubt that the performing arts enable us to take flights of fancy as well as anchor our feelings and that joining together with other people to enjoy an unmediated event can bring huge joy regardless of age.

Recently some of our work has been presented on cinema screens all over the world and tonight my 70-plus year-old parents are going along with similarly aged friends to watch The Crucible at their local cinema. Apparently this sort of event cinema screening is the most popular with septuagenarians who love the silver screen. Digital Theatre Plus is becoming a cradle-to-grave resource.

Perhaps soon our strapline will be 'Digital Theatre Plus – coming to a care home near you!'