Originally appeared in issue 17 of The OT Magazine

Care home residents are remembering the past and relishing the present through their love affair with films.

A group of university lecturers embarked on the UK’s first research study to discover how to redress through film the feelings of loneliness and disconnection often experienced by people when they move into a care home environment.

Through their pioneering study ‘Care Home as Cinematic Community: Enhancing Social Connectivity through Film,’ they set out to explore whether watching films together could influence a person’s mood and how connected they feel to others.

Dr Ana Salzberg, a lecturer in Film Studies (Classic Hollywood Cinema and Stardom) at the University of Dundee, led the project, which was funded by the Carnegie Trust.

She explained: “We wanted to look closely at how films improve emotional wellbeing and social interaction not only between the residents who may experience loneliness and isolation from friends and family, but also with the staff who take part in and organise the screenings.”

Along with Dr Jenna Breckenridge, a University of Edinburgh researcher and occupational therapist with a keen interest in how activities improve people’s health, Ana visited two care homes last summer to watch films with residents, staff and relatives.

Together, they watched three films chosen by residents in each care home over six weeks.

Each of the films selected were golden age musicals or classics, starring movie icons such as Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Doris Day, Carmen Miranda, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Rock Hudson.

With the permission of residents, Ana and Jenna observed what people did when viewing a film.

While watching 1940 musical ‘Down Argentine Way,’ it was the colourful Carmen Miranda rather than Betty Grable the residents craved to see.

And, during a screening watched by two married residents, the wife covered her husband’s eyes during a particular scene starring the buxom Marilyn Munroe!

After each screening, Drs Ana and Jenna chatted with viewers about their thoughts about the film and also asked staff for their opinions of watching films with residents in a care home setting.

One resident enthused: “It takes all your willpower to stay in the armchair and not jump up!”

The pair discovered that films are experienced with the senses. Residents, relatives and staff laughed, sang and clapped along with musical numbers, and some even got up to dance.

The experiment confirmed that movies are a big part of most people’s lives and certain films sparked memories of watching with a loved one. It underlined that films can be a source of great joy with a sentimental meaning for people young and old.

The fluid structure of the experiment also highlighted how people watch a film differently, and there is no right or wrong way. Some enjoyed talking with others during the film, whereas others liked to watch in silence. Some residents took a nap and others walked in and out of the room throughout.

The research also drew into sharp focus people’s varying attention spans and the fact that the structure of classic films makes them particularly effective at keeping people engaged.

The project also demonstrated how classic films keep people entertained. Even if residents lost attention or did not follow all of the dialogue, everyone enjoyed seeing familiar stars, watching musical numbers and relishing colourful costumes.

“There is such a push in care homes on encouraging physical activity and people are reluctant to do things with residents that are perceived to be passive,” explained Jenna who, since the conclusion of the study, has visited a number of care homes to explain its findings to managers.

“It is also important for people to get a chance to relax. One of the things we found is that film can promote a physical response – clapping or getting up to dance and that was happening organically.

“We found out that watching films is not just about remembering the past. It’s about enjoying the present too. Watching the films uplifted people’s moods and residents enjoyed chatting about the plot and characters.

“Loneliness is a big problem in care homes. Loneliness is not the same as being alone. You can be lonely in a crowd. When observing the audience, we saw a lot of interaction – sharing eye contact, sharing the experience, sharing a laugh and singing along together.”

It became apparent, observed Ana, that the experience broke down the boundary between care home staff and residents.

The study also found that connecting with different generations through film is positive.

Residents enjoyed asking Ana and Jenna about their lives, and the lecturers in turn learned a lot from residents.

“Many of the staff had never seen the films the residents had chosen, so the residents have a lot to teach the staff, as they had lived the eras that were on the screen,” Ana explained.

“Film is something that is uniquely poised to help with activities. It is about bringing back events or emotions that have been preserved as a record of the past. Every time you screen a film, that era is brought back to life in the present tense.

“What interested us the most about this project and this particular audience is the knowledge that exists in these spectators and can be shared. Some of them will have seen the films on their first screening – and we’re seeing how that can really benefit our understanding of spectatorship and film history.” 

The experiment serves as a reminder that older people enjoy learning new things and have a lot of wisdom to offer younger generations, they said. It also found that films are a good prompt for discussion and encourage conversations that enhance the present as well as the past.

The Care Home as Cinematic Community study also reinforces the need to make residents feel safe and comfortable when films bring to the fore difficult memories. People should be allowed to feel sad and it’s important not to gloss over difficult topics but to deal sensitively with difficult emotions.

Continued Dr Breckenridge: “Residents enjoyed being in the present moment. Watching the firms helped to improve their immediate sensory, emotional and social engagement with their environments and each other.”

The research team also comprised psychologist Professor Thilo Kroll of University College Dublin and the researchers also received useful, practical advice from the University of Dundee’s Gavin Wylie, a podiatrist with experience of working and doing research in care homes.

The ‘Care Home as Cinematic Community’ study arose as a result of a cross-disciplinary collaboration between Ana and Jenna, who both insist the results could not have been achieved through working alone.

By acting as the ‘left and right hands’ they found that through collaboration, the study took on greater meaning and potential.

As an occupational therapist, Jenna says she would not have been able to ‘unpick’ with the same amount of depth the complex cognitive psychological and emotional elements inherent within film without the partnership approach and without Ana’s specialist knowledge.

“I was surprised by Ana’s willingness as somebody rooted in film studies to get in and engage with people and listen to experiences and see how film became important to them,” admitted Jenna.

 “The experience has shattered some of my misconceptions and now I’d collaborate more readily. During the study, we learned from staff about the practicalities of doing such an exercise within a care home – taking account of routines like the administering of medication. Lots of OTs are involved in reminiscence work. The main lesson to take from our project is that we need to be much more open to the benefits of the present and not simply focus on remembering the past – and be much more in tune to these benefits for people. Rather than just making sure people keep busy and have enough to do, take a step back and make sure it is meaningful for the person. It’s often assumed that the things OTs do are really simple, but we can help to promote the profession and make sure people get the best help they can by promoting the complexity of what is involved in seemingly simple activities like watching films.”

Ana is enormously excited about engaging with the residents as holders of this film-historical knowledge and so taking Film Studies outside of the classroom and into the care home.

“There are a lot of theories of spectatorship,” she added. “It has been really exciting to see this in action and to see how these concepts relate to real life.”

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