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Moving in with his Nan at the height of lockdown, Jay Grainger noticed a deterioration in her mental state, but after getting the press release for a new The Secret Garden interactive experience, he decided to give it a go. And you know what? It worked wonders.

In lockdown, my husband and I moved from a small flat in London to a 2-bedroom bungalow with my Nan by the seaside. This was a positive change that not only benefited our financial position after being made redundant from our FOH jobs, but also allowed us to provide Nan with some company – whether she wanted some or not. It was nice to know that she was no longer alone.

My Nan is 85 years of age and still a regularly active person. She goes to bingo with friends twice a week (mostly to win tea bags in the raffle), still drives herself to the shops and goes for meals with family when they visit. However, lockdown really affected her and after a while, every day started to be the same: wake up, watch the TV, have dinner, go to bed. For many elderly people who are alone, the removal of outdoor trips or regular visits from friends and family has left them with a dull routine and no positive mental challenges. So, when the press release for an interactive The Secret Garden (you can read our review here) came my way, I was more than a little intrigued.

Though it is designed primarily for families with young kids, than perhaps grandparents, I thought why not, let’s spend eight days together creating, listening, playing, and most importantly, connecting with each other and the world outside this house; a world that we had started to forget. Nervously expecting to be told to ‘sod off’, I presented the experience to my Nan but to my surprise, she was up for it.

Throughout the eight days, we did activities together, played games, learnt facts and listened to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-loved classic story, adapted and spoken by award-winning storyteller Danyah Miller and brought to life in eight audio episodes, with original music by musician and composer Arun Ghosh. This captivating story is as relevant today as it was when it was first serialised for adults in 1910, before being published as a children’s book in 1911.

It wasn’t necessarily the activities we did, but what they allowed us to do from there that impacted our experience. I learnt that the activities were making Nan more thoughtful and contemplative. An episode might remind her of a memory, a story of her own to share, whilst also opening a conversation around grief and more specifically about losing her husband (my grandad) 5 years ago and her mum (my little Nan) before him. I was also surprised after one episode when Nan spoke about her concerns around dementia and the struggles of old age, such as forgetfulness, and accessibility. I realised that sometimes people just need a bit of encouragement to speak about their feelings – especially the older generations.  

One day we were presented with a skipping rope, not something you would ordinarily encourage an 85-year-old with osteoporosis to participate in, but Nan was offended by the presumption that she could not do something she believed she was so good at as a child. Nan attempted to prove us wrong, and after a couple of wobbly moments where she could not really lift herself off the ground, she fell over into the grass. Luckily, she had no more than a bruised coccyx, but mentally, it was a shock and another reminder that age creeps up on us all, faster than we think.

Seeing the change in Nan’s self-motivation since our weekly activities speaks volumes for the positive effect an experience like The Secret Garden has had on her. She has kept the TV off until after dinner; read a book a day (yes, she reads remarkably fast); ventured into the garden to plant flowers or to do some weeding; experimented with cooking and now when she looks out of the window, she speaks of what she can see: the birds, insects, flowers, making a connection with nature and her memories. We have all learnt that with age, comes limits and learning what those limits are together can be less terrifying, knowing that we have opened up the conversation now provides nan with the confidence to confide in us about any worries, equally inviting us to support with honesty and awareness of her limitations.  

The Arts have an important role to play in reminding us not to give up on our elders. We can create ways for them to keep discovering the world we all live in, and that doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive to do but can be made possible with a bit of thought, creativity, or some fun experiences like The Secret Garden. Just be sure to hide the skipping rope, because it likely won’t end well.