After retiring from a job as primary school teacher Dawn Platt, 81, has turned her garden into an art gallery
During the past year, the pandemic has forced many elderly people to isolate and remain indoors for much of the time, yet many have led, and continue to lead, extraordinary lives. Photographer Laura Page set out to capture their stories and challenge what she sees as ageist stereotypes.
In 2020, Laura won the Rebecca Vassie Memorial Award, which supports photographers by mentoring and funding projects that focus on human stories with a social or political context.
The shooting window for the project was compressed between lockdowns, although she plans to continue once the current crisis is over.
Following an article on the BBC website, Laura received hundreds of messages from people who wanted to be involved in her project.
As she read them, the bar for inclusion in the became higher and higher as the incredible stories emerged.
“In a way the virus was really bad timing as the point was to show their strength, yet they are vulnerable to the virus,” says Laura.
But she also realised that as many elderly people were in need of company.
“They were keen to talk to somebody else. Some were isolated – and they felt cut off physically, and almost treated like you don’t matter any more. You are old so you just stay inside.”
Initially Laura had wanted to spend a day with each person, shooting in an informal way, but the need to keep a distance meant that a single portrait was made of everyone.
Some of those Laura met had found themselves alone after the death of a partner, others at a loose end after retirement or just with time for themselves after their children had left home. Others told her about their past life.
“Old age can seem like a daunting and depressing prospect, but they all made it seems quite exciting,” she says.
“Even in your 40s you can think, ‘oh this is me now – this is what I do’ – but they show it doesn’t have to be like that if you don’t want it to be. You can something new in your 70s or 80s.”
Here Laura recalls the stories of some of those she photographed:
Jean Woods, 83
She was spotted in the street by someone working for the BBC who recommended her for the television programme Fabulous Fashionista. Following her appearance, she has been offered professional modelling and advertising work which she loves.
Jean says her style is an expression of who she is. It reflects a romanticism and dreaminess which echoes her life.
She met her husband in East London when she was 15 and he was 23. They fell in love with each other immediately and married when she was 18.
They went on to have two children and their lives revolved around each other until he died some years ago.
She looks after her health as well as her style and started running in her 60s, showing it is never too late to start a new hobby.
David Scott, 83
David can often be seen around Sheffield at waste disposal sites and skips digging out finds for his latest inventions. His workshop is an Aladdin’s cave of shiny things, tubes, wires, buttons, wheels, pots and tools.
One of many peculiar inventions hanging from the ceiling is a leaf vacuum which is made from a broken pram, a plastic sack, a crutch, and tubes from a tumble dryer.
When his sons were growing up, David taught them how to build motorbikes out of bits they had found, and they would ride them around the local fields. He now prefers to make electric bikes which he improves with each design.
Neighbours bring their broken electrical goods for him to fix so he will never be out of work, although he says he is a lousy businessman and won’t take much money for his time and effort.
Betsy Field, 82
Betsy has finally realised her childhood dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer.
“I always wanted to be a dancer but wasn’t allowed to,” she says.
Her work as a pharmacist and a mother raising four children took over her life and there was little time for performing until she got older.
“Now I’ve danced solo on the stage at Sadler’s Wells, performed with contemporary dance companies, and danced with Akram Khan at the Royal Festival Hall. My mum saw me finally realise my dream before she died and she was so happy for me.”
Aged 82, she is still dancing ballet and jazz every week and is a member of the Company of Elders.
“It means so much to people,” she says. “It’s the community, the companionship, doing something artistic and healthy. It’s exhilarating and uplifting and the basic art form which has been taken up by all cultures over time.”
Maria Fernanda Latif, 85
Maria left Portugal aged 17 to become a dressmaker in the UK and is still making bold and wonderful creations like jewellery, clothes, bags and sculptures. Most of them are made from pieces she picks up in charity shops.
Her mobile home on an estate in Surrey is an artwork itself, full of esoteric creations which reflect something of the vibrancy of her personality.
She says she can become a bit obsessed about making things, but it’s good to have a hobby and not to do the same things as everybody else.
“I do not shut my mind off. I’m older but I’m still learning every day,” she says.
In recent times she has fought breast cancer, but tries not to let it define her, and now, more than ever, lives her life to the full.
Sudarshan Kapur, 81
Sudarshan has been teaching yoga for 16 years and now runs up to six classes a week. Originally from Delhi, she has lived in London for more than 50 years working as a doctor.
At first, she didn’t believe in the benefits of yoga. However, now she finds that her medical background complements her yoga teaching, with her in-depth understanding of how the body works.
Being able to pass on her knowledge to other people makes her happy, and she teaches yoga to marginalised and vulnerable women.
Sudarshan wants her classes to be accessible and says: “In the yoga classes we celebrate the religious days of every faith.”
Her way of life is reflected through her calm and knowing smile as she explains: “We are one. We are all one.”
Jonathan Griffith, 83
Jonathan is a painter, a writer, and a poet with cerebral palsy.
On leaving school, he got a job in a commercial art studio but he couldn’t do the work fast enough so he had to try something else, eventually becoming a cashier in his father’s shop.
Jonathan has always been determined to remain independent and got himself a single-seater electric car, went to evening classes at the College of Art and moved into his first bedsit aged 33.
Doctors told him recently, as his physical health deteriorated, that he would no longer be able to use his arms.
But, with the help of his dedicated carer, Marie, he has proved them wrong. The art he produces is still captivating. He has adapted to using his shoulder and arms to guide his tools rather than his wrists.
He says: “Sharing all we can, while we can, is so valuable. It makes us truly human.”
Dennis Cross, 83
As a wartime city-dwelling Londoner, Dennis had never heard of surfing in the early 1960s, but 10 years later, not only was he an experienced surfer, he had invented the Gul wetsuit to combat the Atlantic Ocean’s cold water.
At the age 83 he is still surfing, hand boarding and roller-skiing.
Dennis is propelled by his desire to have fun and bring others along for the ride. He recently bought a number of grass skis and started a local grass skiing club.
Still really fit and healthy he simply adapts to the physical aspects of ageing. Since his eyesight has begun to deteriorate he has stopped his regular skiing seasons in the Alps, and taken to cross-country skiing in Lapland.
When he was told he could no longer drive, he built a trailer for his bike and cycles for miles taking his boards and equipment wherever he likes.
Known and loved by everyone on the Cornwall scene, he has been called one of the unsung heroes of surfing.
Irene Hancock, 89
Between 1961 and 1986, Irene Hancock fostered 256 young children.
As a single mother with little money, things were not easy.
When she began fostering, she had no hot running water and an outdoor toilet. On bath night she started with the cleanest child first, then when they were all clean she washed the nappies in the water. She then dragged the bath to the back door to clean the yard with the remaining water.
She recalls being spat at in the street when she was carrying one of her children, a young black boy.
Another time she had three little ones in a pram, each looking very different. Two women stared and whispered loudly: “I suppose one must look like its daddy.”
Irene has a wicked sense of humour, a way with words, and an empathy and way of connecting with people. It is abundantly clear that she cared deeply for each child and felt pain and sadness when having to say goodbye to them.
At times she was looking after as many as five children together, so siblings would not be separated. She’s not in touch with most of them now but keeps a book with all their names and details.
All photographs copyright Laura Page. You can see more of her work on her website.