Pop Culture Break: A Tale of Two Retirement Communities

  • Our Work
  • 05-24-19

It’s not very common to see a retirement community featured in a movie or television show, so whenever I see one, I think, “I have to write about that for the blog!”  So imagine my delight at watching the 2012 film Quartet.  The film is set in Beecham House, an independent and assisted living community for retired musicians in England.  As the residents rehearse for their annual benefit concert (like Immanuel, they fundraise to help cover their expenses), a new resident arrives.  Since this is a community for people with a history of performing on stage, much drama ensues, as you can probably imagine.

It turns out that the new arrival is opera singer Jean Horton, played by Maggie Smith.  Jean used to perform regularly with three other residents: Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), Cecily Robson (Pauline Collins), and Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly).  She also used to be married to Reginald, though only very briefly.  Most of the plot consists of Reg, Cissy, and Wilf trying to convince Jean to perform with them in the quartet from Rigoletto, which she eventually agrees to do, to great acclaim.  There’s not a lot more to be said about the plot.  Old wounds are opened and partially healed, and there’s quite a bit of discussion about what it means to get older when one is a performer.

What interested me most about the film was Beecham House as a setting, especially as compared to an American retirement community like Immanuel.  Here are some things I noticed.

Ways in which Beecham House is different from Immanuel:

  • Their singalongs are better.  Like, a lot better.  I love our residents, and I love the joy they get from music, but I’m afraid we just can’t compete with a bunch of retired musicians.
  • The residents at Beecham House are way more dramatic than Immanuel residents.  The gossip and backstabbing in that place makes Immanuel look just plain dull!  This is a good thing for us.
  • Beecham House the building appears to be a converted estate house, while Immanuel is purpose-built.  While fancy molding and turret windows are very nice, so are elevators.  Beecham House residents need a chair lift that runs the length of the staircase if they can’t or don’t want to climb.
  • Everyone at Beecham House knows each other before they move in.  Seriously.  The musical world in Britain is apparently very small.  Smaller than the Flathead Valley small.  That means the gossip that accompanies Jean’s arrival comes from people who know her.  While some Immanuel residents of course knew each other before they moved in, there’s a lot of room for most of them to become who they want to be in this phase of their lives without past baggage.

Ways in which Beecham House is similar to Immanuel:

  • New residents are of great interest to the community.  While our residents don’t necessarily have history with their new neighbors, a lot of people are always very excited to see who is moving in, what their interests are, and how they’ll fit in.
  • There are no assigned seats in the dining room… but that doesn’t mean residents don’t become somewhat territorial about “their spots.”  When one resident of Beecham House comes down to breakfast and finds someone else in his chair, he gets quite irritated.  It’s possible I’ve seen this happen here.
  • Like residents at Immanuel, residents at Beecham House continue to pursue their passions.  Of course, the Beecham House residents are all passionate about music and Immanuel residents have much more diverse passions, but the film’s portrayal of aging as a vibrant period in residents’ lives was familiar to me from people I know.
  • Residents look out for each other.  When Ollie the clarinet player has heart troubles, other residents alert staff, make sure he’s taken care of, and worry over him after he’s taken to the hospital.  Later, when Cissy falls and winds up in the community’s infirmary, Jean, Wilf, and Reg all visit her and take great care to make sure she’s all right and not lonely.  Immanuel residents also always keep an eye on each other and often visit each other in the hospital or post-surgery rehab center.  This is one of the fabulous things about living in community.

Okay, so it’s probably not fair to compare a British community for retired musicians to a Montana community for people from all walks of life.  But it’s always instructive to look at how places like this are portrayed in the media.  Overall, I think Beecham House makes communities look pretty good.  The film offers a nuanced picture of aging, and it certainly doesn’t portray it as inherently negative.

I want to note one more thing here: Underlying the plot of Quartet is the notion that if the Annual Gala is not a success, Beecham House will close.  The performance is a fundraiser, and all the residents take part not only to show off their still-strong skills but also to help their community.  Though our situation is fortunately much less critical, our residents, too, take pride in helping their community.  Some of them give of their financial resources over and above the fees they pay to live here.  Others contribute time—we are very grateful to the volunteers who help with all sorts of Foundation projects.  Most of all, they give of themselves and their myriad talents, making sure that Immanuel will remain strong.

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