Jun 19, 2017

“In helping the elderly, are we helping them into helplessness?”

Does how we treat our elders change the way they age? If we treat them like they are weak – does it end up making them so?

Turn Back the Clock is a four-part documentary, which premiered at the end of 2016, that challenges how people perceive older people as “fragile” and “helpless”. And more interestingly, how this impacts older people in the way they age.

Through a series of social experiments, this documentary series take a critical look at how our attitudes, expectations and environments affect the way that seniors age.

One example that is captured, is examining what happens to the mental health of a group of female nursing home residents, when for two weeks they are given control of designing their communal living space.

Which includes everything from the colour of the walls to what plants are used as indoor features.

Another question posed in the film – what is better for boosting brain-power among people in their 50s and 60s – doing Sudoku puzzles, salsa dancing, or riding on an exercise bike?


At the core of Turn Back The Clock is a rather confronting question – “in helping the elderly, are we helping them into helplessness?”

The biggest social experiment in the series is a time-travelling experiment where five participants, aged between 74 to 78, are sent to live in a retro-styled colonial bungalow for a week on their own.

Despite their existing health and mobility issues, the participants are made to fend for themselves without any help except from each other. As well as caring for themselves, they are asked to take part in physical and mental activities that push them past their pre-conceived limits.

The participants are monitored by a geriatrician, psychologist and fitness trainer. To compare results, they undergo tests of memory, emotional well-being, strength, balance and flexibility, both before and after the week-long experiment.

The producers of the series admitted that they struggled to shake off their own preconceived notions about the elderly being fragile – especially when it came to supporting the participants in the experiment.

There was one moment in the series where a older participants took a fall – and the producers questioned whether they were going too far – but then the participant bounced back quickly.

In a lesson learn in production, the producer explained, “we have to believe that they are stronger than we think they are, and sometimes it takes this kind of tough love to help them live better and stronger lives.”

The idea behind this particular social experiment is to take these participants back to their “glory days”, around the late 70’s, and see if they are able to shed a degree of helplessness they have come to expect – or better yet, reverse the ageing process over a short period of time.

One participant, who is 75 and had a mild stroke three years ago, said after the experiment, “I felt like my old self has returned. I was filled with vitality.”

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  1. I take exercise classes as a volunteer in a dementia ward at an aged care institution and I always just let the residents get the ball if they miss it and I discourage the staff who will retrieve it if I don’t stop them

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