Vivacious, witty, Dorothy Tutin was one of our greatest actresses… but when she was dying in hospital she was treated like a caged animal
My mother Dame Dorothy Tutin was an actress whose charm and intelligence made her one of theatre’s most accomplished leading ladies. All her life, she was appalled by the thought that one day old age, infirmity or sickness might make her a burden on others.
Like many of her generation she did not like to make a fuss. Quiet fortitude was her style. So during her final illness she did not protest when she was treated with a level of dismissive contempt that amounted to cruelty.
When she was quarantined in a bleak and windowless hospital room, Mama — who had been diagnosed with terminal leukaemia — was accorded neither compassion nor care.
Dark-eyed beauty: Dorothy Tutin starring in A Tale Of Two Cities in 1958. Her mistreatment during her final days has spurred her daughter to campaign for better elderly treatment
Those who were supposed to look after her were thoughtless and perfunctory. When she was given medicines nobody troubled to explain what they were or why they had been prescribed. Her meals were dispensed brusquely and wordlessly.
The nurses who bathed her did not pause to consider the intimacy or delicacy of their task. They jostled and prodded her as if she were inanimate. Most insultingly of all, they talked over her rather than to her, discussing their domestic lives and their love affairs in indelicate detail. My mother was alert and articulate. Yet no one bothered to ask her name, much less address her by it.
Sadly, Mama’s story is one that will strike a chord with countless families today. She was 70 when she was admitted to an NHS hospital in 1999 for a course of chemotherapy. She stayed just ten days, marooned in the silent island of that airless room — bereft of conversation; her concerns and fears unacknowledged — before I removed her.
In that short time she aged and diminished visibly. The weight fell off her and the light went out of her eyes. She had been ignored and humiliated. ‘I feel like a caged animal,’ she told me timorously, fearful that a nurse would overhear her complaint and treat her with even frostier disdain.
Even though it is now 11 years since Mama died, not a day goes by when I do not miss her. I thought of her earlier this week when this newspaper disclosed the shaming news that one consultant took a ‘veterinary approach’ to caring for those with dementia, not treating them in the same way as those he could speak to, while another confessed that he had never been trained in their care.
I believe it is time to issue a reminder that our elderly deserve so much better.
As the Daily Mail acknowledges in its Dignity for the Elderly campaign, our elders deserve compassionate care. Yet all too often they are treated with a shocking negligence that borders on brutality.
The short spell my Mama spent in that hospital has shaped the path of my life since. For the treatment she and the other elderly patients around her endured inspired me to campaign for change; not just in the way we treat our elderly, but also in the value we place on those who undertake the vital — and I would say sacred — task of looking after them.
For our elders are repositories of wisdom and experience. All our futures are bound up in their pasts, and if we fail to acknowledge this our own lives will be the poorer.
After my mother died in 2001 — a year and a half after doctors told her she had only three months to live — I made a film, What Do You See, in which Mama’s great friend, the actress Virginia McKenna, plays a stroke victim.
Treasure: Miss Tutin after being invested as a Dame Commander in 2000, a year before her death
The inspiration for the film, which I funded by selling my flat, was a poem by the nurse Phyllis McCormack, who worked with the elderly. Phyllis knew that in every elderly woman there lurks ‘a young girl of 16 with wings on her feet’; that in frail bodies there still reside hopes and dreams.
Her poem is a plea for compassion, kindness and empathy, and my film extends that appeal. As Virginia’s character implores: ‘Look closer, see me.’ The film is now used to train carers and to encourage them to see the person inside, regardless of age or disability. I have since made three other films and my forthcoming book, The Heart Of Care, is a distillation of all my experiences — from how to create compassionate care homes to coping with dementia.
My campaigning continues alongside my work as an actress, writer and film-maker, and I am pleased to say that the Royal College of Nursing has now accredited my dementia training packs. I do all this work in honour of my beloved Mama, so others will be treated with respect, because memories of her short time in that hospital still haunt me.
A careless disregard for the patients prevailed at all levels. There was no concern for their privacy, even during the most personal and momentous of exchanges.
I heard a doctor tell a terminally-ill patient in a nearby bed that he had only weeks to live. He issued the news abruptly and left immediately.
The elderly man started to sob. I went to console him and when he told me his fears were not for himself, but for his elderly disabled wife who would have nobody to care for her when he died, I felt so desperately sad I gave him my phone number. I could not leave him cut adrift and comfortless.
I realise doctors must preserve a degree of professional detachment, but I do not understand how a dying man could have been left so isolated in his grief. There are so many ways of demonstrating sympathy and understanding.
The key, I believe, to proper care is to treat everyone as individuals. Each person has different preferences — and this must be acknowledged, no matter how frail they may be in body.
The key, I believe, to proper care is
to treat everyone as individuals. Each person has different preferences —
and this must be acknowledged, no matter how frail they may be in body
To some, a proffered hand may be intrusive; to others it may demonstrate connection, communication; a reciprocity of feelings.
But the important thing is to ask, not to assume. Dignity, of course, is at the heart of it all, which is why I applaud the Daily Mail’s campaign and why I am a member of the National Dignity Council.
When I realised the effect that the lack of compassionate care was having on my mother in 1999, I remember driving to her GP’s home and insisting she be moved to a different hospital. Her doctor was leaving to play golf as I arrived.
But I would not let him leave.
I jammed the door open with my foot and said I would not go until he had promised she would be moved.
On the day when I smuggled Mama out of hospital — and it was a furtive exit because she was worried about creating a stir — she burst into tears of relief.
I took her to another hospital in Central London and the greeting was warm, kind and personal.
Mama felt instantly that she hadn’t been written off. This change in attitude seemed to fire her determination to get better. Before, she had felt it almost impertinent to fight to stay alive — but that is what happens when the elderly are treated as encumbrances.
So my dear Mama rallied, and survived for another year-and-a-half, living between my home and hospital. She lived to enjoy three wonderful events. First there was the birth of my son Ben in 2000. In the same year she went with my father, the actor Derek Waring, to Buckingham Palace where she was elevated to Dame Commander of the British Empire. She was able, too, to attend my brother Nick’s wedding.
Family values: Miss Tutin with her daughter, Amanda Waring, photographed at home in Fittleworth, West Sussex
Would she have enjoyed those three memorable days if she had been left to languish in that hospital Somehow I doubt it, because the spirit to fight shrivels and wanes when those caring for us treat us with disdain.
Yet Mama had always been such an imposing presence. She had a husky voice, chocolate brown eyes, and such a wonderful, rich laugh it still resonates in my memory.
Her work with the Royal Shakespeare Company remains celebrated. In the Sixties she was acclaimed for a string of leading roles, from Viola in Twelfth Night to Desdemona in Othello and Varya in The Cherry Orchard.
Her distinguished career spanned five decades. There were films as well as theatre work and her TV credits include leading roles in The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Jake’s Progress and Murder With Mirrors, a film based on an Agatha Christie novel, in which she starred with Helen Hayes and Bette Davis. Dad, too, was well-known for roles in The Professionals, Z Cars, George & Mildred and The New Avengers. Little wonder my brother and I also became actors.
Mama was a glorious presence on the stage, and the theatre was her life blood, but as a child I remembered her best for her role as Peter Pan. I was six when I saw her, airborne on invisible wires, and for a while I believed she possessed magical powers.
Certainly life with her was full of adventures. I remember a holiday on the Isle of Arran when we were lost in the mist and helicopters were sent to search of us.
In Greece we were stranded in a ravine but Mama never instilled fear. ‘You’re braver than you think,’ she used to tell us. Which is why I hated to see her so tremulous with fear when she was first diagnosed with leukaemia. The whole family — Mama, Dad, Nick and I — had been in the Bahamas doing a show when she collapsed.
The blood tests she underwent when she came back home disclosed that she had leukaemia. The doctor who broke the news was brutal. ‘You have three months to live,’ she was informed — and the abrasiveness of the communication scarred her.
After that, every time she saw a doctor she would physically shake.
Stage presence: Dame Dorothy as Portia and Paul Hardwick as Morocco in The Merchant Of Venice
But mercifully, her death was a good one. She passed away in the Macmillan Unit of the matchless King Edward VII Hospital in Midhurst, West Sussex, in a room with beautiful views of the garden.
Her nurses comforted her and I was privileged to be with her at the end. We talked about her passing — I believe we should all have space, as our lives ebb away, to discuss the mystery of death — and she told me she hoped to come back as a butterfly.
It was a solace for me to think of her shrugging off the burden of her illness and fluttering weightless among the flowers, as vibrant and gorgeous as she was when she was young. And actually, I think Mama has since sent signs to comfort me.
On the day of her cremation I could not bear to think that her body would burn into ashes but, as the curtains closed on her coffin, a bright Red Admiral butterfly fluttered in on a shaft of sunlight: Mama, I believe, was sending a message of solace.
Whenever I see a butterfly now I think she is near and it gives me strength and courage.
I feel privileged to work, in her name, on behalf of the elderly.
They are our history-keepers and we must honour them, for unless we acknowledge our past, our lives will be infinitely poorer.
Information on Amanda’s campaigning work is available on www.amandawaring.com.