CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 17 . . . . April 28, 2006
A family friend likes to banter around that great Bette Davis' quip that "Growing old ain't for sissies." Anyone who's ever doubted this would need only one viewing of House Calls to change her/his mind. This gentle 55 minute NFB production does more to illuminate much that is wrong with Canada's health care system than any number of academics could do in the same time.
The film features Dr. Mark Nowaczynkski, a Toronto doctor who realized a few years ago that he was hearing from patients about situation after situation that really upset him. He saw so many older patients suffering, unable to get into see a doctor, living like hermits in a "hidden world." These are patients who have literally "fallen through the cracks" as, without him, they would be unable to get medical care or would decline to the point where they would need much more medical care than if intervention had come sooner. These people have been doubly failed by society as they are literally without voice and tacitly told they are without value. They are cast-offs, considered past their time of usefulness or contributions.
In addition to being one of the few doctors who perform house calls, "Dr. Mark" began taking black and white photographs to document the lives of his patients. As Dr. Mark says, with no voice you don't exist. By taking photographs, he hopes "to open doors, to open eyes and hopefully to open people's hearts" to the plight of the elderly.
With each of the three patients that the film shows us, it is the quiet dignity with which they live and survive that comes through so loudly. There is Connie, 93 and partially blind, who longs to go back to her "boyfriend," her cat Oscar. A nursing facility that does not allow Oscar would make her life not worth living.
Joe, 86, whose arthritis has resulted in "cowboy legs," finds that his legs are now so bowed that getting on a streetcar or bus is now impossible. On medication for Parkinson's, arthritis and heart medication, Joe used to see a doctor at a walk-in clinic for thirty seconds at a time before he came to Dr. Mark's attention. Now Dr. Mark comes to Joe's home and photographs him looking defiant and strong, standing tall in his kitchen. As the camera watches him make his slow way to the door to let in Dr. Mark, he mutters, with characteristic lack of sentimentality, that they should "chop the fucking legs off." Though it might make him more mobile, Joe is reluctant to accept an electric scooter, and Dr. Mark speculates that riding a scooter would involve baring his vulnerability in a way that Joe is unable to or chooses not to do.
Ria, at 90, has been a patient of Dr. Mark for 20 years and has just accepted his offer to have him come to her house. For her, it was a point of pride that she was able to come to his office. She protests often that she "does not want a fuss made of " her. One of the most poignant moments in the film is watching Ria struggle slowly upstairs using her hands and knees. She is very proud. In her opinion, being in pain is no reason to show what she deems to be a "bitchy face."
For all of these patients, home care is not only more humane, as Dr. Mark points out, but it makes good fiscal sense, as medical intervention later can be much more costly.
In its quiet way, House Calls makes the point that these people are not extraordinary. They are simply people who used to be soldiers or singers, husbands and wives, who have done nothing but grow old. As Dr. Mark says, "This is your aunt, your grandmother. Someday this will be you and I."
Through the photographs, Dr. Mark gives these people back the one thing that the system threatens to take from them completely -- their dignity. It is one thing that they will not relinquish easily. Nor should they.
At the end of the film, we're left with the injustice of their situations, but we're also left with their portraits in our minds: the strength of Ria, the bewilderment of Connie, and the determination of Joe.
As the film opens, Connie protests, "Who in the world would want to see a bunch of pictures of me? Junk." Many should want to see these pictures, and I hope that many do.
House Calls is a poignant look at the fate of the elderly and one man who is trying in his own way to make things better. The movie never gets preachy or sentimental. It simply tells the story of these three brave souls and their doctor. It is not a loud political movement, but it is all the more effective for being so quiet.
Liz Greenaway is a former bookseller who lives and works in Edmonton, AB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.