Capturing the unique life stories of Sandringham Gardens residents
What do these personalities have in common? They are just some of the remarkable individuals Harry Mirels has discovered at perhaps the least-expected location: Sandringham Gardens.
Far from being just elderly pensioners, the residents of any old age home all have unique stories to tell. It is for this reason that Mirels set out to record as many of these accounts as he could in 2014. He planned to write a book about the residents’ lives before they took up residence at Sandringham Gardens.
“A close friend of mine was admitted to the home a few years ago,” he says. “Whenever I visited him, I saw so many people there, each of whom possessed a unique story which so few people knew about.
“Many people don’t take much interest in the elderly or their past, although many of them have lived fascinating lives. There’s more to them than we see at first glance. These are not just old people, but unique personalities with stories to tell. I felt that I had a responsibility to share these unique stories with the community before they were lost.”
After working for years as a refrigerator technician and subsequently an appliance retailer, Mirels is today a semi-retired manufacturer of specialised steel kitchen units. Although he is 85 years old himself, Mirels applied himself with vigour to his book-writing mission, determined to set aside the necessary time to gather his information.
“Although I am older than most of the people I’ve interviewed, I don’t see myself as old,” he laughs. “Whenever I spoke to someone about their story, I could relate to it as an older person, but felt as fascinated as a youngster would be in my position. My view of myself enabled me to learn so much.”
After making enquiries about which residents were suitable and willing to share their life stories, Mirels began conducting interviews in November 2014. While not every story fitted in with the book he envisioned, the accounts he heard were frequently nothing short of extraordinary.
“Some of them achieved remarkable things in their lives,” he says. “Others lived seemingly ordinary lives, but struggled against the most challenging circumstances. No matter who they were or what they had done, each of them was unique.”
Among them is David Friedlander, who volunteered to serve as a paratrooper in the Israeli army in 1959. “David also had a prolific career as a singer,” says Mirels. “He made a name for himself in entertainment. He toured extensively, composed his own songs, gave concerts in England, and even appeared on television.” Today 77, Friedlander continues to perform at Sandringham Gardens, singing at concerts for residents and visitors.
Equally unusual is thrill-seeker Evelyn Sarrat-Rosenbaum, who spent many years flying, steering yachts, and even skin diving with Zambezi sharks. Says Mirels, “She took an interest in planes at a young age, and attended flying lessons in secret because her parents would never have allowed it. In spite of heavy cloud cover, she once landed her plane after a near miss with a mountain. She was so talented, she was asked to fly commercially, but she turned down the offer.” An equally adept swimmer, she is certainly not your typical personality.
Mirels engaged with several other unique personalities over his four years of research. Whether they had survived abuse, achieved local renown, or established careers of note, they were all people worth celebrating. “Just because they’ve retired doesn’t mean that they’re lost to the world,” he says. “We’re failing to ask them what they did with their lives because we mistakenly think that they’re outdated and irrelevant. They have life experiences from which anyone can benefit and anyone can relate to.
“Perhaps we are afraid to engage with them because we are scared of ageing and becoming like them. However, if we interact with them, we can give additional levels of meaning to our own lives now and in the future. Whether you’re young or old, you can benefit tremendously from speaking to these people.”
Although the interviews he conducted did not yield enough information for a book, Mirels maintains his belief in the project’s importance, and considers the time he devoted to it well-spent. “We’re so absorbed in our own lives that we forget that we can be enhanced by the lives of others,” he says. “If we invest our time in other people, they invest something special in us. They’ve lived through incredible things, and the least we can do is listen to them.”