How India's 'Real Marigold Hotel' changed my life

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Sheila Ferguson

Sheila Ferguson made her name singing in The Three Degrees in the 60s and 70s. She's one of eight famous people who went to Kerala to film the TV programme The Real Marigold Hotel, which is designed to make people think about growing old in India. She says the experience completely changed her life.

I went to India as a sceptic. I'd never been there before. I did some research, saw that they've got arranged marriages, they've got snakes, they've got mosquitoes and I thought, "What the hell do I want to go to India for?"

But I believe in the philosophy that you should try everything once, to see if you like it. So I found myself in Kerala riding sleeper trains - which I will never do again as long as I live - and living in a communal home with seven other OAPs. I got more than I bargained for.

The first thing that struck me was how busy it was. The city was crowded and smelly but there wasn't as much poverty as I expected from watching the film Gandhi! It turns out that there's a good quality of life in Kerala. When we first got there I was behaving like the problem child, I was a real handful. I even asked Bill to swap rooms and he was gentleman enough to agree.

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Image caption,
The Three Degrees in 1974 - Sheila Ferguson with Valerie Holiday and Fayette Pinkney

But that didn't last too long. I met some fascinating people and got some valuable perspective on my life back home. India entirely changed my attitude towards my life.

Until I went to India I never realised that I was lonely. I thought I was just fine. But living with seven other people communally in India held a magnifying glass to how solitary my life actually is.

In some respects, I've not had human contact for years. It's really the emotional and mental stimulation of talking to other people that I'm missing.

Image source, Sheila Ferguson
Image caption,
Sheila and Jon

I live on my own, one daughter's in Dubai, one's in England and I'm in Majorca. My partner Jon died in 2010 and it's time I got the hell out of here!

My social life really dips in the winter because everybody hibernates. My cleaner comes to my house on Thursdays but other than that, I could go all week without seeing another soul.

I could fall down on the steps in my house, or in the swimming pool and nobody would know for a week. I think my family are concerned about me living alone, but I never thought of it until now. Now I understand their worry.

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Image caption,
Residents of The Real Marigold Hotel: Amanda Barrie, Paul Nicholas, Bill Oddie, Lionel Blair, Dr Miriam Stoppard, Dennis Taylor, Rustie Lee and Sheila Ferguson

In The Real Marigold Hotel, eight celebrities visit India to see how retiring there would differ from growing old in the UK.

You can watch the programme on BBC One at 21:00 on Wednesday 8 March or catch up later online.

In India, at the dinner table the seven of us would be talking, Bill Oddie telling us about his grandchildren, Paul Nicholas showing pictures of his daughters and his wife. I would be thinking, "They all have families to go back to and I'm going back to an empty house." That's when it really sank in. If I'm not careful I will end up sitting alone, at the head of my 14-seater dining table in a wedding dress, like Miss Havisham.

When my daughter, Alex, came out to visit me in India from her home in Dubai I realised just how much I missed my family. I want to see them more and now, thanks to my time in India, I am ready to find a new love.

I hadn't been on a date since Jon died so I was shocked to be asked out by a gentleman at a drinks party in Kerala. Usually I'm the one asking a guy out, so when he just came out with it at first I thought it was a joke, I thought that the crew had put him up to it! He was very upfront, no nonsense. It's been so long since anyone has said things like that to me, it was really lovely.

Media caption,

Watch Sheila's date

Since then I have been on another date in England. I think once you open up inside, your aura looks different to other people, so it may be that I was blocking myself off before.

I have been threatening to move back to England for the past four years. Soon after Jon died, I realised I didn't suit living alone but I didn't do anything about it. I kept putting it off, procrastinating. Probably because I wanted to stay here in Majorca in memory of the life I had built with him.

I threw myself into work. But this year, because of my trip to India, I am putting my house on the market so that I can move back to England in the spring. My two daughters grew up in Berkshire and I love it there. I'm really looking forward to being near my friends and family again.

Image source, Sheila Ferguson
Image caption,
Sheila's home in Majorca

In India, families are a close-knit unit, they do not disown their elders as we do in Western culture. They take responsibility and take care of one another. India has also helped me to become more understanding and patient with my mother, who turns 95 this year.

It calmed me down too. I've always been hyperactive and my work requires constant energy and enthusiasm - live now, sleep later. Being in a more spiritual place, where I had to give up control to others, helped my mind to open and to realise that the small things don't matter so much.

I found that when I was rehearsing a panto in Ipswich everything was going awry, everything was late, it was a tech rehearsal, we opened the next day and everything was a mess. I just sat there and looked and said, "Well OK they'll get it together. I know my lines." And I just calmly went back to my dressing room. Any time before India I would have thrown a fit and I'm known for it.

The Marigold Hotel changed me and I've carried that lesson into my everyday life.

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