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Professor and his patients 'star' in film

November 13, 2006

Source: University of Toronto

House Calls wins GeminiNov 13/06by Ailsa Ferguson (about) (email)

House Calls, a National Film Board documentary "starring" Professor Mark Nowaczynski of family and community medicine and three of his elderly patients, won the Donald Brittain Award for Best Social/Political Documentary Program at 2006 Gemini Awards gala Nov. 4.

The film, directed by Ian McLeod and produced by Gerry Flahive for the NFB, follows Nowaczynski as his makes house calls to his elderly patients over the course of just over a year. Providing a glimpse into the world of the house-bound elderly, House Calls seeks to raise awareness about the needs of this hidden and neglected population and charts Nowaczynski’s quest to uphold the vanishing tradition of in-home medical care.

"We are delighted," Nowaczynski says of the film’s win. "It helps raise awareness for an issue that is kind of hidden and is not a very sexy topic so we were a bit surprised that the Geminis chose this over some films that were a little bit, well, a little bit more sexy."

The glimpses into the lives of his patients are edifying. There’s Connie, 93, who has a heart condition and lives alone. She’s devoted to her cat Oscar and calls him "my boyfriend." A pianist, she was active in the church most of her life.

At 86, Joe is tough, lively and profane but since his legs gave out, his horizon doesn’t stretch much past his front porch. Joe fought at Normandy in the Second World War, then joined the Navy in Halifax before starting up his own successful transport business.

Ria, 90, calls herself a "stubborn mule" and doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her. She still remembers her dance moves and reminisces about her life on stage in Europe as an operetta performer.

Nowaczynski, one of a small minority of doctors to make house calls, is also a talented photographer who began photographing his patients in 1998 to create a photo documentary of their lives. The evocative black and white photographs showcased in the film give a face to these hidden seniors, many of whom are not sick enough to be hospitalized or willing to move into nursing homes.

"Their faces in Nowaczynski’s photographs reflect a fragility and vulnerability but also quiet strength and courage as they struggle to live the rest of their lives with dignity," the NFB says in describing the film.

House Calls made its debut in Vancouver at a documentary film and video festival in May 2005. The exposure it has received since then couldn’t please Nowaczynski more, given his passion for home-based care of the frail elderly.

"It doesn’t take much to keep somebody living independently," he says. "Sometimes it’s just that they have trouble going out and getting groceries, they have trouble with their laundry and I think it’s really sad to see someone forced into institutional care because they can’t do laundry, light housekeeping and groceries."

Unfortunately, he says, the government is slow to accept this view; currently there are no financial incentives for physicians to make house calls.

"I have family practice residents within the U of T system of teaching hospitals who do come on house call rounds with me and it’s very difficult for me to make a business case for doing this kind of work," he says. "I can be the best role model in the world but if there’s no incentive to do this kind of work, who’s going to do it?

"So it’s really important for the Ministry of Health and the Ontario Medical Association to create the right incentives to encourage doctors to take care of frail seniors in the community. It’s significantly more cost-effective than institutional care."



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