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Stir a Cuppa with Seniors June 15 PM

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day Melbourne Bowling Club Flagstaff Gardens.

In Praise of Ageing 10 years on Patricia Edgar

I have been invited to speak to you about my experience of ageing, and how I see life at 86 compared with when I published In Praise of Ageing ten years ago.

I had never thought of myself as old, but at 71, I wondered why some people lived an active long life while others, gave up, opted out and sometimes lived lonely, miserably, and died at a younger age. Was it simply health/genes that determined how long we live? Was it luck? Was it economics? Or was there a pattern that could be followed so that many more people could live productively into their advancing years?

Lesley Falloon, 15 years older than me, was my catalyst. At a function, I had to sit down after 5 minutes, because my hip was troubling me, but Lesley stood for an hour. I couldn't take my eyes off her. She looked bright, and lovely at 90. She was the reason I wrote In Praise of Ageing.

I interviewed Lesley along with other 90-year-olds. I read the research on longevity and learned such people have much they can teach us. It's an old story really.

Two mice fell into a bucket of cream. One mouse panicked, despaired, and promptly drowned. The other paddled like mad and eventually turned the cream into butter and scuttled onwards.

There is strong evidence, that our attitude to life influences our longevity, not only how long we live but the extent to which we enjoy life. There have always been old people. The difference now is that more people are living much longer.

The old I wrote about, shared several characteristics. They are not just privileged people. They have had their share of struggle. Most have physical issues which they manage. Over the years they have reinvented themselves as circumstances changed, and they show resilience in dealing with hardship. They have been risk-takers.

A certain amount of good luck is involved in growing old without accident or disease, or social catastrophe, but some aspects of successful ageing are negotiable.

Perseverance and self-motivation are important traits. Successful long livers enjoy the company of others of all ages. They are community minded and are interested in current affairs. They manage their routines independently and although lonely from time to time, they act and are not isolated. They are not consumed by regrets and throughout their lives they have felt loved and worthwhile. These are role models for life in the prime of old age.

When In Praise of Ageing was published in 2013, I was 76. I thought - I can live like that.

I believed then, we were on the way to reducing ageism, changing attitudes to older people, recognizing that middle age was 50-60 not 40-50. The language used in talking about ageing was changing. New ideas were out there.

Today 10 years on I am not so sanguine about ageing. It is not simply because I have got older and creakier and crankier. It is also because society has changed fundamentally. Three seismic events have occurred. They are interconnected and together have fractured society as we knew it a decade ago.

So, what has happened?

The media revolution took off in 2014. The internet met the smart phone and social media flourished, yielding many positive benefits but with a very dark side. Trump got elected in the US in 2016, an event which had consequences for democracy - which has fragmented globally, and extreme activism has become part of political and social life.

COVID hit in 2020 accelerating the impact of both the media and political revolutions.

Life went south for everyone. Wokeism spread like a cancer.

First to COVID

It would be hard to overestimate the damage done by the pandemic universally, to all age groups at different stages of life, but especially to community attitudes towards ageing and older people.

The aged became 'the other'. The vaccine wars began, and families and the community were split asunder.

Those over 60 were identified, medically, as the most vulnerable group, at risk from COVID. The fear of god was focused upon us. We had to isolate and soon many of us were in lockdown. We feared going out, and our families feared infecting us. Food was left on the doorstep. People couldn't go to work and social activity ceased - the very thing that was essential to keeping older people going - social engagement and family contact - was curtailed or taken away. We touched no one. People stepped aside and looked away. We sat alone or with a partner day after day telling one another the same stories we had already told over and over.

The media belted out the news of the day - and the numbers. It was like the body count during the Vietnam war. Fears of this new virus were whipped up, not helped by the fact that government did not know what it was doing.

The weaknesses in the overwhelmed health system, the festering broken system of age care, society's inability to cope with an emergency were exposed. Horror stories about unimagined negligence and cruelty were presented to the Royal Commission stemming from the tragic effects of neglect. Elder abuse was rampant, largely financial, and generally carried out by a son or daughter.

The pandemic led to discussions about the value of a life. The QUALY or Quality Adjusted Life Years. A young person is assumed to have many more QUALYS left in them than an older person, so the option of leaving older people to die, was discussed openly. If you were over 80, your priority for an ambulance or treatment in a hospital was greatly reduced.

Don and I were about to discover what that meant. The pandemic emerged in January 2020. We moved to Anglesea for lockdown. On April 30 Don had a stroke. A neighbour, a paramedic called the ambulance, Don was taken to the Geelong Hospital and a stroke was confirmed.

Next day I was given the run-around. They didn't know if he could be sent back to Melbourne for rehab. They had never done that. He was 83. There may be no room. Eventually, through a contact, and with luck I got him to Epworth Melbourne by ambulance on May 7 our 60th wedding anniversary. He made a steady recovery.

For the first time I felt really, old.

But I began to realise as I spoke to friends and looked around me, I was certainly not alone in this. Peers were struggling with their advancing years, their physical and family problems, and their isolation. But also, attitudes had changed, resources were more limited, we knew we were not a priority, and it became more difficult to navigate life.

Which brings me to wokeism - a curious term. What does it mean? And how does this movement impact on old age? What we call 'Identity' politics flourished during COVID, and the profile of the Alt- Right grew. Initially it was an online phenomenon that fertilised in the US under Trump and strengthened alongside the Black Lives Matter movement that exploded when George Floyd, a black man, was choked to death by police in public view on the street in Minneapolis.

Back in the 1930's woke was a term for black political consciousness. But it has evolved, in recent years, throughout the West, to encompass gender and sexual identity in all its forms, along with other progressive social causes driven by the activist young.

The issue of 'identity' came to the fore - around 2014-16 - particularly on a site called Tumblr, where those who gathered could 'identify' as they wished, as cats or wolves even, or any variation of gender they could conjure up. Such ideas festered and multiplied and led to the assertion that we could be what we said we felt we were. If a man said he identified as a woman, he was so. Identifying was enough.

This led to a virulent attack on JK Rowling in the UK, when the famous author Tweeted, basically saying, 'Dress and look as you wish, but sexual identity is a biological given. A woman is born as a woman'. There had been a surge in children transforming in the UK, which concerned her. Listen to the Podcast the Witch Trials of JK Rowling for 7 hours of most illuminating discussion.

While not the original intention, the woke movement has also led to the condemnation of dead old white men - their writings, their history, their art, and achievements - which are condemned as racist, colonialist, patriarchal, misogynistic, and irrelevant to life today. So, they are cancelled.

Old women, of course go down with the men, as we aren't regarded as having any history or achievements anyway. We were their silent partners. Old people of colour go down too.

As one commentator puts it, we older people are - 'one privileged, environment destroying, wealth and property hugging mass, undifferentiated by race, sex or class'. (Victoria Smith, Hags. The demonisation of middle-aged women, 2023.)

This broader woke agenda is insidiously ageist. No one talks about ageism as a by-product, and one of my socially aware grandkids, thinks I have this all wrong. I don't think so, but I do think we are going through a stage and there will be a backlash.

Meanwhile ageing is baggage.

As statues are toppled, we old codgers are expected to stand aside, conceding that our time to contribute, particularly to contribute to political thought, has gone. We are on the wrong side of history.

And with that assertion and belief, the woke dismiss any possibility of a fuller understanding of humanity, of societal change, and of ageing - of us. The belief that younger equals more enlightened, more instinctively 'just', means the end of discussion of why views differ between generations. It suggests the young, are simply born enlightened and we older ones - particularly white ones - are irreparably damaged goods. Wisdom or experience are irrelevant.

Recently someone I once worked with, told me what I thought was an interesting story in this context.

My friend works for a prominent woman of colour who has a lot to say on the media about the endemic racism among white Australians and the damage that results. Yet in a selection committee within her organisation, she instructed the panel saying, 'You don't need to interview those two. They are over 50.'

Across a decade the changes since I wrote, In Praise of Ageing, have been breathtakingly rapid.

On our 63rd anniversary in May this year our daughter was able to read us song lyrics written by The A.I. App. CHAT GPT after she fed in information about Don and me and highlights from our 63 years of marriage. A clever poem/song was written in no time.

You can ask A.I. any question. It can capture voices and imagery and shape them at will. We have no idea what the outcome of this exploding tech boom will bring, but our generation has certainly been left behind. And we will fall further and further behind, because there is no plan to help us join in.

COVID super-charged technology and its use, as we had to work online, learn online, play and communicate online, get food online, talk to the Doctor online. There was no point in telling kids they were spending too much time online. That was their life. Every social exchange was online. All major companies now troubleshoot online. You can reach no one unless you are technically proficient.

To manipulate the gadgetry, even if the brain understands, requires dexterity we just don't have, especially with arthritis. Soon technology will be mostly voice activated. A further problem if you have a voice like mine. I curse Steve Jobs and his all too clever designs every time I pick up the Apple TV remote and drop it. With the new Foxtel remote I feel I'm at the controls of a jumbo.

Banking. Cheques are being phased out for mobile wallets. Good luck managing those. Paying a raft of bills online, means pressing multiple buttons, desperate to reach a voice on the other end, even when they are speaking with accents impossible to understand. Trying to get service from Telstra, NBN, Insurance Companies, RACV, the State Revenue Office - to name just a few I have had to try recently - is a nightmare. You spend hours in the phone queue and when you get through you have likely reached the wrong person, so they tell you they will connect you elsewhere, and then you get cut off.

The telephone was once a lifeline for older people to have company, speak to friends and counter loneliness. Now we approach it cautiously. We have frequent calls from scammers. The taxation department or the police are after us. Our computer has a glitch, they say they can fix with a click. Your son needs money. With A.I. they have the ability to capture your son's voice to ask you for the money he purportedly needs, with reasons why. It will be very persuasive. This is not science fiction.

If you want to watch some television to help relaxation and relieve boredom watch out for the Smart TVs. And label your remotes so you are not trying to turn on the TV with your split system remote. And put them in the same place each time you put them down.

The television and radio programs you used to enjoy are disappearing, as even the ABC now, is attempting to target younger consumers 25-50 as they go digital. We, the over 55s - who have been the ABC's mature loyal followers - are not regarded as an audience of value in the ratings. It is a rare program that has us as a target, although we are the fastest growing group of people in Australia and by 2030 25% will be over 65. We already equal the number of those under 15 years.

But when we do make the news, it is as victims of abuse and neglect or as privileged Boomers. There we are caught in a Catch 22 simply because the media are after a clickbait headline.

We are selfish if we are living alone in a large family home where we have lived for decades, taking up space the young deserve. Move on they say. When we do downsize, paying cash for a smaller home with no interest, we are benefitting from inflated house prices.

Either way somehow, we are advantaged, exploiting a generational divide.

So where to from here?

We are the fastest growing majority group in our country, yet the minority groups get centre stage, and we are the most neglected. However, no matter their race, gender, disability, politics left or right, circumstances poor or privileged, everyone, in each of those groups, will get to be where we are now.

So, some of their attention might more profitably be focused on their future.

Old Age is a gift. We have been given 30 more years across a century, than our predecessors. Largely due to miraculous, and ever more innovative medical technology and pharmaceuticals.

We are not old at 55. We are not old at 65. We can be expected to live to 100. 60 is the new 50. At that age most people want to work, to contribute, to participate, to engage with others and be able to access their needs, simply. The structure of the workforce has been too slow to change, but this group is now needed in the workforce. So economic need could drive attitude change for this set.

But what of the rest of us? While medical science has kept us alive, no one has given attention to what we should be doing with those years. The government seems to think that by attempting to address the appalling situation in aged care they are dealing with the major issue facing older people.

But they are not. Only 4% of those of us over 65 are in aged care, with numbers dropping. We now know better. Anything but! Our issues are many and diverse.

Ageing generally has been commodified.

The years between work and aged care have been left to the market. Aging is now a for profit business.

While the market has been selling youth for decades, now they are also selling lifestyle for elders, travel, cruises, cocktails, and sunsets. Financial advice, insurance, retirement villages. Pickle Ball. Some of us have chosen to live in village communities and may be content there; but they are ghettos for the aged. Out of sight out of mind.

Most of us still want to age at home, with purpose. We might need only minimal help to do this, but that is so difficult to come by. Government policies ensure every possible obstacle is placed in our way. Consider the fact that no one who decides age policies is actually old. Every other policy area does have experienced practitioners on staff, not so with ageing.

While life continues to offer opportunities and enjoyment, the reality is, physically we are slower and weaker, and our bodies and our homes need maintenance and help.

We want to live in age friendly communities, but they are becoming increasingly alienating for older people.

We do know exercise is important. Going for a walk in Fitzroy, where we live, means literally taking your life in your hands. We face the collective obstacles of sunken footpaths. Telstra or the NBN, or water or power companies, rip up the roads and the paths frequently and put things back together at different levels. Our 89-year-old neighbour fell flat on her face, tripping over and breaking her nose, although she is a regular walker and knows the territory. Taking care means when you get back home after a walk, all you will have seen is the footpath.

Roads, originally built to carry trams and horses and buggies, now, carry trams, cars - driven and parked - bikes which assume right of way, and now motorised scooters. They zoom by, along with skateboards, pedestrians, and dogs.

The mix is dangerous.

You go to a park, where there can be more dogs than people. Where we go, owners call out to Whisky or Rufus and the dog will invariably go in the opposite direction. Good boy, the owner yells. The dog runs up and jumps on you. One brave friend intervened to restrain a dog which was attacking a woman. She ended up in hospital and the dog had cardiac arrest. When the police arrived, they gave the dog CPR. True story.

Of course, we get sick.

Different parts of the body go wrong and lose function. But Dr X only deals with one bit of us and seems to know nothing about all the other bits. So, we end up with an array of doctors for our complaints. We hope for a GP who will listen and give the time needed to get to what is really bothering us. But the system is not geared for such service. Fifteen-minute appointments and one ailment at a time is the approach.

It's clear that what needs to be done for our ageing well-being is going to take some time. And in this elder revolution every one of us has something to offer. We don't turn into a witless mass of flesh and bone. And we won't go quietly into that goodnight.

So, we are pioneers. We are the first generation on the planet to live long lives, in large numbers. And we have been left to find our way. To adapt as best we can. To struggle on. To search out those who can share and assist us as we go. But like it or not, we are the change agents.

The main thing each of us can do is speak up.

Most of us are not going out in the streets with placards. But at the very least when you are ignored at the counter in a store say, 'I am next'.

And when you are called love, dear and darling, as I was by a surgeon recently, say, 'I have a name'.

If COTA invite me back in ten years' time, to speak about how aging looks in 2033, I am hopeful there will be a different story to tell.

Among us - the Elderhood of today - there are vigorous, well resourced, literate, time rich, educated, and enfranchised grown-ups with money and structural power. Through their decisions they can threaten banks, affect share-holder value and they understand politics. Elders today are as angry and disillusioned as the young, fed up with corruption, corporate greed, and inert, incompetent politicians. And it seems elders are stirring.

Internationally there is evidence of a politically engaged Elderhood developing, 'as wise and experienced minds contemplate the catastrophic mix of climate extinction, toxic pollution, militarisation, resource scarcity, society-wide surveillance and resurgent authoritarianism in place of democracy.' Julian Cribb, Look out! Here Come the Elders, Pearls and Irritations, June 12, 2023)

Groups are forming - Knitting nannas, Raging Grannies, The Third Act - They're assessing what a corporate world has bequeathed us all. They have their grand-children's backs, despite what the media tells us about intergenerational conflict. Many of the leaders in the Elderhood groups are woman and mothers.

Together with the young we could reshape and bring hope for the future.

For now, keep your friendships active, that is essential. Take part in whatever you can.

And laugh. Laughter is the greatest therapy there is. Find someone else who thinks our way of life is as funny as it is, dark but funny.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, 'In the end, it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years.'

And if you are a Barry Humphries fan, as one letter in The Age read. Dame Edna might say, 'Just remember, possums, at this age death can be such a good career move.'