There is an elderly man who walks by my front window two, sometimes three, times a day. He is tall and thin, almost bird-like, with white wispy hair poking out the sides of his top hat. He is always immaculately dressed, which I find completely endearing.
This man is a frequent browser at the bookstore behind my house. I recall, when I worked there two summers ago, the way he came in every day wearing his Sunday best, which invariably involved a polka dot bow tie. He would place his walking cane and limp briefcase down to lean against my front desk, while he browsed the new release non-fiction. He was known to pick up every title and read the blurb but never purchase anything. While he browsed, he’d fart loudly, sounds you’d think only a whoopee cushion could produce. When he finished browsing, he would always take a brochure even though we reiterated that we rotate these seasonally.
I was always grateful for his visits, as I appreciated having something to do once he left, cleaning up the untidiness in my previously immaculate displays. Moreover, I really enjoyed interacting with him. I’ve always enjoyed spending time with people more senior in age than myself. My own grandparents passed many years ago, all of whom I was very close with. I am in perpetual envy over those who still have theirs around.
Our culture encourages ambivalence and denial of natural ageing processes
Throughout the pandemic, the elderly population occupied a central place in Australian news and media. Every morning the news media outlets on my devices reiterated our culture’s fear and denial of the natural ageing process. The media emphasised the way COVID-19 was most threatening to those over the age of 70. Then, experts and politicians took to the stage to declare this virus as ‘severe’ and ‘fatal to the elderly’. This latter insight was conveyed to us encouragingly, if we fell under the ‘fatal’ cut off.
I remember the public sentiment that evolved from such polarising language, which framed our elderly population as a passive and feeble faction of society. I recall the negligent way this language further humiliated an already vulnerable group of people. It strengthened the unhelpful assumption that older adults are burdens on society’s resources and healthcare systems, and likely added to the impact of COVID-19 on stress and mental health difficulties.
When the government declares a ‘State of Emergency, then a ‘State of Disaster’, certain truths are revealed about the society we occupy. COVID-19 crystallised societal and political attitudes towards the elderly population, depicting them as unworthy, burdensome and disposable. According to UN predictions, the year 2047 will be memorable, for it will be the first-time older adults (60+) will outnumber children (-16). It might then be in our community’s best interests to recognise and respect such a momentous demographic shift.
In places like Greece and Japan, old age is not only commemorated but esteemed with merit
In the West, we are preoccupied with youth to the point where it is fetishized and physical signs of ageing are met with antipathy. A large proportion of the population appear to be motivated to prevent natural and inevitable decay via a broad range of health and wellness, lifestyle and cosmetic remedies. The anti-ageing industry is enormous, and growing – to the point that Botox injections appear to be approached for some people in the same way one seeks a haircut. This further undermines the elderly members of the community, pushing them to the periphery of society. Conversely, in places like Greece or Japan, old age is commemorated and esteemed with merit. How did we get here?
I recognise the preoccupation with youth in my own parents, in the way they, like many others navigating their sixties, attempt to prolong their middle age by focusing on not getting sick, staying active, eating well, and smoothing wrinkles. Mum’s cupboard is full of the most recent anti-ageing creams containing dragon-peals, sheep-placenta, and ancient minerals. My Aunty takes this to foolish extremes in her recent abstinence from gluten, uptake on tofu (“the Japanese live longer”, she says), and sacrifice of her beloved gin and tonics.
I recognise the desire for health and vitality, but do not agree with the motivators here, all of which scream fear and subscribe to the stigma of ageing. Elderly activists and advocates deny anti-ageing trends, believing we can take something profound away from our later years of life, and from interacting with people experiencing these life stages.
Approximately 15% of adults over 60 suffer from a mental disorder
One Thursday afternoon, while attending to the reception here at Peaceful Mind, one caller makes a large impression on me. She is 77 years old, a widow who lives alone, and has nobody remaining in her life to speak to. She says she has a vague idea of some things she’d like to discuss with a psychologist, but if all else fails and they can’t help, then at least the service will provide ‘an antidote to [her] loneliness’. On this last line, the woman breaks down in tears.
Approximately 15% of adults over 60 suffer from a mental disorder. It’s possible that true rates of mental illness may even be higher, with elderly mental illness often under-identified by those experiencing it, and health-professionals alike. Many older adults also may not feel comfortable seeking help due to stigma.
The 77 year old client I spoke to at Peaceful Mind left an impression on me that permeated through to the following week, until and I found myself browsing online about how one might go about volunteering with the elderly in this city. I spoke to a woman on the phone at Melbourne City Mission, who runs a visitors’ program for the extra-lonely elderly in aged care settings. The kind who, like the woman on the phone, do not have anyone left to visit them. I signed up and was told I would be notified when a suitable companion manifested.
As I read over the many info-mails and brochures sent my way from the mission, I was startled to learn that over half of all permanent aged care residents had mild, moderate, or major symptoms of depression when they were last appraised in 2012. With the trajectory of our population set to skyrocket, it is no question that more people, and more elderly, are at risk of living with mental health problems.
You are your present age, as well as all the ages you’ve been before
I first met Joyce on a Wednesday afternoon in her room with a supervisor from the Mission. We split a cardamom bun cake, which remarkably, at 96 years of age, she had never tried before. Joyce is a portrait artist who worked at the state library of Victoria all her life and painted the portraits of prolific educators, politicians, and socialites on the side, some of whom I’d heard of myself. She suffered from polio from the ages of 4-10 and never recovered full mobility. Though smile-squinted-eyes, Joyce tells me it is this reason why ‘boys didn’t take to me much, I had one leg shorter than the other’. She was awarded an Order of Australia Medal recognising her work as a conservator at the library.
When I asked her if she liked it here at the home, she nodded with conviction. She told me she is up early every morning as she never wants to “miss anything”. Joyce doesn’t have the capacity to paint anymore, though she does not dwell on this, nor on anything she can no longer do. Sitting across from Joyce every Wednesday and exploring the many rooms in the palace of her sturdy memory, her many ages of life and vitality, I cannot help but see how much we can gain from people like this.
Our senior citizens can teach us valuable lessons and shed light on life’s biggest questions
When I climb into my car and return to the streets of my suburb, the coffee-shops and supermarket lines and busy trams, I feel discouraged by the lack of time and attention we pay to the Joyces of the world. It is clear that the dignity and autonomy of our elderly population is completely undermined in and out of health care settings. It must be so dis-empowering, I think, to be treated as inadequate when you possess so much wisdom and life experience.
Our senior citizens have the capacity to teach us valuable lessons and answer big life questions in a way Google or Instagram cannot even begin to compete with. They can shed wisdom on the real, or, as I prefer to refer to them, ‘thoughty’ topics like gratitude, curiosity, interior life, forgiveness, regret, and compassion; yet we deliberately try to undermine and dismiss this wisdom. I encourage you to seek out these conversations with people like my well-dressed, up-the-road-neighbour, John. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
If you’d like to discuss the ageing process (or anything else!) with someone but are unsure where to start, you can learn more about what it’s like to see a Psychologist for the first time by clicking here.