growing old with chutzpah
Baby boomers are set to revolutionise ageing, just as they’ve changed attitudes to women and children, gender and race. Susan Chenery meets older Australians who are rebelling against tradition, determined to grow old with chutzpah.
When she hit 65, Mariella Stanton decided she was tired of feeling ashamed about her age and trying to hide it. Instead she resolved to embrace it, to own it, to age with elan. She was going to age disgracefully. She had hurtled through life, wrangling her three children, her job, her divorce and focused on family and home. Dutiful and busy, busy, busy looking after other people. Now she was busting out. To the astonishment of her now adult children she announced, “now I can nally be sel sh and focus on myself.” The rst thing she did was get a tattoo.
Mariella is part of a generation that are going to change social expectations of ageing.
As baby boomers reach retirement age they are not going to fade away or be quiet and meek, playing bowls, wearing cardigans, making sponges, being the nice inoffensive granny. “The baby boomers have rebelled their whole lives,” says social researcher Neer Korn. “They do things differently.”
Until now, for some, old age has been a grim proposition. In September Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a Royal Commission into the Aged Care Sector. The announcement was made a year after the Oakden nursing home in South Australia was closed following serious abuse of the residents by their carers. The Prime Minister said that the Department of Health has closed almost one aged care service per month since Oakden, with an increasing number under sanction to improve their care.
An investigation by The Weekly into elder abuse, both in residential care and endemic nancial abuse, found that such an announcement was long overdue. And there are other initiatives underway around the country to improve the lot of our elders.
Dementia sufferers are among the most vulnerable members of society and the most at risk of abuse. Korongee in Tasmania is set to become Australia’s rst suburban village designed to recreate a real-life experience for those with dementia. It follows similar successful projects in Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and Canada.
“It has been shown residents at the De Hogeweyk dementia village in the Netherlands live longer, eat better and take fewer medications,” says Iain Weir, Chairman of Glenview Community Services, a partner in the venture. “Korongee’s design will make it possible for residents living with dementia to walk around the village and participate in everyday life, options presently not available to those in dementia care – activities such as going to the café to buy a coffee or simply heading to the supermarket to buy groceries for dinner. In addition to the cultural services hub, Korongee will consist of 15 houses, each with six bedrooms, which will be staffed by health professionals who dress casually and will act as “home makers” to provide an authentic home-like environment.”
Age is just a number
In Sydney, NurseWatch offers home care based on wellness social care models that focus on holistic wellbeing. “Australia is experiencing a paradigm shift in aged care,” says Kate Spurway, CEO and founder. “The baby boomer generation is the rst in history to witness their parents ageing into their 80s and 90s. Driven by high expectations around lifestyle, relationships, physical appearance, technology and wellness, this generation will ensure they do old age differently to their parents.” NurseWatch registered nurses bring skills like yoga, massage therapy, naturopathy, exercise physiology and even carpentry to their patients.
Social researcher Neer Korn has been studying baby boomers for 20 years. “They are de ant and they have got the political muscle. There are four million
baby boomers coming through. They are going to force society to re-evaluate our notion of ageing. Their attitude is one of expectation. They are surprising us by doing all these things that we are not accustomed to seeing older people doing. You go to the hottest travel spots in the world – Machu Picchu, Goa, Bangkok – and you nd this weird mix of young backpackers and people in their 60s.”
It is an age where you have earned the right to be as grumpy as you want – and as eccentric – to go ahead and be a Mad Old Person. Neer knows of a woman who took up pole dancing in her 70s. “She said she was a sensual woman – it made her feel sexy. Just because I am old it doesn’t mean everything has left me.”
Dee Johnson is a spokesperson for the UK’s Growing Old Disgracefully women’s network. “We were in the vanguard of change for women. We are not going to be put in a box now just because we are 70 or 80 or 90.”
Dee was a ’70s feminist and was “always quite con dent”. She was a school teacher, married twice, a mother. “A lot of my self-esteem and con dence was from being good at my job. For a large part of my life, I had been busy being a partner, a mum, a professional person.” But when she retired, “suddenly I started to lose con dence. I was never worried about getting wrinkles, I didn’t trade on my looks. My unique selling point was being kind, or interesting or esty.” But she didn’t really know who she was anymore without the roles she had played throughout her adult life.
Dee went to one of Growing Old Disgracefully’s week-long residential courses. “It was a light-bulb moment.” Many of the women had physical or nancial dif culties but, “they were all still facing forward, being positive about their lives and getting around dif culties rather than being subsumed by them. They certainly gave lie to the idea that, when you get old, you have to stay home and age gracefully.”
The group, she says, “is really about countering that invisibility of older women, challenging that stereotype, and not going gently into that good night. When that mindset is there, it changes everything.” Dee says she feels more con dent now than she did as a young woman. “It is not what you look like, it is your attitude and aura when you feel positive and are still learning things.” Recently she went on television to talk about sexuality and older women. “Much to my children’s consternation,” she adds.
Saving the best to last
Retirement is changing, says Dr Tim Sharp, founder of The Happiness Institute, and author of Live Happier, Live Longer. “Many people aren’t retiring. They are continuing to function, consulting, volunteering. There is a signi cant body of research now that shows that happiness can increase with age. We are more comfortable in our own skin and we don’t care as much what people think. Many people achieve their best in later years. There is growth through ageing. We can nd advanced wisdom.”
Age Discrimination Commissioner, The Hon Dr Kay Patterson, is 74. She sees the potential for a golden age for older Australians but points out that it requires luck and good management.
“We are likely to live longer than any generation before us,” she says. “Women now have a life expectancy of 95. Preparation for this is to build strong and meaningful relationships. The Australian Psychological Society talks about loneliness as Australia’s next public health epidemic. Currently one in three women and one in ve men aged 65 or over live alone.
The UK has done a loneliness evidence review. Without a high level of social participation, people are more at risk of
dementia, mortality and lower levels of psychological and physical health. Evidence shows those who engage in social activities stay healthier for longer.
New Zealander Billie Jordan says: “Experience has taught me that, instead of slowing down the pace of life as we get older, we should increase the pace, turn it up full throttle. Not only are we going to live longer if we do that but our funerals will be a lot more interesting.”
Billie should know. When she moved to Waiheke Island she noticed the senior citizens were isolated and depressed, as was she after a traumatic childhood and surviving the Christchurch earthquake. “They couldn’t see a future.”
So Billie got in her van and went up to anyone who looked over 65 and said, “‘Get in the back. I want to set you up as the world’s greatest ash mob.’ You had to be over 65 and have a pulse.” She had no problem collecting volunteers but soon realised people had no expectations of them. “It was really demoralising. So I decided to have really high expectations – age was no excuse. The goal was in eight months they were going to perform at the world hip-hop championships in Las Vegas. People thought I was setting them up for failure.”
So the motley crew went to Vegas. “We had a pact that, if anyone died on the dance oor, we would just step over them.” Among the 22 members of her dance group, four use mobility aids, ve have had open heart surgery, all have arthritis, six are deaf, one is blind, there are 15 hip and knee replacements, and ve have dementia. But she says, “they looked happier and more alive, they no longer talked about the past, it was all about what they were going to do next. It was a complete transformation. Their doctors say they are healthier now than they have been in years. Instead of sti ing older people’s capabilities we should be doing everything we can to maximise their potential. Treating them as equal enriches everyone’s lives.” And none of her dance troupe has died – even though several are in their 90s.
“The signi cant factors that differentiate those who age healthier are having meaning and purpose in their lives,” says Tim Sharp.
Neer agrees: “The number of people at that age going to uni, doing new degrees, starting little cottage industries, putting the band back together – all the things that were sitting in the shed during the child-rearing years. Now they have the time and the attitude, so why not get the guitar and drum kit out?”
At 75, Aloma Fennell is National President of the Older Women’s Network and is one of the highly educated, highly intelligent women ghting for relevance and against bias and age discrimination. “Why don’t we have more positive images [of older people] on television programs? Even for those of us who do have the courage to stand and ght, it is like walking into a battering ram all the time. Because [as far as society is concerned] we don’t exist.” This attitude that older people are diminished and can no longer contribute to society is not as prevalent in other parts of the world. In Italy, India and the Middle East, for example, the elderly are loved and revered. And when they grow frail, they are less likely to be con ned to residential institutions. Where possible, they are cared for at home. Italian nonnas never stop cooking.
Dr Sharp points to the “blue zones” – the places that are famous for longevity. “In our society, older people are seen as worthless, sad, useless. But in places like Okinawa and Sardinia they have a purpose. They are valued by their community – they are not shamed and put away in a corner, they are respected and people go to them for advice. They also eat well – plant-based food and not too much of it. They are rural communities, so they are active all day long, they move a lot. They live in very strong communities. They keep themselves mentally active. The more you use it, the more you won’t lose it.”
Dr Chris Riedy, Professor of Sustainability Governance at the University of Technology Sydney, is researching the idea of co-housing for older people – an idea that has been successfully applied in Europe. “In simple terms, it is a mix of shared spaces and private spaces, and people can choose when they are in the shared or private space. They can move through the area, drop in and have a chat and some of the social isolation and informal caring needs that older people have can be met. They are involved in the design process and run it themselves. Baby boomers want something different in housing. They are not going to put up with what is on offer at the moment.”
Judy and Michael Hollingworth, Rick and Heather Bolstler, Eve Grzybowski and Daniel Weinstein planned their retirement for more than a decade. “We were aware that our ageing parents
didn’t have many good options and they had not done any thinking ahead,” Judy Hollingworth explains. “They ended up in situations they didn’t enjoy. We wanted autonomy, a social engagement environment that was enjoyable and pleasing to us, a purpose that was worth going on living for – that keeps you wanting to be in the game.”
At 69, Judy is the youngest of the group. “We talked about it and worked it all through. We have a written agreement, a joint venture agreement, promises to each other about how we go into this, how we conduct ourselves and what happens when the numbers drop. We share costs and have combined monies and separate monies.”
They found a piece of land near Taree in 2009 and the group moved into a house they had designed and built. Most evenings the couples share a meal. “It is like brothers and sisters and cousins. It is a bit like an extended marriage.
It’s been 10 years now; we remain pleased with what we came up with and with living this way.”
Local councils in Australia are signing up to the World Health Organisation’s campaign for age-friendly cities – encouraging older people to actively participate in community activities and facilitating societies in which everyone is treated with respect, regardless of age.
Experts say that intergenerational socialising is important for both parties in a society where families are so fragmented. Once the people from each end of the age spectrum get to know each other, stereotypes are smashed. “I call it generational blending,” says Neer. “For older people, it is essential ... When you hang out with younger people you feel that youthfulness.”
Lyndall Parris,70, and her husband Dave are founders of the Narara Ecovillage on the Central Coast of NSW. “Intergenerational is the only way to go,” says Lyndall. “It is just ridiculous that there are other models for over
55s – that developers are encouraged to clump them all together. It has never worked, it is not how society works.”
The Narara project is self-funded. People of all ages who share environmental values buy into the community and build their house. “I think there are 160 of us now – 40 children under the age of 18 and the oldest would be 77.” Older people help out with babysitting in the school holidays. Younger people help older people with gardening or building. “We believe you can have a better life by addressing the triple bottom line of social sustainability, environmental sustainability, and we want to get sustainable businesses up and running, too. I don’t think life can be better when you are putting all one age together. I think if you have got mixed generations, everybody is not competing for the same space or resources or time. The cooperation is just simply beautiful. This project is nothing but joyous. Hardly a morning goes past that
I can’t wait to get up and into the day.”
Amanda Graham, co-founder of downsizing.com con rms that baby boomers are shaking up the housing market with their creative post-retirement co-housing plans. Two years ago, she noticed a dramatic increase in the number of seniors looking for rentals and properties to buy, so she launched Seniors Flatmates. “There are lot of people using our site looking for rentals, but they are not at the price point they want or in the area they want. At the same time, there are a lot of older people who are thinking about downsizing who have empty bedrooms. They might have gone through a divorce or the death of a partner and might be worried about making ends meet. We connect these two groups of customers. When you think about it, this generation who are starting to hit retirement age, these were the guys who pioneered house sharing when they were young. They are quite savvy and know what they want and don’t want. It was much older women who were looking at our site.”
As an expert in this area, Amanda has thought a lot about how she might live in retirement. “It is often a lot cheaper to live in an overseas location. That sort of thing appeals to me,” she says with a smile. “Maybe I’ll spend summer in Australia and summer in Asia. They are the sorts of things people are doing more and more these days. The baby boomers are going to look at all the different options and change the face of retirement. They’ve shaken up the world at every step of their lives.”
“When you hang out with younger people you feel that youthfulness.”
The De Hogeweyk village in the Netherlands has had huge benefits for patients with dementia.
Billie Jordan’s hip-hop group are healthier than they have been in years after training and performing in Las Vegas.