IAM a keen admirer of OPSO — Older People Speaking Out — an organisation devoted to promoting healthy ageing and bent on those in their 60s having their own choice when it comes to how they are going to spend the next stage of their lives.
No matter how irritated I get about crowds at the station when I’m getting the train to the office, I know I am extremely lucky to have the office to go to. Much as I love my four grandchildren, I do not wish to spend my remaining time going bats: it is terribly difficult to communicate with toddlers, which is what I’d find myself doing, and I’m far happier having a good (and sober) lunch or coffee with old friends during a break in my office hours.
A friend of mine — still in her 60s — told me the other day she was looking forward immensely to moving into a retirement village (which is not quite the same thing as an aged-care home). She pointed out her husband had died, she had no children and was frightfully scared she’d die during the night and no one would find her body for weeks. Well, if you’re dead you’re dead, but it’s not nice for those who come across you.
There seems very little optimism that we can ever again rely on the extended family as a way of life. In the olden days seniors lived side by side with their children and grandchildren and made perfect babysitters — until they lost their house keys and left the stove on, at which point they were in danger of being whisked off to God’s Waiting Room, which wasn’t necessarily all that pleasant. Some, however, had families who would continue to put up with them.
But things are different now and many aged pensioners decide — while they are still able to do so — to be with people of their own generation. That doesn’t mean they can’t still look after grandchildren if they love doing that; in fact, they often prefer them to their grown-up children, as long as they get to choose the amount of time they have to put in.
The standard of retirement homes, by and large, has improved enormously and many elders are pleased with the treatment they get. There are weekly outings, barbecues — which everybody loves — visits to concerts and plays, bridge lessons, senior golfing days and picnics and general camaraderie. Another upside is that there is always someone who will make sure you’re OK every morning, alive and kicking and looking forward to brekkie, something that isn’t the case if you’re living entirely alone.
Well, that’s the good side of it. I remember one Mother’s Day going to visit my husband’s mother in a place where everyone was very old, and the staff made sure they all had their hair done so their children would be proud of them. The oldies sat on their beds pretending not to have their eye on the gate, hoping like hell they wouldn’t be neglected and made fools of.
This is why it’s important for organisations such as OPSO to draw attention to the way older people are treated and to provide some practical advice. For example, there are classes in what they call ‘‘ updating driving practices’’. Tell me about it. In the suburb where I live the average age of car drivers is at least 200. Every time I get a taxi home I make sure I warn the driver about the dangers of travelling this road. More than often than not you would be excused for thinking there wasn’t a driver of the car in front; the only sign of life is a pair of hands clinging on to the steering wheel. But independence is important and it’s good to have sensible regulations about how older people can continue to use their cars.
I know several people who are in their 80s and even 90s who still have all their marbles. The experts used to say doing cryptic crosswords was beneficial for the brain; now they say they’re not much good at all. The best way to keep your sanity is physical exercise: swimming, yoga and brisk walking or cycling. Just be careful not to fall off.
In the meantime, OPSO is looking out for us, for which we are grateful. At present it is very concerned about the lack of public transport in many places, which can mean older drivers are forced to rely on private transport for business, shopping, access to medical centres and so on. This can be extremely difficult in areas where they have to travel long distances, even to the point where people are being forced to move.
Still, we must remain positive about our future, whatever it may be.
Some friends and I have thought about finding a home we could share with those we like and with whom we have some common history. We all like to see old pals, and there would be no criticism from anyone when we forgot things. We’d probably call it something like The Last Resort.