Our Elders

Indigenous Australians have a strong and proud relationship with their Elders. They are respected, deferred to and listened to. Elders are the custodians of their cultural knowledge, understanding Country and Ceremony, and far more than I presume to know. Way back at the beginning of the virus Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were fierce in protecting their Elders, knowing how much would be lost if the virus got into communities. And, so far, they have been successful. That has to continue.

White Australians are not have not been successful. Despite the examples from overseas, despite the fact that before the virus we knew Aged Residential Care Services were vulnerable places for our elderly. Indeed last year a Royal Commission was set up to look the problems in the aged care sector; it is still investigating. Despite this we did not protect our elders. However, it is not those problems that I want to talk about.

I want to muse on our elders, and what we are loosing.

Now I am deliberately using lower case ‘e’, because we don’t look at our older people in the same way that Indigenous Australians do. We love our family members ~ our mothers and fathers, grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, great-aunts ~ and are very fierce in making sure that they are safe and well cared for. We have sat and listened to their stories (and if we are honest, done a few eye rolls when we hear the same ones!) and built up a special and irreplaceable relationship with them. Quite possibly, as individuals we do see and respect them as Elders.

But as a generation? Does society regard them as Elders? Unfortunately that’s an easy one tho answer.

So, let me muse more widely, on this generation of 80 and 90 year olds, and how they built the Australia we know now. Maybe help create an understanding of why they are our Elders.

We righty spend a lot of time honouring our veterans and how their efforts shaped us, but we also need the stories of the women and men who stayed behind, who worked in the factories and on the land and taught in schools. We need the stories of the young lads who grew up in London during the Blitz, and those who lived in Greece under Nazi occupation. Or who fought the fascists in Italy or in the mountains of Serbia. Who survived labour and concentration camps.

When they came to Australia they combined with workers already here ~ a combination whose energy and labour fuelled the post-war boom. They worked on the Snowy Mountain Hydro Electricity Scheme, in car factories, in textile factories. They literally built the city ~ the oil refineries, the Westgate bridge, the new skyscrapers, the housing. In the country there were market gardeners and dairy farmers and sheep farmers. Let’s remember the huge range of businesses that took off.

Those coming from overseas forever changed our society. Food is the obvious first wave. We ‘Aussies’ learnt that coffee doesn’t come in tins, that cheese doesn’t come wrapped in foil and in a cardboard box (although I would argue that these blocks of Kraft cheese still make the best cheese on toast!) and that meals can be more exotic than meat and three veg. I remember my first encounter with an olive, the most unusual smell of parmesan cheese and my first taste of homemade sausages. We discovered places like Pellegrini’s, Lebanese House and Alyshas.

People from overseas made us look at ourselves, to realise that not everyone speaks English, that there are different ways to celebrate marriages and deaths, that there are different stories to tell, that we can adapt and change. That last one took time, as Australia has a deep vein of racism, and is still a work in progress.

This generation fought for our way of life ~ not in war, although they often did that too ~ but by demanding and fighting for rights. Unions membership was high and they fought for better pay and safer working conditions, and for societal concerns like universal healthcare. Women were demanding equal pay and more equality in their lives, lives beyond wife/mother roles. Indigenous Australians were fighting for a ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum for Aboriginal people to be included in the census. Australians overwhelmingly voted “Yes”. Aboriginal stockmen walked off Wave Hill Station as a protest against wages and conditions, beginning the Land Rights Movement, their cause strongly supported by the union movement around the country. The working class, a proud mix of old and new Australians, was instrumental in helping us find a new and more progressive voice.

So these are our Elders, who hold the stories and the wisdom of these post-war years. But they also have the knowledge of how to grow a fantastic tomato without the need for pesticides, the knowledge of how to make do and the wisdom of how to get through tough times.

It is inevitable that our Elders will die, however the coronavirus is making the dying more traumatic for everyone. We need to listen to the stories they have to tell, but we also need, as a society, to venerate our Elders, to show respect for their knowledge, as well as love. To treat them with dignity.

28 thoughts on “Our Elders

  1. Thank you so much for this. I am crying. I saw my mother through through the aged care system for 15 years and we lost her last year. The aged care system cannot cope even during normal times. I was studying a unit in sociology for an Indigenous Studies degree when Covid hit Australia. I had to fail the unit because, as I listened to the radio and read the newspapers for the social aspects of the virus, I could see back in March and April how vulnerable our aged care residents were even then. I mourned for them, and am crying now. How does a system allow the spread of this virus through institutions where people cannot leave to make themselves safe?
    Last night I learned that a very old family friend in aged care has caught the virus. The virus, and the shonky system, are now very personally felt more than ever.
    Thank you Anne. If you need to edit this, no worries. I am very emotional at the moment.
    I like that – our Elders. Thank you.
    From Sandi in Melbourne, Australia

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    1. Sandi, it is lovely to hear from you, although I am sorry that it has been a difficult time. I can hear your grief. You are so right to say that our aged care system can’t cope at the best of times, which is why it is failing now. If we really valued our elders we would have well trained staff who were well paid, and there would be enough of them to fully cater for the needs of the residents. If we really valued our elders we would not have a system where profit comes before their care and happiness.
      I hope things become easier for you. ~hugs~

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      1. Hi Anne, I didn’t want to be an emotional burden. Thank you for your reply. Replying to your beautiful post helped me to express my thoughts succinctly and get them out into the public arena. We all go through hard times; I need to remember that. Thanks for listening. And thank you for your blog; I have a good time here.

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        1. Sandi, I am pleased that you felt that this was a safe place to unburden. We are a very supportive web of bloggers, which makes our part of the blogging world a good ~ and interesting! ~ place to be. I think too that we are all feeling your pain, and understand that getting it out onto the page can be a therapeutic thing to do. Stay safe and well. xxx

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          1. Hi Anne, Just to let you know some good news. Our very long-term family friend, who is 90 and in aged care, has been told he will recover from the virus! Ivan, the son-in-law, said Reg had fish and chips yesterday to celebrate.
            Thank you for your safe place – yes, that is what it is.

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  2. I was sitting there, nodding my head, agreeing with everything. And then it occurred to me that each generation has, will have, its own stories. For my 97 year old father, half a continent away in an aged care home, his story is of being in his tank in the Normandy landings in WWII. For my mother, surviving the Famine Year in occupied Holland in the same war. For my generation, the stories will be less dramatic, but we have things to tell: What life was like before the internet and mobile phones, compared with now. Those who are young now can tell of growing up in the Time of Coronavirus. We are all future Elders, and how we treat our elders now will probably determine how we ourselves our treated. I’m teetering on the brink of my Third Age, and I’m looking forward to it. Experience without angst…

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    1. As I was writing this I made the deliberate decision to have a cut off date of the 1960s. The Baby Boomer generation, which is where I squarely sit, has a different story to tell. It is one of radical demands for change at all levels of society, but of course standing on the shoulders of the generations before.
      Yes, we all have our stories. I think that part of our problem is that we look at an unfamiliar older person we see them in a chair, with little to contribute. no matter who that person is they would have lead and extraordinary life, and have plenty to tell us.

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  3. And the reason we have many more Elders is because of modern medicine/care.

    In New Zealand at the principle age of 65, you can draw an old pension from the government, actually it’s automatic amount fortnightly with additional payments for those who need it.

    But it hard to buy into a Retirement Village, most now you have to be 70 – 75 because you see the Elders are all living longer. Most of these villages went into severe lockdown, and I believe some still are – providing as much help as possible. But then again these people have “bought a licence to occupy”

    Like Australia the biggest % of people who have succumbed to this disease, were not in Retirement Villages but rather in aged care facilities. Some weren’t even in the 70+ bracket but all in a way had no way to escape the virus, and often didn’t even know they were in such places…

    Government departments are still reeling and there has been rushed Acts pushed though so that “aged care” is better protected for whatever is next on the time line.

    I think a lot of us, never truly understood how this virus would so much pressure on society of Elders and of course their families, many of whom watched through windows, or via some nice medical person phoning them to inform how their Elder was – there was no way to safely hold a hand…

    So sad, so tuff, and just plain awful…

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    1. Yes, nowhere to escape, and often confused and lonely. Many of the residents in the worst affected places were moved to hospital, which, while necessary and done for excellent reasons, would have added to their distress. There are so many things I wish to be different when ‘we get our of this’ but high on the list is a major shake-up of the profit system in our ged care.

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  4. One only has to look at the U.K. Government’s mishandling of the situation by releasing elderly patients from hospital back into their care homes without testing for the virus first. A friend of mine who is in her mid-70s, said she felt that there had been a deliberate sacrifice or even ‘culling’ of the elderly which I can’t (don’t want to) believe is really true but I can see why she would feel like that.

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    1. I understand that feeling too, although, like you, I can’t, and don’t want to, believe it. It is outrageous that the residents weren’t tested before they went home. One of our main problems was that the staff were often poorly paid and had to make that difficult decision to work when sick or not feed the kids. Many of them worked at other sites and the virus spread into other settings.

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  5. Beautiful, beautiful post, Anne. Both my parents are gone but they passed on so much wisdom, not just to me, but to the Offspring as well. I owe my love of food and basic cooking skills to my Mum, and I owe my love of gardening to my Dad. Also my sense of honour and fair play. Sometimes we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s lost.

    I heard yesterday? that a woman in her 100s was killed by covid-19. That is such a milestone to reach. She should have died in her own time, gently in her sleep. It’s not fair.

    Thank you for reminding me what the word ‘Elders’ truly means. -hugs-

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    1. I have been thinking about what I have learnt from my parents too. My Dad died a number of years ago, but Mum is still going strong. Fortunately she is safely tucked up at home with my brother and sister-in-law. It must be so distressing to have a loved one in residential care.
      .

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      1. I’m so glad your Mum is safe! I know that not all residential care facilities are ‘bad’, but the issues brought out by the RC, and now the Covid deaths, make me pray that I never end up in one. 😦

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        1. Oh yes! I know there are good ones out there, as I have friends who have relatives, and they are very comfortable with the level of care. I visited a friend every week and never saw anything amiss. However, it is not somewhere I want to be either, and, fingers crossed, will never have to be.

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          1. I suspect there’s a world of difference between the ones run by Victoria and the not-for-profits vs the for profit companies. Aged care should not be a for-profit enterprise. 😦

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  6. Congratulations on a care-fully written post, on a subject we all should be aware of, for one day we too shall be elders, all things going well. I was mystified by the proportion of covid deaths in aged care but then I read that trained nurses were being moved into sector, and it dawned on me aged carers were often trained for that alone, not necessarily for nursing critical illness. I should have known… it’s a sector that operates on a business model… such that lead to the RC. I know that not everyone is in a position to look after their elders at home but wherever they are whoever is looking after them they should be cared for as if they belong to all of us, because they really do. Thank you for prompting some digging around in my thoughts about this, I feel there is some hope for positivity coming out of the darkness… which has hidden worst of it to further corporate profit… into the light of humanity.

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    1. I never realised that there are state run facilities as well as privately owned and not-for-profit. The state run seem to have fared much better ~ apparently they have mandatory ratios of registered nurses to patients. It has been some of others that the Commonwealth has oversight of (or should have) that have been in such dire straights. You are right ~ the workers in there were poorly paid, usually women, casual, and therefore had to work at different places. We are discovering that it is these vulnerable workers who are spreading the virus, as they have to make a choice between going to work sick or having food for their kids. I would love to see positive changes made to casualisation, but I fear that with the recession it will become even more entrenched.

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    1. So very true, Tierney. We have done an appalling job with many of our elderly too. Unfortunately too many settings are run on a profit basis, which means cutting corners wherever they can ~ except for the profits, of course.

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  7. I love your thoughfulness Anne. I live on the edge of the Welsh county of Ceredigion which locked down it’s care homes earlier than most places and has a very low death rate from Covid – largely believed to be because of that decision. Having just turned 70 am I an elder? I feel middle aged but know that lots of my friends regard me as an ‘elderly aunt’ – I hope in a nice way. I am actively planning to provide for my own care as I get older and to stay out of the official care system if at all possible. I value mixing and meeting people of all ages not just my contemporaries! A retirement village or block of flats may suit some people but is my idea of hell!

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    1. I think you are an Elder, Sue, even if you still feel like a spring chicken!. You have wisdom and knowledge that you are passing on to others. Aboriginal people speak of ’emerging Elders’, which, to me, shows that learning is a lifelong practise.
      I don’t want to go anywhere either. I used to make weekly visits to a friend. He had dementia, so needed to be in an area with higher care. However, he had no independence or control over anything, even small things like what food he was going to eat, when he could eat it. His care was fine, but surely there are more expansive ways to look after the vulnerable.

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  8. Thank you for that Anne. I keep joking that I have to live to be over a hundred to just to finish what is on my ‘to do’ list now and I keep adding to it! So many more things to learn, try, experience. So often old people are cared for physically – fed, watered, medicated etc. but existing is different from living and I want to live as I am sure you do.

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  9. Very thoughtful and powerful post, Anne. It’s made me realise that me and my sister will be the only ones who can keep my mother’s vividly told stories alive (and yes, we hear them more than once ;>)) Her two grandsons are a different generation, and frankly, aren’t all that interested. But my father put together some family history records and files, so they will receive these at some point.

    The care home casualities in the UK have been high, as Tialys says above, and i’ve heard those culling rumours too. The staff were left to ‘get on with it’ for weeks into the lockdown. The kinds of people who are carers are generally so hard working and conscientious, it must have been terrible for them. Things have improved now, thank goodness.

    Tying in to your other post, I was surprised to find a relative of times gone by had emigrated to Ballarat, Australia, during the gold rush period. He died in a fire shorty after. I wish I knew more!! Cheers, Anne :>)

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    1. It’s interesting that you say that about keeping the family stories. My dad and Nana were great storytellers, telling the stories of our families. Fortunately Dad wrote down all those stories. I have been rereading them, and it wonderful to ‘hear’ his voice again.
      In Australia we have know for so long that there are huge problems in the aged care sector, mostly run on a for profit basis. The pandemic has really exposed the problems. Unfortunately what we are seeing is a blame game, and no action to improve the sector.
      Stay well.

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