An elderly woman sits in her spacious living room surrounded by comfortable, yet starkly empty, sofas and armchairs. An array of family photographs, alongside ornaments from a previous time, are on display as the woman speaks of her four-bedroomed home with love and a little despair.
This has been her home; her place for family, and her place of comfort, for many decades, yet now it offers only loneliness.
Watching the delightful, yet slightly unsettling, television series (‘Old People’s Home for 4 year-olds’ ABC Tuesdays 8.30 pm) that gathers older folk together with a bunch of four-year-old children, you cannot but be struck with the intense comparison between what has been and what is now.
The elderly people featured in the program are all living alone – mostly because their life partner has died. Most of them feel they are living a meaningless existence, as one participant stated, ‘really just waiting for the lights to go out’.
Over a course of weekly activities with the guileless endearing children, the older people’s lives change. Some more dramatically than others, but all for the better.
The elderly who had trouble walking, gained a new confidence in their own ability and fears were dispelled as the little children guided them and shared with them all manner of activities.
But the elderly folk still went home to their empty homes.
And here lies the dilemma.
There are, in fact, two dilemmas. One is about loneliness, the other perhaps more political.
This is the crunch:
Politicians and younger folk say, ‘Come on, oldies, sell your three-bedroomed house and make it available to young house buyers, and you, old people, downsize and move to a smaller place that is more appropriate to your present life.’
BUT – and it’s a very big BUT…
The old folk love their homes. Every aspect is so well-known; its layout, its furniture and fittings, its surroundings, its much loved and lived in familiarity. They do not have to wonder where the kettle is and in what cupboard the tea and biscuits reside. (Sorry, that’s a simplified example, but you know what I mean).
What right have others to expect the elderly to uproot their lives. To find a unit or small house in a retirement village – or whatever?
With families often scattered across the globe, they may be lonely, but to have to down-size, get rid of much of their furniture and belongings to fit into a small, neat apartment is a mammoth task beyond many of them. Cruel, even.
To have to leave all that is familiar to them; to leave a community, that, although they may be estranged from it in a way, it looks familiar. It feels familiar and they know what is there for them.
Imagine at 80+ years old, having to find your way around a new neighbourhood, a new set of shops. Perhaps a new GP.
For those oldies who have been driving, to navigate a different set of streets and highways is often too much and the car is discarded.
And, where the hell is the light switch for this new room in this new place? And how do you manage the heating? And why is there no telephone? And where is the nearest pharmacy?
And my sofa doesn’t fit this room - and the bathroom taps are strange and difficult – and how do I operate these ugly curtains – and I can’t lock the back door easily like my old one. And why is there no clothesline?
Then, if it’s a unit in a retirement village, there is the unfathomable ‘Body Corporate’ with its rules and exorbitant fees. No friends or grandchildren to stay without permission, no rugs on the balcony, no airing of clothes in view of other units, no changing the look of the frontage, no smoking in view of other residents. And, for that privilege, please pay $500 per month.
Any new ‘friends’ have to be almost forced upon them, as opposed to developed over time, and the new life can turn out to be even more lonely that the familiar one left behind.
There may be a shortage of houses for families to buy, but it is a serious dilemma that cannot be solved simply by moving old and perhaps lonely folk out of their homes to make room for the next generations.
Does anyone have a solution? It seems like a bunch of four-year-olds can help more than anyone – at least with the loneliness aspect.
I choose to comment on social issues and write creatively on a variety of subjects - for a variety of audiences.