By Sharon Bradley
Australians with valuable life lessons under their belt are once again proving their ability to adapt, reinvent and reconnect - through a pandemic.
In a year of nightmare headlines, one story glowed like a candle in the darkness. In May it was revealed that Maria Branyas, just weeks after celebrating her 113th birthday, had emerged from a brief period of unwellness to survive COVID-19. Speaking from her care home, a cheering place of sunshine-yellow walls north of Barcelona, she told The Observer: “This pandemic has revealed that older people are the forgotten ones of our society.”
Branyas wasn’t wrong. Two months earlier, the Spanish military, deployed to disinfect aged care homes, had found seniors abandoned by their fearful carers. Elsewhere, there were dark mutterings about the aged not being worthy of scarce medical resources. “We have fought our whole lives,” said Branyas, her dark eyes gleaming with conviction. “We don’t deserve to leave the world in this way.” With the help of her daughter, she promptly opened a Twitter account. Her bio read simply: “I am old, very old, but I am not an idiot.”
It was a cri de coeur for a whole generation, many of them suddenly forced to confront a seemingly intractable paradox: yes, they must stay home, but how then would they maintain the social and familial connections so central to their wellbeing? The answer was as simple as it was discombobulating: start thinking virtually.
Leaving behind the Luddite
Five years ago, for her 80th birthday, Kath Nicol’s three sons bought her an iPad. At the time she accused them of dragging her unwillingly into the 21st century. “But do you know what?” she says, with a chuckle. “I wouldn’t be without it.”
In the past month, Nicol, a resident of Newcastle, NSW, has started to use the teleconferencing platform Zoom to keep up with lectures at the local chapter of the University of the Third Age, where she’s been enrolled for 20 years. “I go to three or four talks a week,” she says. “They could be on anything … the Silk Road, the reign of Henry VIII, how to prevent fires. You have no idea, the variety of programs they have!”
When her face-to-face classes were cancelled, Nicol found herself bereft. “Zoom?” she says. “I thought, I can’t do that!” But one day, with all her cupboards cleaned, books read and jigsaw puzzles completed, she decided to act. “I just got sick of myself,” she says. “So, I went to Ian [her youngest son] and said: ‘I want to get onto Zoom. Can you help me?’” Nicol now owns a smartphone and, with her son’s help, has learnt how to use FaceTime to call family interstate and overseas.
Embracing technology has been crucial to many retirees’ sense of resilience. Miami-based entrepreneur Maxeme Tuchman last year launched Caribu, a video-calling app that allows a grandparent and a child who can’t be together physically to read a picture book together (the app provides access to more than 1000 titles in eight languages). TIME named it one of its favourite inventions of 2019, but, since the beginning of 2020, half a million more users in 200 countries and territories have signed up. Tuchman, who jokes that she hasn’t slept since mid-March, describes Caribu’s core subscriber as “Glammas” – glamorous grandmothers aged 50 to 70. “They’re active and tech-savvy,” she says.
But even when it comes to more traditional ways of connection, retirees are demonstrating their willingness to adapt. Pete*, a 64-year-old from Wollongong, is a volunteer with HammondCare At Home, an organisation that provides tailor-made care packages to help the elderly age in place. He visits five gents – with an average age of 90 – once a week in their homes for “a cuppa and a chat”. “We have some great conversations,” he says. “Sport, politics, their families, their histories … there’s that much to cover.”
When the pandemic ruled out face-to-face visits, Pete started making phone calls to those most in need. “Resilience, it stands out a mile with these people,” he says. “They’re such a brave generation … so stoic. The biggest hardship for them has been not being able to see their families. It’s a privilege and a pleasure to be there for them.”
In Sydney’s inner west, 95-year-old Peggie Bradley and her 13-year-old granddaughter, Karis Town, have started writing letters to residents of care homes in the UK who yearn for the increasingly uncommon experience of receiving and opening an envelope containing a friendly, handwritten epistle.
The Letters for Residents penpal scheme was established only recently on Facebook but has already attracted more than 600 members.
“Letters are always so much more thrilling to receive than emails,” says Bradley, a UK native who’s in a long-term love-hate relationship with a MacBook Air. “I like that you don’t have to use a computer to do this.”
Under her granddaughter’s guidance, Bradley has also learnt how to use Skype to keep in touch with distant friends and family.
It takes a village
In Australia, two special communities have shown themselves to be uniquely poised to tackle the pandemic paradox. Connect Victoria Park in Perth and Waverton Hub in Sydney are local chapters of an American initiative called “the Village movement”, which offers a twist on the conventional retirement community model.
Instead of providing dedicated, custom-built facilities to retirees, village hubs allow them to stay in their own homes, in neighbourhoods they know and love, while supporting them with social networks: designating particular cafes and restaurants as meet-up spots; renting community spaces where they can practise yoga, play mahjong or exercise their creative writing skills; and timetabling walks and other activities. Members, supported by volunteers, help each other live independently for longer.
Luke Keighery, a 69-year-old retired accountant, is president of the 300-member Waverton Hub in north Sydney. Between Zoom appointments – a yoga stretch and balance session and a webinar with his local church – he tells me how he came here. “My wife and I lived in [nearby] Gordon and were looking to downsize,” he says. “We saw this apartment advertised and came down on the train to look at it. At the station, I picked up this leaflet about the Hub. We bought the unit and joined the community the very next day.”
For Keighery, who was widowed this year, keeping busy, whether exercising, attending to hub activities, meeting up with Rotary Club pals or volunteering with Catholic Mission in Timor-Leste, has been a salve. “I’ve always been a busy person, and it helps,” he says. "I love that I can leave my unit, walk 100 metres up the street, walk into any coffee shop, sit down and have a chat with someone I know.”
The pandemic's challenges have included financial stress, particularly for pre-retirees and retirees who haven’t been able to amass that all-important two-year cash deposit safety net. Paul Clitheroe, money expert and chairman of the Australian Government Financial Literacy Board, says: “Those with mainly term deposits are doing it tough. Sadly, the need for emergency funds only becomes obvious in a crisis; when it passes, we forget just how important it is.
“But there will be another crisis. I have no idea what it will be and when, but self-funding retirees must have a contingency so they’re not forced to sell quality assets in a falling market.
Tim Steele, group executive, retirement and investment solutions, at MLC, says: “There is no doubt that this year has been tough for everyone, but pre-retirees' and retirees' health concerns have often been compounded by financial pressure. For some, financial pressure has prompted a reassessment of plans they had in place. For those in this situation, taking a step back, identifying needs versus wants and seeking out information are essential before making any big decisions relating to retirement. The right financial advice or educational materials can also make a big difference in the management of spending and debt and have an important role to play in identifying how best to grow and protect your nest egg.”
Retirees with well-diversified portfolios can be forgiven for feeling concerned, Clitheroe says, but there’s no reason to panic. Property is holding up well, shares have recovered reasonably well, and dividends, though lower, are still trickling in. The silver lining is that with overseas travel plans cancelled, fewer social outings and less eating out, living costs are plummeting. “In many cases,” he says, reassuringly, “declining lifestyle costs are more significant than falling investment income, leaving some self-funded retirees cashflow positive. For better or worse, home is the cheapest option right now.”
In a nimble pivot, toursbylocals.com is offering live, virtual, one-on-one tours of some of the world’s most thrilling places: Picasso’s Barcelona or an expert, on-the-spot analysis of da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan to a Peruvian cooking lesson in Lima. Armchair travellers can invite friends and family along for the ride, too.
Dr Ken Dychtwald, a gerontologist and the author of What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age, told The New York Times last month: “The pandemic this year has given many of us an enormous appreciation for the preciousness of life ... The new Third Age [between 60 and 90 years old] ... offers far more than the limited retirement arrangements that our parents and grandparents pursued ... It’s about reinvention of oneself … continuing to grow, learn, meet new people, try new things and even discover new purpose.”
This delicate period of possibility is, perhaps, as good a time as any to get ready.
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