I’m a fairly active septuagenarian; I travel, I read a lot, I exercise when I can and I throw in a game of golf every now and then to ward off the vagaries of ageing.
As a Gumilaroi man I’ve long lived with the fact that I will live, on average, about 10 years less than non-Aboriginal men, but I’ve managed to maintain a relatively good level of health and wellbeing notwithstanding a lung condition I’ve lived with since boyhood and other lifestyle related illnesses, such as diabetes.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a bench outside my favourite barbeque chicken shop waiting for an order that I had placed. I was sitting alone on the bench when another senior asked if she could join me as we waited for our orders. I invited the stranger, a non-Indigenous woman possibly of the same age as me, to share the bench. After she settled in, we chatted about a few mundane things including the weather, the difficulty of getting around on public transport, and the overall cost of living, before we moved onto more substantive matters such as family, poverty, homelessness, food wastage, how people seem to be greedier, and the poor range of politicians who seemed to be completely disconnected from those who they are elected to serve.
We lamented the changing times and reflected on what it was like for us growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s. My new friend grew up on the coast while I grew up in rural NSW and we agreed that life was simpler back then. We shared similar concerns about today’s fast world and how the younger generations seem to be captive to their mobile phones and invasive technology. My new friend said that she was so disappointed to experience a general lack of respect among some youth, and others, whose only concern, she thought, was for their own image on Instagram and how many ‘likes’ they get on Facebook. We both agreed that this is perhaps a consequence of nurture rather than nature.
An old mentor, Chicka Dixon, once told me of chastising some kids when he was visiting the Block in Redfern, only to have them turn on him and telling him to mind his own business. Chicka was a tireless activist for Aboriginal rights and freedoms and he told me that he was saddened by the kids reactions, saying that he never thought he would see the day when kids would swear at an elder as Chicka said they had.
My new friend and I continued to chat, and agreed that it’s easy sometimes to overgeneralise about young people and that in this fast modern world young people are faced with so many temptations, complicated as it is, with the drug culture and other challenges. We both agreed that we also had great and respectful interactions with the younger generation but such interactions were far too infrequent. We agreed that something was happening in the modern world that we hadn’t witnessed during our youthful days, but we remained hopeful.
My new friend shared that she had always lived on the coast and that navigating the world in her senior years has become challenging, especially since the passing of her husband. She had family, but she said that they were largely caught up in their own world and that contact was becoming less frequent as she grew older. She said that it was different when she was young.
The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality & Safety chronicled a litany of reported abuses suffered by some of those in aged care facilities and older people generally. However, it wasn’t only the reported abuses that alarmed her, but also that the abuses existed at all. In a world where compassion is absent, apathy will rise and respect and integrity will be casualties.
We never got around to sharing names. Perhaps we both thought that names were redundant at our age? Instead, we enjoyed the opportunity to simply sit and yarn, connecting across cultures and gender and even though we lamented the changing times we agreed that we were happy for the gift of life; warts and all.
Maybe it’s natural that every generation looks back wistfully and view their youthful days as simpler times. For me and my new friend we agreed that nostalgia is present in our ageing lives, possibly ignited by the passing of loved ones and those with whom we shared so many moments of joy and adventure.
The time spent sharing a bench with a new friend was one of those special moments that celebrates life viewed with gratitude and hope, and knowing that, in spite of human failings, life is still worth living. That our experience was largely inconceivable some sixty years ago, given the stark racism of the times, barely crossed our minds. Perhaps, our chance encounter reinforced our unspoken belief that was brilliantly captured by English poet Alexander Pope in the 18th Century, ‘hope springs eternal’.