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The ageing challenge: navigating the pandemic, technology, and identity politics

By  Patricia Edgar

Jun 21, 2023

Group of smiling elderly people dancing while enjoying activities.

Ten years ago, I wrote a book titled In Praise of Ageing. I found there is strong evidence that our attitude to life influences our longevity. But the obstacles we face today make slouching towards Bethlehem seem like a walk in the park.

The old I wrote about, shared several characteristics. They are not just privileged people: they have had their share of struggle: most have physical issues which they manage. They have reinvented themselves as circumstances changed and show resilience in dealing with hardship. They are community minded, interested in current affairs, enjoy the company of all ages, and manage their routines independently. Although lonely from time to time, they act and are not isolated. They are not consumed by regrets and throughout their lives they have felt loved and worthwhile. They are role models for life in the prime of old age.

A certain amount of good luck is involved in growing old without accident or disease, or social catastrophe, but some aspects of successful ageing are negotiable.

When In Praise of Ageing was published in 2013, I believed we were on the way to reducing ageism with more positive attitudes to older people. Ten years on I am not so sanguine about ageing, for three seismic interlinked events have fractured life as we knew it a decade ago.

First the media revolution boomed in 2014. The internet met the smart phone and social media flourished. Trump got elected in the US in 2016 and extreme activism became part of political and social life. Then COVID hit in 2020 accelerating the impact of both the media and political revolutions.

It would be hard to overestimate the damage done by the pandemic universally, to all age groups at different stages of life, but especially to community attitudes towards ageing and older people. The vaccine wars began, and families and the community were split asunder.

Those over 60 were identified, medically, as the most vulnerable group at risk from COVID. We had to isolate. Our families feared infecting us. Food was left on the doorstep. The very thing that was essential to keeping older people going - social engagement and family contact - was curtailed. We touched no one. People stepped aside and looked away.

The weaknesses in the overwhelmed health system, the festering broken system of age care, society's inability to cope with an emergency were exposed. Horror stories about unimagined negligence and cruelty were presented to the Royal Commission stemming from the tragic effects of neglect. The option of leaving older people to die, was discussed openly. Elder abuse was rampant, largely financial, and generally carried out by a son or daughter.

COVID super-charged the use of technology as every social exchange was online; we had to work online, learn online, play and communicate online, get food online, talk to the Doctor online.

I felt excluded, alienated and old. But I realised, as I spoke to friends and looked around me, I was certainly not alone. Peers were struggling with their advancing years, their physical and family problems, and their isolation. Attitudes had changed, resources were more limited, and it became more difficult to navigate life.

During this time what we are calling 'identity' politics and 'wokeism' flourished as an online phenomenon that fertilised in the US under Trump alongside the Black Lives Matter movement that exploded when George Floyd, a black man, was choked to death by police in public view on the street in Minneapolis.

In the 1930's woke was a term for black political consciousness. But it has now evolved, throughout the West, to encompass gender and sexual identity in all its forms, along with other progressive social causes driven by the activist young.

While not the original intention, the woke movement has also led to the condemnation of dead old white men - their writings, their history, their art, and achievements - which are condemned as racist, colonialist, patriarchal, misogynistic, and irrelevant to life today. So, they are cancelled.

Old women, of course go down with the men, as we aren't regarded as having any history or achievements anyway. We were their silent partners. Old people of colour go down too.

As one commentator puts it, we older people are - 'one privileged, environment destroying, wealth and property hugging mass, undifferentiated by race, sex or class'. (Victoria Smith,  Hags. The demonisation of middle-aged women , 2023.)

This broader woke agenda is insidiously ageist. As statues are toppled, we old codgers are expected to stand aside, conceding that our time to contribute has gone. We are on the wrong side of history.

Into this life we are living comes A.I, the latest technological bombshell. You can ask A.I. any question. It can capture voices and imagery and shape them. We have no idea what the outcome of this latest tech boom will bring, but our generation has certainly been left behind. And we will fall further and further behind, because there is no plan to help us join in.

Cheques are being phased out for mobile wallets. All major companies now troubleshoot online. You can reach no one unless you are technically proficient. Paying a raft of bills online, means pressing multiple buttons, desperate to reach a voice on the other end, even when they are speaking with accents impossible to understand.

The telephone was once a lifeline for older people to have company, speak to friends and counter loneliness. Now we approach it cautiously. We have frequent calls from scammers. The taxation department or the police are after us. Our computer has a glitch, they say they can fix with a click. Your son needs money. With A.I. they will have the ability to capture your son's voice to ask you for the money he purportedly needs, with reasons why. This is not science fiction.

The television and radio programs you used to enjoy are disappearing, as even the ABC now, is attempting to target younger consumers 25-50 as they go digital. The over 55s, who have been the ABC's mature loyal followers, are not regarded as an audience of value although we are the fastest growing group in Australia.

When we do make the news, it is as victims of abuse and neglect or as privileged Boomers. There we are caught in a Catch 22. We are selfish if we are living alone in a large family home where we have lived for decades, taking up space the young deserve. When we do downsize, paying cash for a smaller home with no interest, we are benefitting from inflated house prices. Either way somehow, we are advantaged, exploiting a generational divide.

Old Age is a gift. We have been given 30 more years across a century, than our predecessors. Yet while medical science has kept us alive, no one has given attention to what we should be doing with those years. The government seems to think that by attempting to address the appalling situation in aged care they are dealing with the major issue facing older people. But they are not. Only 4% of those of us over 65 are in aged care, with numbers dropping.

Ageing generally has been commodified. While the market has been selling youth for decades, now they are also selling lifestyle for elders, travel, cruises, cocktails, and sunsets. Financial advice, insurance, retirement villages. pickle ball. Some of us have chosen to live in village communities and may be content there; but they are ghettos for the aged. Out of sight out of mind.

Most of us still want to age at home, with purpose. Minimal help may be all we need, but that is so difficult to come by. Government policies ensure every possible obstacle is placed in our way.

Of course, we get sick. Different parts of the body go wrong and lose function. But Dr X only deals with one bit of us and seems to know nothing about all the other bits. So, we end up with an array of doctors for our complaints. We hope for a GP who will listen and give the time needed to get to what is really bothering us. But the system is not geared for such service. Fifteen-minute appointments and one ailment at a time is the approach.

It's clear that what needs to be done for our ageing well-being is going to take some time. And we are pioneers. We are the first generation on the planet to live long lives, in large numbers. Like it or not, we are the change agents.

Among us we have some very smart experienced people who understand the system and its politics. Now is our time to speak up. Elders today are as angry and disillusioned as the young, fed up with corruption, corporate greed, and inert, incompetent politicians. And we should not go quietly into that goodnight. Together with the young we could reshape and bring hope for the future.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, 'In the end, it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years.'