Updated: May 23
We are lucky to meet with Barbara today. She was supposed to be at a Ladies Auxiliary meeting at the hospital and she has plans for every other day this week. Her daughter says, ‘Mum we only ring you of a night time because you’re never home through the day.’ This lady is a master at keeping herself meaningfully occupied and she has been honing this skill most of her life, but especially the past 29 years since her husband died. Barbara says she didn’t know what to do when her husband first passed away and she remembers her husband’s professor telling her, “You can always go and sit in a corner, vegetate, die within a few years or you can get out, do things for yourself and have a life.” ‘And that’s what I did. People say to me, “How do you do all these things?”, like with my husband passing away early [he was 60], my Dad died of Alzheimer’s and I had to look after my Mum, then when my son passed away and his wife as well, people have said to me, “How do you cope with it all?”, I said, “I just do it.” It’s a choice. You either sit there, vegetate, die or you get out and do things and that’s why I do things.’
With that philosophy in mind and 29 years of practice Barbara has tried many activities. Pottery, landscape painting, folk art, teddy bear making and darts are some examples. You don’t have to stick with the same hobbies forever. You can try things and do them as long as you enjoy them. She has travelled the world and enjoyed cruising. ‘We used to have fun on those cruise ships. I went with my friend who was 95 and other people. If they had hat making or flower making or painting or if they had something else, we’d go to all those classes, we used to have a ball, we used to love it.’ Barbara’s experience teaches us how one thing leads to another and while the activity might not last, the friendships and connections made often do. ‘I still keep in contact with the ladies that I played darts with. We go out about once every couple of months.’
Some activities have stood the test of time. One activity that Barbara did for 20 years was volunteer at the Nursing Home where her Mum lived. ‘It wasn’t as though I put her [Mum] there, she wanted to go there because she was by herself in a big house out at Revesby. I started while I was still working and I used to go over sometimes of a night.’ When her Mum passed away and Barbara retired she kept volunteering there. ‘We did craft with the old ladies and then we worked in the coffee shop there as well.’ Barbara also took minutes for the Residents and Relatives Meetings for a few years. She worked with the Director of Nursing to get the suggestions from the meeting put into practice. Sounds like a lot of work for a volunteer but Barbara comments, ‘I love doing things like that.’ Covid restrictions have stopped her volunteering there for now but she goes out every week with the other volunteers she used to volunteer with at the Nursing Home. ‘We’ve all kept friends. There’s about six to eight of us that go to Bankstown Trotting Club. We go for morning tea but we never come home until about half past one. We go there and see each other and exchange books and do all sorts of things.’
Barbara’s experience volunteering in the nursing home has given her valuable skills which has allowed her to help her peers. She is not afraid of nursing homes and says, ‘See I know what it’s like. A lot of people say “I wouldn’t go there, they don’t look after you.” I said “It all depends on the nursing home.”’ Barbara has been able to support friends when they visit their spouses who live in residential care and she encourages them to speak up when things aren’t right. She is also trained and experienced in with working with people who have dementia. She is not afraid to socialise with peers who have memory problems. One of her friends who has Alzheimer’s disease is being cared for by her husband. ‘I have morning tea with them and it just gives him a break as well, to talk to somebody. I keep saying to him, “That’s not the way to talk to her.” It’s just the way you say it. You’ve got to treat them softly. My friend won’t do what he says but I can get her to do things, like have her cup of tea.’
Barbara’s nursing home volunteering experience also led her to Open Door. ‘My best friend, who I met at the nursing home, we used to go to Open Door at Fairfield. The group has been going for over 30 years. Don’t ask me how it started. It was just a couple of ladies thought that they wanted company and they just set it up and word got around, we’ve never advertised. Word gets around that these ladies teach knitting or crocheting and you’re welcome. It’s for people, lonely, haven’t got anything to do. If they didn’t know how to crochet or knit we would teach them how to do it. We used to have about 40 people come. It was all nationalities, we have Vietnamese ladies come, anybody could come. We used to meet at a hall but it closed at the end of last year because of Covid. We’ve all nearly gone mental because we haven’t been together but we have just found another group at Bonnyrigg library. We went out to see them to ask if it would be ok for us to join them and they said, “Yes, it’d be lovely.” You ought to see us, we’ve got this big circle in the library now. They’ve made us so welcome and the people are so lovely.’
Another one of Barbara’s strengths is that she drives. ‘I got my license last year again, that’s twice I’ve been for it [the driving test]. I get unrestricted. I go to Bankstown and a friend of mine lives over Blacktown, I go over there. I go down Sussex Inlet. Why would I get a restricted one?’ Barbara drove her son all over Brisbane when she stayed with him as his carer before he passed away from cancer. She drives her friends who don’t drive anymore, ‘I always have. I’m the driver and I take everybody shopping.’ One of her neighbours also drives and they share the driving and shop for groceries together with another neighbour who doesn’t drive. Shopping with her neighbours has worked out well for Barbara. She has problems with her heart and finds it difficult to breathe at times. ‘I get puffed out now but I’ve only got to sit down for about 5 minutes and then I’m fine. That’s how I manage it. The other ladies are always there [when shopping] and they’ll say to me, “You’re a bit breathless”, and we’ll sit down and have a cup of coffee. So that’s what we do.’
It would be easy to think Barbara must not have many health problems being as active as she is. This is not the case. She has survived breast cancer and had a mastectomy when she was 80. She has recovered from a severe infection in her spine in 2019 that left her barely able to walk. Barbara’s attitude keeps her going. ‘I still went everywhere, I still drove. I went shopping and everything like it, with the chord hanging out. Well, what was I going to do, sit at home?’. Not being one to sit at home, Covid restrictions were a challenge for Barbara. ‘Oh, I nearly went mental. I knitted so many beanies, so many scarves, I crocheted so many rugs. I just sat there and did all that. So a lot of people got beanies and scarves. We gave them to the elderly and the homeless.’ Barbara used to be involved with a local organisation who helped hand out the beanies and scarves but Barbara says the funding was cut and she is not involved with them anymore. ‘It used to be for the elderly, it’s only now for families and children and they’ve cut us out.’ This funding cut, excluding older people, has made the risk of isolation higher for many older people. One of Barbara’s neighbours helped her during Covid restrictions. ‘If I wanted anything I’d only have to ring her and she’d just go and get me milk or bread or if I ran out of anything. If I wanted anything at the chemist or that, she used to just do that for me.’
Barbara shares the practical details about how she thinks and what she does to stay living independently in her home at the age of 87. She does her own housework although quite a few people have suggested she should have help with the vacuuming. ‘While I can still do it, I’ll do it and then when I can’t, that’s when I’ll get somebody to help me.’ Barbara’s daughter and granddaughter live nearly three hours away and Barbara gets them to help when they visit. ‘They do things for me if I need it done. Bigger jobs like curtains. I’m waiting for them to come and take the curtains down to wash them. So I’ll do that next. I’m not proud to ask anybody, if I know I can’t do it, for them to do it. Why struggle?’ She mowed her own lawn until she was 84. Now she pays a local person to do it for her. ‘He works for himself and I’d rather give it to local people and give him the money than go through the Government. If I can afford it, so I do it. If you can do for somebody that’s local then that’s good.’
She did have help from the Government to put rails in her home for safety. ‘I got one [rail] out the front and back steps and they put one beside the toilet in the bathroom and in the shower. Now they’re good, but I didn’t want them at the time. That’s what I said to them, “Do you think I’m old?”. Now it’s good because I do need help sometimes. If I’m a bit wobbly I’ll just hang on to the rail and then I’m fine. They’ve put one beside the toilet, at the moment I can still get up, but there are times when you can’t get up.’
Barbara says she’s lucky to have friends, many have now passed away. But we have just learned it’s not luck at all. It’s her willingness to help others and stay active and involved. ‘I like doing it anyrate, it keeps me going.’ Barbara is interested in the lives of her family and the people around her. She likes hearing what they are doing and how they are going. ‘I’ve got Facebook, that’s how they all communicate with me on Facebook. She [granddaughter] puts all the pictures of the baby on Facebook for me, so I see the baby that way.’ The children of Barbara's friends also stay in contact with her. Barbara’s close friend passed away last year but her friend’s daughter calls in to visit on her way home from work sometimes.
According to Barbara, there is no excuse for being bored. ‘I’m always going crook every time I see somebody on the TV and they say, “Oh, I haven’t got anything to do” and they sit and they look so miserable. I think, “Get out, get off your *** and go and do something. There’s so many volunteer things to do.”’ So, let Barbara be your inspiration to make an effort to get out and do something. You might enjoy it, you might learn something new, you might make a new friend.