There’s a sparkle in Bea’s eye that is quietly taking my measure as she greets me at her door. She has been defying odds since early childhood, overcoming childhood illness including tuberculosis. She is still defiant against the stereotypes of ageing and continues to work, although she doesn’t feel like it is work. She has been teaching music for 70 years. She calls herself a ‘delinquent geriatric’ and when I am shocked by this and nervously laugh at her turn of phrase she says ‘I don’t know what is funny about that, lets be honest about it. Well I am a geriatric, a delinquent geriatric’.
And that sets the tone for a refreshingly honest conversation about getting older and staying independent. At 88, Bea lives alone after her husband Mac died some years ago. She says she is lucky but after our chat I know that it is not luck, but an ability to adapt to getting older that has kept her independent. Bea has generously shared how she thinks and what she does that has helped her to stay independent. She has a little help from the Commonwealth Home Support Program domestic assistance service but even the way she uses that help contributes to her independence. Here is what Bea has to say about adapting to getting older and staying independent.
- I have a lot of things I have had to alter, not that I have had to give up. Take my house cleaning for instance. In years gone by the whole house would be done in one day. Wednesday is housecleaning day and everything is done. The house still must be cleaned but it can’t be done in one day anymore. It has to be one room maybe, and if necessary, a section of one room, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. It just means that you have had to change the way that you do it. I have a cleaner come once a fortnight through the system. My helper is brilliant with the vacuuming but I don’t want anything else. She is willing and asks me if I want her to do anything else, but I say no because I want to do it my way. I would hate to be totally reliant on anybody for anything, and pray that never does happen to me. The only thing that would ever stop me if my brain went, I can’t control that. But if my brain still continues to function I will find a way. Because there is a way to be found, you just have to have the will to find it, and be prepared to do things differently, but still do them.
- That’s the biggest thing in all of this – don’t think that you have reached the end of anything. You haven’t reached the end of anything. There is still more that you can do, more that you can achieve and more that you can learn, about anything at all. There must be something in everybody’s life that interests them. It can be as simple as housework. Keep your interests going and aim at perfection, because perfection only exists in the life of fools. Only a fool can think that they can reach perfection, but you can be very good.
- I can’t see myself ever being without music. I don’t spend a lot of time at it anymore, but the time I do spend at it I enjoy. My harmony was never very good so I am thinking that I will go back to studying harmony. (Me: Is that singing?) No, that’s written work. (Me: So there is more to learn for you Bea after more than 70 years?) Oh God yes, if only I knew half of it. There is a lot more there. The only thing is I think ‘what will I do with it?’. But I will go back to it, soon, because the urge is getting stronger that I really do want to understand harmony better than I understand it now. It’s not going to do me any good, I’ll never use it, but I will have the satisfaction of having mastered it.
- You can’t help that your body changes, you have physical changes. You have to learn how to manage those changes and they are all manageable. Every single thing is manageable, you just have to find the way.
I have a current example – three weeks ago I had a nasty fall in the bathroom. I didn’t break anything. I just knocked myself around. I am still not completely out of pain yet but I am good. But for two weeks afterwards I could barely move. (Me: You live alone, you can’t move, how did you not panic?) Ok, things were rough, very rough and various suggestions came up from friends as to how I was to handle this – wheelchairs and God knows what. There is plenty of furniture I can get from one piece to another. I crawled around, but it’s over now. It’s a passage in time I don’t want to re - live, it was ghastly. I was in a lot of pain and I did a lot of yelling and it was all atonal, none of it musical whatsoever. I’m over it now though. You have got to make up your mind. You can make up your mind one of two ways – you can either say – well this is the end of me, I am now incapable, I am frail, I am fragile. Or you can say – this is a bit ‘disbuggerous’– but I will find a way around it. I now have a bath chair in there and it has the handles on the side and a back on it. It annoys the hell out of me, I don’t sit on it, I do not like it, I just push it to the back, but it is useful. But that was the solution, better than having someone come and help me to shower. It’s a safety measure and I am not letting my pride stop me from being safe.
- If anything you get better as you get older. Nobody can take away the knowledge that you have gained. That is with you forever and its something that even the government can’t touch, and they can’t tax it either. So, If you keep remembering that, that knowledge is still with you, plus the extra knowledge you are about to gain because you are looking at a different set of circumstances, so you are going to gain new knowledge, then how can you be that much worse off?
- I look at it this way, I am more of value now than I was 10 years ago because I have 10 years experience behind me. So, instead of thinking that my knowledge and my usefulness is diminishing I tend to think it is increasing and as far as I am concerned I have a lot to offer, as everybody that we are talking about here (the over 85's) has to offer, they just don’t always see it. The big thing is, don’t let the world try to convince you otherwise. And the world does try to convince you otherwise but I won’t play that game.
- You have to acknowledge your age, but you don’t have to accept it. You have to be realistic, you can’t suddenly think you are a spring chicken when you are not. You have to acknowledge that there are things now, not that you can’t do, but that you have to do differently. That’s a big thing. Accept that. Don’t accept that you can’t do it, but that you have to do it differently. I acknowledge my age, I acknowledge the fact that I am slower now than I was. Although I am still a lot faster than a lot of young people but I am slower than I was. I had to do a plane trip a few years ago. I had to walk out to the plane on the tarmac and there were a lot of stairs going up to the plane. I thought, this is going to be fun, I knew I was going to be slow. So I said to the people behind me to go ahead and I went slowly. That’s what I mean by accepting it, I knew I was going to be slow and aggravate the people behind me, but I didn’t say I couldn’t do it, I was slow and I let the people behind me pass me.
- Acknowledge the situation but don’t accept it. Acknowledge the situation - right I can’t do much about that. I can’t do much about growing older, I can’t stop it, I can’t halt it, I can’t reverse it in any shape or form, but the limitations that are there are society’s limitations. They are not legit. I love it when I hear that the oldies should be off the road, I have a medical once a year to prove I am capable of being here on the road, you don’t. Here we come to adapting again, I decided for myself that at 85 I was going to opt for a modified license. (Reduced km). I am ok with my driving but I am not happy driving with the rest of them so I keep it local to driving around here. So I then had everything centralised as much as possible to my local area, like doctor and dentist and optometrist. I could get to the train station to get anywhere further I needed to be. My neighbour and friends give me a lift when I need it if I can’t get there myself.
- Adapting with shopping, instead of getting someone to go for me, I go when its quiet. I go early or at lunch time. Lunch time is a good time, the Mums have got the kids to school and done their shop and they are home again, the workers are gone and its pretty quiet. I will never go in the peak times. I shop in bulk. I don’t buy one or two I buy a dozen, of course you have to have the storage to do this.
- I can’t be bothered to sit there woe is me, I can’t be bothered with that. I can get down and get depressed and can think why don’t I feel well, I am tired of this. I get all those normal feelings. But there is no time for me to be bothered by this. I am incredibly lucky and I know that. I look around me and I think God I am blessed, I’ve got everything I need. Not everything I want, but certainly everything I need. I have more comforts in my life than I think a lot of people have. A lot of that is because of forethought. Like my bed, its electric. Mac and I got them for our retirement, mainly because we had breathing problems, but what a blessing when my back was bad. You have to make your home suit you when you get older. We used to live at the other home on the property and we built this home planning everything around eventualities for getting older. Its all designed for a walking frame and a wheelchair should it ever need that, or space for a second person to help. I have a good life.
This story was funded by MDS Training - Sector Support and Development Project and the Australian Government Commonwealth Home Support Program.