Meet Irene, who is 94 years of age and lives at home by herself independently. Being 94 years of age is not easy and only the most determined will succeed. When asked how she manages she says, ‘Will power I suppose, being determined. I’m not going to give in. Just being able to do things and if I find I can’t do things I leave it alone.’ Welcome to the masterclass in ageing independently. It’s not all sunshine and flowers, there are many challenges to be navigated. Losing your partner, your friends and all of your siblings is bad enough but add to that the loss of your health and in Irene’s case the loss of her vision. There is enough loss here to sink anyone, but not Irene. ‘It’s not as good as what it’s cracked up to be [being 94]. I thought when you got old and you retired you were able to do this and that and everything else. Never give a thought to the fact that you’ve got to stop and take all these pills. It’s not that bad once you’ve got yourself organised.’ Don’t be fooled by her tiny stature (4 ft 6) or her advanced years, this is one of the toughest ladies you may ever meet.
‘You don’t let yourself get depressed because if you get depressed you go down. If I start to get depressed I try to pull myself out of it. I think about the kids, maybe put some music on and listen to it, ring the kids up, ring somebody up, talk to them. The eldest sister she died at Christmas time. I got fairly depressed when Rita went at Christmas time because she was the last one in the family other than me. She was the last one who if I was feeling really depressed, I’d ring her up and we’d stay and chat. Rita’s daughter rings me up all the time now and the other sister Kathleen one of her daughters keeps in touch with me and she comes over and sees me. I think that’s the main thing with depression, people get depressed and they let it get hold of them and they don’t try to pull themselves out of it and they go down quicker. As soon as I feel like as if I’m getting depressed I do something.’ Irene also has strategies for insomnia. ‘If I wake up through the night and start thinking about things I get up and I make a cup of tea or I get on the computer and turn that on and have a game of cards. There’s nothing worse than laying in bed and trying to go to sleep and not being able to go to sleep. I get up and do things and go back to bed and then go to sleep.’
Irene talks about her vision loss, ‘Well I’ve just had to get used to it but it has gone gradually. It is getting worse. I’m completely blind in this eye. I had a stroke a while back, 24 years ago, a slight stroke, I didn’t even know I’d had a stroke and I just started seeing purple sort of patches. I finally went to the hospital and they done tests on it and they told me I’d had a stroke and it had burst all the blood vessels at the back of my eye and they said unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done about it and they just sort of left it at that.’ Irene ended up seeing an eye specialist a few years later for migraines. ‘He said he probably would have saved the sight if I’d gone to him straight away. Then I got a cataract and they kept saying we’re not going to touch the cataract in the good eye until it’s absolutely necessary.’ About 5 years ago the necessary time came to remove the cataract and Irene says her surgeon said it was the biggest cataract he’d ever taken out of anyone’s eye. Her vision was good for a while then she got macular degeneration. ‘I was going up the road to vote one Saturday morning and all the fences look crooked and the white lines on the road looked crooked.’ Irene went to her eye doctor first thing Monday where he told her she had macular degeneration. She got the first injection into her eye the next day and, ‘Now I have one every three months. It will never cure it, it just stops it from bleeding again. They are working on stem cells to try to find a cure for it but unfortunately it won’t be in my time.
‘It’s been about 2 years since the macular degeneration. I just try and arrange things so as I know where everything is. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go completely blind cause my daughter has asked me to move in to her granny flat but I’d rather be on my own. You’ve got nowhere to walk around or anything [in a granny flat]. There’s plenty of space here.’ Irene doesn’t use a walking aid when she’s in her home. ‘Around the house I know where I am going and what I am doing. I make sure I keep my place locked and don’t open the door to strangers. I talk to them through the fly screen door. So, what’s going to happen when I lose my sight completely? I don’t know. I just live day by day. If I find I can’t do something, I don’t do it, I leave it alone. Oh I’m hanging on to staying here, that’s for sure. One of the grandsons lives close by, he comes around and mows the lawn for me. The neighbour calls in and brings bins in and out. If I haven’t got them out when he’s putting his bins out, he puts mine out. That helps a lot when you’ve got good neighbours that check on you and help you.’
Irene doesn’t go out much anymore. ‘Sometimes I feel like going out, I was (going out) up until that Covid started and that sort of stopped me doing anything. I like going out to the shops, that’s one thing I do miss - is being able to go down and walk around the shops.’ She has a Government subsidised service that used to take her shopping. ‘Before the Covid thing she used to just come and pick me up and she’d take me to whatever shop I wanted to go to. But then when the Covid started, well, they weren’t allowed to. Now she just comes and picks up the list and the money and goes and does the shopping for me and brings it back. I go out with a group on Friday, an aged care group [Focus Connect]. The group’s only been meeting again for about 5 or 6 months now, since we’ve got back together [after Covid restrictions]. It’s someone different to be with, talk to. I’m the oldest there.’ Irene doesn’t go out by herself, ‘It depends if one of the daughters come up and take me out, I go out with them. When I go out anywhere I take the wheelie walker, because sometimes you’re walking and the pavers are up and you don’t see them or you don’t see a gutter.’
Maybe Irene’s earlier life prepared her for the challenges she faces now in her 90’s. ‘To wash a floor we used to get down on our hands and knees with a bucket of water and a cake of soap and a scrubbing brush. We’d scrub the floor with the scrubbing brush and wipe it over with the cloth. And then you’d have to polish it. You’d get down on your hands and knees and put the polish on and rubbed it off.’ Surely you only had to do this once a year? ‘No, you’d do that once a week. We used to wash on a Monday, do the ironing on a Tuesday, clean the house on the Wednesday and on the Thursday and the Friday do the shopping. Everything was done to a timetable sort of thing. It was a lot of hard work.’ Her husband left when their four kids were little. This was at a time when married women weren’t allowed to work so she cleaned a barber shop once a week and took in ironing to make ends meet. ‘There was none of this Government help. Then one of the daughters fell pregnant and I raised her baby as my own daughter.' When the kids were older Irene rediscovered an old friend Alec who she had known since childhood. He had four kids of his own and they spent over 40 years together until he passed away from cancer. With nine children between them she was always busy.
Irene’s attitude has helped her to accept the changes caused by her vision loss. ‘I used to crochet, I used to knit, I used to sew. I used to make a lot of my own clothes. When the kids were little, I used to make their little clothes and knit their jumpers and cardigans. Well, you just keep going. I don’t think about it, things that are gone. It’s no good dwelling on them, it doesn’t help you. No, I just take things as they come, as they happen. I don’t get upset about things I can’t help, I can’t do anything about. I used to worry about things once and Mum used to say to me, “Why worry? Its gonna end up one way or another and all the worrying in the world isn’t going to change the outcome of it.” I just go about the day doing whatever comes up.’ Irene gets on Facebook to look at photos of the family. ‘Alec bought the computer one Christmas and it sat in the box for about six months before I even took it out of the box. I said to him, “I don’t want a computer” but when I learnt how to use it, it was good. I get on the computer and play patience. I used to do a lot of work on the computer with different photos of all the grandchildren. I made all sorts of separate albums. But I can’t do the things that I used to do because I can’t see what I am doing with it. What’s the good of complaining? Doesn’t get you anywhere. You just take life as it comes.’ Irene is also very good at using her electronic magnifier to read letters and her daughter helps her to read her emails and things she can’t see to read.
Irene has designed a system to manage her medications independently. There are a lot of medications, pre breakfast pills, post breakfast pills, inhalers and eye drops. She has different baskets for all of them and knows what is what. ‘So long as I keep my sight enough to see what I’m doing, it’s easy for me. My daughter says, “It’s easy for you, you know what you’re doing but we don’t know what you’re doing.”’ Irene’s family worry for her safety, but to their credit they allow her to keep control of her life and manage the risks of living alone being legally blind. ‘They all go crook on me because I still get in the bath. They say, “You’re not supposed to get in the bath, you’re supposed to have a shower.” I like a bath. You can relax in the bath. You can’t relax in the shower. I have a bath every morning. I feel good after I’ve had a bath, I don’t think I’ll miss out on a bath.’ She has another trick for her milk. ‘When you don’t get to the shop every day, I get milk and I put it in the smaller bottles and freeze it. It freezes good. I take one out every morning and thaw it out for the next day. I do the same with the margarine.’
Irene gets around her kitchen independently. She has a special device that beeps when her cup is filled with hot water for her tea. Her family live with the fear of Irene having a mishap in the kitchen. Her daughter comes over each week to prepare a weeks’ worth of meals which are then plated and frozen for Irene to heat up each night. ‘She’s just frightened that I’m either going to burn myself or I’m going to set fire to something.’ Irene also chopped up some tomato for her lunch. She has had a lifetime of doing this and had no problem but Irene mentioned her daughter is afraid she will cut her fingers off. Irene’s family doesn’t take away her independence to calm their own fears for her safety. This allows Irene to keep her skills and stay independent. She recently spent a week with family and said she was spoilt by them. Isn’t this good? No, Irene says being spoilt makes her less motivated to do things for herself when she comes home again. She gets satisfaction from being able to do what she can.
Although Irene has learnt not to push it too far. ‘If you find something is too hard to do, don’t do it. If you need help ask for it, yes definitely. Not that I do it very often. One time I’d do something and I’d find it a bit hard to do and I’d be determined that I was going to do it and I’d do it. But now weeding the garden and a weed is too hard to pull out, I leave it. I’ll get somebody when they come to dig it out for me. If it’s hard, if it’s going to cause me aches and pains, I leave it alone. It’s like the vacuum. I can’t pull the vacuum cleaner around. If I try to vacuum the room I’ve got to keep sitting down. I lose my breath so I don’t touch the vacuum cleaner. If I spill something on the floor, there’s a carpet sweeper there, I use that. Irene has inherited services from Veteran Affairs from Alec and they help with housework but she still does her own laundry. Veteran Affairs also helps with transport to medical appointments. ‘It would be harder if I didn’t have help from the family and the neighbours. Especially if I need anything I’ve just got to ask.’ Her daughters will usually go with her when she has medical appointments. ‘They reckon I won’t tell them the truth, which I probably wouldn’t if he told me a thing nasty. Probably not, not until I was ready.’
You may have heard the proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child. Well, it can take a whole village to keep an older person living independently at home. Irene has help from Veteran Affairs, Government subsidised services (CHSP), neighbours and lots of family. Irene is far from a passive recipient of help, she tries her best to do what she is still able to do. ‘Well just do the best you can.’ She keeps good relations with her family. ‘Well I don’t argue the point with them. If they want to argue I might have an argument with one of them and after the argument that’s it. Forget it. Don’t stew on it. You just forget it. It’s no good you have an argument. Just have your say and forget it. Don’t hold a grudge. Makes life a lot easier.’ It doesn’t sound easy but Irene says, ‘Well I don’t suppose it is really but it’s life and what you make of it.’