‘Still the same’: Maintaining identity and well-being with age

Situated in a rural town in Victoria my doctoral field work focussed on the informal learning of women participating in community organisations.  Leonie (currently aged 96 and a resident in aged care), recounted her lifelong participation in ‘trying to make things better for everyone if I could’ in organisations such as the Hospital Auxiliary, the Anglican Church, Country Women’s Association, ‘Meals on Wheels’, Guides, the Bowling Club. Residing in aged care, she continues to care and help others. As she explained:

“In what I did I was always happy in doing it. It was something I was able to do and learn from and be of help. I am still the same. Even at the table in our communal dining room when we have people with us who can’t do things for themselves. I like to help them. And I must be the oldest of the lot.”

She considers herself a lucky one who continues to pursue interesting and fulfilling activities – even the crossword. ‘I thank God I have my memory’. Leonie’s hearing, although diminished, enables her to communicate well and her eyesight is good enough for pursuing her favourite pastime – doing cross-words. However, she does resort to using a magnifying glass when she needs to refer to her small dictionary. While not alluding to it, beside her easy chair sits the nebuliser pump which she needs to use daily for a chronic lung condition.  Leonie spoke of how illness, or loss of memory, hearing, sight and mobility, encroach on the lives of others in the residence. She is inspired by their achievements.

“We’ve got one lady here … who has got Parkinson’s and shakes all the time. She has diabetes with insulin twice a day, she’s all crippled up with arthritis. She is an inspiration! I was sitting opposite her in the craft room the other day and I just watched her. There was a new knitting or embroidery stitch pattern or something just out, and she said that she would love to learn it. So here was a girl sitting down next to her – teaching her how to do this pattern for the article she was making. And I thought – ‘to have that will-power, to be able to want to do that. It’s amazing!’”

Recently Leonie resumed knitting in response to an appeal for knitted vests for the starving babies in Africa where the parents have AIDS and the little babies are sent home wrapped in cardboard because they have no money for clothes.

“I never thought I would be knitting babies’ jackets at age 96! ... It is only a drop in the ocean, but it is a help.  I have always wished, from when I was a kid going to Sunday School, that I could have gone out and helped the poor people in Africa and other places.”

Despite being reassured that ‘the Africans like bold colours’, Leonie was a little disappointed with the ‘harsh’ colour of the wool she was given, but she was thankful to be ‘able to do it, and thought that I’ll do that, and that’s my little bit’. At the same time, she was anticipating the next day’s craft session and beginning to hand knit strips for the latest request for quilts.

[Source: Dr Helen Aberton, Honorary Fellow, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. helen.aberton@unimelb.edu.au]