Uniting Friends of Ageing First National Conversation

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The first national conversation for Uniting Friends of Ageing was held on 2 December. The purpose of UFA Voices is to provide an opportunity to hear what older people in the Uniting Church are saying. The following report has been provided by Eleanor, a participant in the conversation. It includes Eleanor’s reflections on topics discussed on 2 December, and closes with a personal reflection.

“These are my impressions of the zoom meeting held on Thursday 3rd December 2021, accompanied by a thunderstorm in Melbourne. It was the first meeting of a new network organised by UnitingCare Australia called Uniting Friends of Ageing. Three of their staff were present: Warren Talbot, Campaign Engagement Officer, Kate Gainer, Senior Adviser – Aged Care, and Anna Minson, Director – Communications and Public Affairs.

The meeting opened with a moving acknowledgement of country followed by a prayer of thanks and a request for grace as we age. The people present introduced themselves in turn by naming the church they attended followed by a brief statement of their interest in the topic of ageing and aged care. Most of the participants came from New South Wales, one from Queensland and two from Victoria. The group plans to meet again in the new year. Arrangements have been made for a second Older Persons Sunday on 2 October 2022.

Two main aspects of older people’s concerns emerged during the discussion. The first was the Uniting Church’s response to people who are ageing. A common theme was that the wisdom of older church members was sometimes disregarded. Older people are left feeling they have little to offer and they lose their sense of purpose. One speaker suggested there were not enough older people on the church’s policy making bodies. Another felt that unrealistic demands were being made of an older congregation while the spiritual needs of its people were ignored. Others commented that there seemed to be an emphasis on youth and that the needs and preferences of older church members were ignored. Another speaker suggested that churches need to be inclusive communities so everyone feels welcome. Space needs to be found for traditional worship for the older folk alongside worship that caters for the youth.

The disregard for the wisdom of older people was also significant in the second area of concern. This was in the provision of government services for an ageing population. UnitingCare Australia regularly advocates for older people to the Government and the Opposition. Aged care providers are not confident that the response to the Royal Commission on Aged Care is appropriate. They believe the wide range of needs and the opportunities for choice may not be met. The point was made that older people need support for physical, emotional and spiritual needs, not institutionalisation. They should not have a lesser standard of health and disability care.

The problems of navigating the complex requirements of the Government’s Aged Care system and the lack of support for self-funded retirees trying to arrange appropriate services when they were leaving hospital were mentioned. With a federal election due in the first part of 2022 we have an opportunity to interrogate candidates on their policies for aged care and to draw their attention to our concerns.

Three people mentioned that they were now living alone. A gentleman explained that he had never considered himself to be old until his wife had to go into care and now he is identifying as old. One of widows was writing poetry, usually of love, loss and grief, which moved her to tears. I identified with that because I did not finish what I wanted to say about my experiences with my husband in care during Covid. While the nursing home had regulations to keep the residents safe I watched my husband gradually withdraw. He had slight dementia and his hearing was poor. Keeping in touch by telephone did not work, the computer was a little better if someone was available to help him. Once we had to wear masks for our weekly window visits he could not make out what we were saying. Although we had been assured that when the end came we would be given plenty of time to say our farewells that was not the case. On the day he died I was told to come at three o’clock. I was there in good time but I waited outside on the veranda until finally a nurse came and told me ‘he had passed’. None of his family was with him. Did he think we had deserted him? This moves me to tears every time I think of it. Other people had far worse experiences with nursing homes during Covid. We must be able to do better than this.”