MELANIE JOOSTEN A Long Time Coming: Essays on old age. Reviewed by Shelley McInnis
Old age may be a long time coming, but it is coming. This eloquent collection advocates for the elderly.
It was a Doris Lessing novel – specifically, Diary of a Good Neighbour – that inspired Melanie Joosten to take up social work with the idea of working with older people in need. Joosten did not want to live a life filled only with beautiful words, but with meaningful actions, too. In the very week that her debut novel Berlin Syndrome was published to great acclaim, she began meeting regularly with nursing-home residents, becoming a passionate advocate for the elderly.
This collection of essays is in sympathy with the spirit of Karen Hitchcock’s Dear Life (Quarterly Essay 57), which argued we should be caring less about the right to die than about the quality of life of elderly citizens. However, the tone of Joosten’s prose is gentler: less critical, and more personal. As she visits interview subjects in places as remote as a nursing home on Bathurst Island, and as familiar as Melbourne’s CBD, she interweaves the voices of her subjects with pertinent facts, as well as snippets of information about her own life. Even when she is talking about demographic trends, her writing is vivid and surprising. Here she is telling us about Neville, who, thanks to the global financial crisis and a subsequent divorce, suddenly found himself homeless at 73:
Neville reminds me of my dad. It isn’t physical: Neville is taller than my father and his hair is soft-laundered white, while Dad’s is clipped close to the skull and still greying. It’s not his manner, either: Neville’s conversation is a polite tugboat, ploughing resolutely through the choppy waters of my questions, whereas Dad’s manner is that of a kite-surfer, ducking and weaving in the hunt for a sharp aside or witty comment.
Joosten’s short book is not marked by sharp asides or witty comments, but it has plenty of smart things to say about housing policy, for example, that federal campaigners would be wise to heed. Neville was saved by a Home at Last service operating through Melbourne’s Housing for the Aged Action Group, which helped 3400 people in its first year of operation. The book also talks about how the media frames feminist issues around the concerns of younger women, and how even to younger feminists the interests of older women appear to be invisible. Germaine Greer, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and others have recorded their experiences of ageing, Joosten notes, but where, she asks, are the women prepared to take up their cause?
The essays are marked by a melancholia no doubt born of in-depth exposure to our collective neglect of the elderly and the subject of ageing – except, it would seem, as an economic or budgetary issue about which we are enjoined to wring our hands and form negative opinions of both the ageing process and the entire aged population:
When governments talk of dependence ratios, and economists deplore the imminent grey tsunami of the ageing population, it is no surprise that we come to internalise this marginalisation as we age until the thing most feared is not death, ill health, or to be alone, but to be a burden.
We dart and weave and ‘actively age’. We fantasise about immortality and spend, on average, if we are rich Western women, around $40 000 on anti-ageing creams in a lifetime. We’d be better off volunteering to spend time with our elders. We could walk towards a swimming pool with some of them, as Joosten once did, towering over her companions, and seeing in the slouching of her own shoulders her own future. Old age may be a long time coming, but it is coming, and as Joosten argues in this eloquent collection, when we get there we will all want to feel as though we have the right to be there.
Melanie Joosten A Long Time Coming: Essays on Old Age Scribe 2016 PB 256pp $27.99
Shelley McInnis is a retired academic and health policy analyst who is now a health care consumer advocate with a special interest in aged care.
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