Dr DHARAM BHUGUN

Psychosocial Therapist. Gold Coast, Australia.

Lecturer/Clinical Student Supervisor, Griffith University, Australia.

It is important to acknowledge that older people are not just a homogenous group of people, that ageing is individual and affects us all individually. We are not just talking about sort of being old, elderly and frail, which is what comes to mind, but about the fact that we evolve and change over the life cycle. We start ageing the minute we are born. We are in fact taking on new things that can be both challenges and opportunities to pave our way in life.

There is a whole lot of people who are really very happy, feel positive about the future, have well-supported relationships and networks, and have good skills to deal with daily tasks and life matters. Statistics shows that 15% of people over the age of 65 are still working, which means only 85% of retirees are fully retired. Only 9% of people under 65 have dementia, which means 91% do not have dementia. And even some people in their 80s are still working full time, thus clearly showing that they are one of the 67% who don’t have dementia.*

As we think of ourselves, going through these transitions, we can look forward to our future, that we are going to feel happier in our lives than perhaps we did between 20 and 30. At 60 most of our children have left home and have their own families. We had kids at home for many years, and now we need to learn how to be wise, mature persons who can listen to our adult children do their own thing, trust them to make their own mistakes and know when to offer advice.

In older days, you start to become more aware of your losses and risks. If you fall, it is just not an accident. You have a fall because that is what older people have. Old age is a battle. But I do not think it is like that for everyone. It is for some people. It is a fact that most elderly need glasses and their hearing is not so good, which can make conversations very humorous at times. It is important to know that when people come to us with concerns such as memory loss, health issues, and say things like “I think I’m losing my mind. Have I got Alzheimers? I am not sleeping well. I am getting hot flushes. I’m really feeling like my relationships are not as good as it used to be”, it is just the fact that we’re going through a transition.

Much of our training is focused on the degenerative processes that happen within bodies and things that happen as we get older, that more things go wrong. Theoretically, you can be young and have all sorts of things that are wrong as well. Terminal illnesses do not just affect the older generations, but it is one of those things that we need to help people to recognize and give them strategies to cope with the related issues. Many people lose their driving abilities, licence and mobility, and they cannot go to places independently. That is a huge and significant loss. Then come the huge adjustments they need to make, such as accessing the supports they need. How do they do it from home, what does that mean, and how do people think about them? The twinge becomes more than a twinge. It becomes a pain, especially when you see images of advertisements of beautiful, gracefully ageing people tripping along the beach with beautiful grey hair, nicely dressed and looking absolutely gorgeous.

There are also some great challenges for elderly people such as society’s expectations, like when they are told “No, no, no, no. You’re too tired to do any exercise, you can’t walk to the shops, let me take you”. It is almost infantilizing an older person, who might still be able to do a lot of stuff and might still be able to keep active. How often we see, for example, a female with grey hair getting into a crowded bus and a young person with all good intentions, standing up because they see her grey hair and how old she is and go “here you are, madam. You could sit down”. Just because you have grey hair and may be your voice is a bit wobbly, and you might think or speak a little bit more slowly does not mean that you are not on the ball. It is really important for us to maintain a sort of perspective of the individual in front of you and really study them, and don’t just go by physical appearances and your expectations of what someone who looks like this should be like. It does not mean they are brain dead.

Research is showing that happiness or contentedness in life is not just a steady decline towards ageing. We do not deny that when we get old, we can become depressed and sad, and be cognizant that it is nearing the end, that you are into the Valley of Death. What is more important is to recognize that ageing is a U-bend with positivisms and measures of happiness increasing with age. There is so much going on in the lives of people and we see such resilience and stoicism when they talk so interestingly about the things that have happened in their lives.

As I mentioned earlier, old age is not homogenous. We do not enter the sixties and then suddenly, we lose our potentials and human agency. Irrespective of cultural perspectives, we are unique and individuals. We need to be respected as friends. We need to be mindful of each person’s story. We need to remind ourselves of the ecological system, the big picture around people and the impact it has on them from society’s expectations. We must be very mindful of asking the elderly what type of life they had, what risks are they prepared to have, what does life mean for them, and what does their future look like? In conclusion, acceptance and respect for the elderly is the key to their physical and mental well-being.

* ABS (2018): Older Australians at a glance