Age and attitude

24 Comments

 

My parents married during the war. Both my grandmothers were present on that bleak winter’s day in Melbourne, and I have a photograph of them looking old. The weather and the fashions of the time did not help, but they looked much older than 48 and 58. They had been born in the decade from 1885-95, however, and women born then could expect to live to be 51, men to be only 47.

Illustration Chris Johnston

Both grandmothers and my grandfather lived longer than average, attitudes towards ageing have changed, often not for the better, and most white Australians these days expect to see 80.

Writer Thomas Keneally, himself 84, recently expressed his approval of the Shakespearian metaphor: all the world’s a stage. But he could not cope, he said, with the popular and prevailing idea that all the world’s a market, a notion that connects retirement with a lack of productivity, and one that has taken on particular significance during this period of coronavirus. Boris Johnson’s adviser, Dominic Cummings, is alleged to have said that the British government’s strategy was herd immunity and protection of the economy: ‘If that means some pensioners die, too bad.’

This statement was made at the end of February, and was speedily denied, but mortality statistics in Britain’s nursing homes since support the idea of the neglect and stereotyping of older people, and age has long been presented as a societal burden for western countries. Captain Tom Moore might be interested in this point of view: he is the Englishman who started a sponsored walk in his garden as a fund-raising project in the month before his 100th birthday, an effort that culminated in the raising of 32 million pounds for Britain’s NHS.

The thoughts of Cummings and others reached Greece during the time of the Health Ministry’s regular reports to the nation, and were not well-received. Professor Tsiodras, the Ministry’s chief spokesman, an expert on infectious diseases, and a religious, deeply humane man, became quite emotional during one telecast. He pointed out that our identity depends on our parents and our grandparents.

As such, I think it is not only our duty to look after the aged, but a task that brings its own reward in the form of companionship, expressed wisdom, and guidance as to how to manage life’s testing times. I have always had friends decades older than I, and those friendships have been a privilege.

 

'Grandparents also play a vital role in transmitting the culture. As mine did: it is no exaggeration to say that I think of them and their wisdom on most days, and it is now one of my pleasures to tell my Greek grandchildren about their Australian great-great-grandparents.'

 

Different cultures have different attitudes. Italy is the European nation with the largest proportion of people aged over 65 in its population: 22.75 per cent (2018). Portugal and Greece follow with just on 22 per cent. Compare these figures with Australia’s of the same year: 15.66 per cent. In Mediterranean countries, where three-generation households are still common, grandparents, usually held in high esteem, help support the family in all sorts of ways, from child-minding to home maintenance and cooking, which frees parents to be more effective earners of much-needed cash. Grandparents also play a vital role in transmitting the culture. As mine did: it is no exaggeration to say that I think of them and their wisdom on most days, and it is now one of my pleasures to tell my Greek grandchildren about their Australian great-great-grandparents.

And the old remain good at finding solutions to problems. Just before the lockdown started, a friend of my son’s drove to his parents’ village north of Athens. Both parents are well into their 70s, so son explained carefully what they could and couldn’t do. They still lead traditional lives, are largely self-sufficient, but have given up keeping animals. ‘No visiting, socialising, or church,’ said Panos, ‘and no popping along to the supermarket.’

‘Just a minute,’ queried Baba, ‘I take all my pills with milk, so I have to go to the supermarket.’

‘Absolutely not,’ came the reply. ‘You’re going to have to take your pills with water or black tea, whatever.’ And Panos left.

A week or so later, he thought he’d better check on the situation. So he rang up. Mama answered the phone. ‘How’s everything?’

‘Everything’s fine, and Baba is still taking his pills with milk.’

The reaction from Panos was apparently loud and predictable. ‘What did I say about not going to the supermarket?’

‘Calm down,’ said Mama. ‘We don’t go to the supermarket. We’ve bought a goat.’

 

 

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, COVID-19, ageing, Greece, culture, grandparents

 

 

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Existing comments

Hi, Thank you for your participation in providing interesting, entertaining and often thought provoking topics for discussion and how your and your readers contributions have kept me as sane as I can possibly be in these trying circumstances. Regards Mavis Jean Symonds
Mavis Jean Symonds | 07 July 2020


Another thing that the elders are good at is storytelling. They hold their own stories and those of their own elders, and it’s these stories that hold us together and, at their best, keep us from each other’s throats. Thank you, Gillian, for growing so gracefully in your own role as salvific storyteller.
Joan Seymour | 07 July 2020


Captain Tom's determined walk (with his walker) was inspirational stuff. And he probably contributed more to the NHS than the British government in x number of years! When I was born in the early 1950s I had only one grandparent living, my maternal grandmother. Now, with average life expectancy increases, conversations like the one at the conclusion of this article are more common - something to esteem.
Pam | 07 July 2020


There are many ways to skin a cat and senior members of our society are very good at it. What a delight! Julie
Julie O'Brien | 07 July 2020


For parents. We are as young as the age of our youngest child at any given, is. When they hit 50. We are as young, then, as our youngest grandchild. This is also the meaning about living on in our children, and grand children. : )
ao | 07 July 2020


What a lovely - indeed loving - reminder of the importance of the elders of our society - of our families - in our lives. That you are linking the stories to your grand-children in Greece to their great great grand-parents back into 19th century Australia is significant. I think of my English grand-father and his stories of his father (born in 1843) and think of my nephew’s two little boys - spanning a similar count of generations. And having those elders to pass on the stories. A distant cousin of mine at a family reunion gave an important address on her grand-mother who had learned stories alongside a great aunt born in the late 18th century in Sydney Town - stories of those days. Jackie French - writer and teacher had something similar to say on how important grand-mothers are in passing on the family stories -exactly as you write about here, Gillian. Thank-you.
Jim Kable | 07 July 2020


Dear Gillian - You are very fortunate to have known so many of your grandparents; they are a fount of wisdom and memories. It remind me of an old saying : "When an old man dies it's like a library burning down". Meriel Wilmot-Wrighjt
Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 07 July 2020


So blessed to have in oi an my great grandparents and grandparents though not my parents. Loved their stories jokes music wisdom and eccentricities.Handing on the culture Irish English spirituality migration and depression. Wonderful memories of the old country and why they left to come here and start with nothing. Descendants now in the hundreds. Deo Gratias
Jill Hutt | 08 July 2020


Thank you for a wonderful acknowledgment of the enormous storehouse amongst us. Stories, affection, inspiration, nostrums, lost crafts, wisdom and lessons of history, our elders have it all. They also have, that which we do not have, the distance and distillation of attitudes, views and prejudices granted by the years. Our challenge is how best to keep connected and keep older people in our communities with dignity and respect.
Michael D. Breen | 08 July 2020


What lovely thoughts about how we should look at our past and the people who lived through it. I remember doing a project at a class I was teaching in the late 1990’s where I asked children to ask their grandparents about their childhood memories. All were interested in what they remembered but few of the children had previously thought about asking them anything about their lives and could not imagine that life was worth living without technology. Appreciating people may come with age and we should all respect what has helped shape our lives.
Maggie | 08 July 2020


It used to be said that our elders preserved the memories of the race and nation. In a multiracial nation these memories can sometimes clash violently, as they have recently, here, in the USA and elsewhere. What, then, do we make of this kaleidoscope of memories? This is a particularly important question in contemporary Australia. To give but one example, one's own views of Australian Religious History would be very much effected by one's own particular religious upbringing. My views are necessarily partial and incomplete. I find that what you write of your family and history, Gillian, fills in some of the blanks for me. Everyone else's story does. I am becoming concerned, especially in these Post-COVID 19 times, that we are increasingly in danger of becoming discrete little islands to ourselves. The vast canvas of our collective history, in this day and age, is often restricted by those who want to tell a preordained and essentially partial narrative. That doesn't work. We need to keep the stories, like yours, rolling and we need to listen with respect. Respect is something I learnt from so many of my decent elders who stood in lieu of my family who are scattered across the globe.
Edward Fido | 09 July 2020


What a fabulous end to a good article! Indeed, it is very often the elders who display courage and agility in hard times. It’s hard to escape the conclusion, however, that over-70s in the West have been the luckiest generation of all.
Juliet | 10 July 2020


What a winner of an ending!! The good old goat! Keeping things basic and keeping calm will get us through these “interesting times”
Stathis T | 10 July 2020


Another of your quirky little stories to bring your song of praise for the older generation to a close. An aunt once told a pre-teen me to listen to our elders as they have important stories to tell. I wasn't interested back then and it's too late now, of course. My grandchildren are probably resigned to having to hear mine, but have also had to interview their grandparents for projects at school: what was it like during WWII and also during the German Occupation of Greece. This places us firmly in our times and gives a context to history for them....
Angela Kiossoglou | 11 July 2020


It is inarguable that many of the contributors to articles in Eureka Street are in the grandparent age group and that the vast majority of commentators offering opinions and experiences are grandparents. Does that mean that ES is the most authoritative, educative and informative opinion outlet in the country?
john frawley | 13 July 2020


John Frawley: “Does that mean that ES is the most authoritative, educative and informative opinion outlet in the country?” If the elderly had the wisdom to realise that words are as real as action and judgement is, for them, because of the finite span of life, around the corner, they would weigh their words of potential self-incrimination so carefully that they would be Trappists. Having said that, most of us don’t really believe that to say something is to weave a material that is visible to God, although God did do just that in Genesis, or to feel that God is personally listening to every word we utter and watching the invisible fabric coming out of our mouths, so here we all are in our garrulous colloquialism, possibly, but happily nevertheless, incriminating ourselves because of some truncation called freedom of speech, not freedom of measured speech, but freedom of speech.
roy chen yee | 13 July 2020


That might be a fair bet, John Frawley! Many thanks to all for the appreciative comments.
Gillian Bouras | 15 July 2020


Hello Gillian, j. f. and Edward. As one new to grandparental life, I'm becoming aware of how different the experience of growing up and schooling in Australia today is from my own, which was generally less complicated and stress-conscious for the young than it is now. Hopefully, our stories will be Ariadnean threads through the labyrinths of childhood and adolescence of this brave new world we currently live in.
John RD | 17 July 2020


John RD. As a "novice grandparent" what you might find is that grandchildren when young will listen wide-eyed with wonder when you read fairy tales to them at bedtime and when they grow older they will listen to your experience, wisdom and advice wide-mouthed in disbelief.
john frawley | 20 July 2020


Thank you Gillian for your wonderful article on the value of grandparents and the elderly. I grew up in a small Victorian town having known only two grand parents, a maternal grandmother who was poor but very generous, and a paternal grandfather who was a wise and powerful civic leader in the town. They moved in different circles so I never saw them together, but I gained immensely from them both as they offered me entirely different things including love, knowledge, and wisdom that I ponder to this day. It has been a basis to my life. I very much appreciate the stories handed down by all elderly people and firmly believe it is an essential ingredient in a healthy society.
John Whitehead | 21 July 2020


Thanks j.f. "For us there is only the trying . . ."
John RD | 21 July 2020


I think one of the secrets of what I would consider truly successful people is that they never lose that sense of childlike wonder, John RD, which is why Jesus said we need to become like little children to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Children are not necessarily that naïve: I remember shoving off a dirty old man who attempted to touch me inappropriately whilst we were getting onto a bus many years ago. Life is pretty tough at times and if we nurture our children and their children properly they can learn to thrive and survive. Traditional fairy stories, folk memories and that now often despised and forgotten factor, genuine religion are what cement life together. So many people know and practice this. Long may they continue!
Edward Fido | 23 July 2020


Your reminder of the capacity for wonder of our young and their perspicacity and resilience is well taken, Edward. Thank you.
John RD | 25 July 2020


Well. Thank you Gillian. So much salve and wisdom lies in the stories of people who have experienced hard times before us. Such wisdom - help and insight - all ages now possibly crave with Covid? The input/help of elders has possibly been sidelined since the 1970s. (Fawlty Towers, 1970s: "Don't mention the war.") The current hard times are a 'newby' to anyone under 50. Not their fault. But I quietly suspect a new respect and yearning is emerging for such elder insights. Stories. Stories to guide us from one generation to the next. Stories to continue on.
Fiona Douglas | 25 July 2020


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