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It is interesting to come to a realisation that one has been wrong about something for a very long time – and then have to reframe one’s thinking. It is uncomfortable, to say the least.

For most of my life working in aged care, I have equated quality of life with independence. I firmly believe that it is the defining attribute that all older people should strive for. Not only independence in activities of daily living but independence from needing other people. I was wrong. The more I explored the lived reality of people in Hangberg, the more I noticed that they did not have this obsession with so-called “successful” ageing, which meant that they could live alone and not need other people. Their being-in-the-world is all about inTERdependence, a connectedness to an ecosystem of family and community. They do not build high walls, children do not move out of their parent’s home as soon as they can. If they do, it is almost a given that the grandchildren will move in with the grandparents. There is a cohesion, as precarious as that might seem. And no “old age homes”.

For many years, if I was asked if I would recommend parents moving in with their children, I would shout a big NO! An absolute NO! There is a possibility that I was wrong. A new field of study looks at socioecology and the importance of community interdependencies. It is within these (often) informal community structures that there is an expression of agency. Whilst we look at the precarious nature of so-called “poorer” communities, we miss one of the most critical elements – agency. I spoke to grandmothers in the Hangberg community who – if measured by any hegemonic measure – would be considered trapped in a precarious cycle of poverty, living in crowded homes, illiterate and without much potential for a “better” life. Yet, every single one of them stories their elderliness as one of great privilege and immeasurable grace. They see themselves as blessed because they not only have agency, but a purpose. They hold together a family lineage which rises above the perceived restrictions of their past (Apartheid), their “de cits” (not being able to finish school) and their present circumstances which (again perceived from the outside) might look precarious to say the least. It is within this precarity that tension is created. It is this tension that holds together not only the makeshift homes that can withstand the worst of the Cape Southeaster but also holds together a different being-in-the-world. A community.

Our ageist social norms of older people as passive recipients of care, as being a grey tsunami or a care burden on the world economy is a Western social construct that needs serious attention and rethinking. Older people are indeed the most valuable assets to and of communities. They hold the values*, give physical comfort, and contribute to social integration, to name but a few of these attributes. This capabilities approach shines a completely different light on ageing and the role of older people in society. To relegate older people to “old age homes” is not only detrimental to the formation of healthy communities, it is shutting down a life force that feeds the growth of society as a whole. Older people do not need our protection – something that I have fought against for many years. They need inclusion. We need to shift our focus towards creating a society where old and young, together, form an interdependent cohesive community. Older people will age differently, we will see less of the “tragic” and more of the “magic” of ageing. And we will learn “to change our minds about people whose minds have changed” (Dr. Allen Power, “Dementia beyond drugs”).

If we can restructure our communities – and COVID-19 might just force us to do this – we might start seeing older people as our teachers of the lessons this world so badly needs: patience, forgiveness, resilience, wisdom and many more attributes that our capitalist society somehow no longer values. Older people can heal our broken world. They will teach us again about genuine human caring and presence.

* “‘It gives you a reason to be in this world’: the interdependency of communities, environments and social justice for quality of life in older people” (Robertson, Gibson, Greasly-Adams, McCall, Gibson, Mason-Duff and Pengelly, 2020).

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