Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Griffith Review 68, Getting on

Our August book, issue no 68 of the literary journal, Griffith Review, was a departure from our usual fare, and yet, although only a third of us read it all, its selection was unanimously approved. Why? Because this issue's topic, Getting on, or aging, was right up our alley. We started, of course, with our ...

First impressions

  • Enjoyed it, albeit was sometimes confronting, sometimes heartwarming, a sometimes a bit over the head.
  • Also enjoyed it overall, and also found it confronting in places. Liked that it opened with Garner, and enjoyed some of the poems.
  • Liked that it offered much to think about .
  • Thought that Sarah Holland-Batt's essay "Magical thinking and the aged-care crisis" set the scene well. Was interested in topics like the failure of the health care system, genetics and the definition of ageing. Enjoyed learning new information. Some pieces were very moving, but not all were specifically about ageing. 
  • Loved it all. Every piece had something intellectually interesting to offer about "getting on"; enjoyed the less scientific ones most. 
  • Read most of it but found some too depressing and others too scientific. Liked the Vicki Laveau-Harvie piece, having heard her at the Canberra Writers Festival.
  • Felt it was apposite for us to read, but found it a challenge. However, liked that it challenges our thinking about what sort of aged care we'd like, and thought it offered much food for thought.
  • Read all but last piece, and found it very profound, very moving, overall. So many good articles. Was particularly interested in the Mark Aarons piece about his long road to diagnosis, and could empathise, from her own experience of being an intern, with Melanie Cheng. 
  • Is a Griffith Review subscriber. Found the Garner opening piece a bit mystifying until she got to the end. Enjoyed Kathy Marks "A life in books" and Caroline Baum's "The hungry years". Was interested that many of the pieces were from people in the 60s, with nothing really from 80-somethings to provide an aged perspective. 
  • Read it all and really liked it. Particularly liked Sarah Holland-Batt and Beth Mohle's essays on the aged care system. Amused that one of the unrealistic fantasies described by Holland-Batt - "a geriatric co-op" style plan - was proposed by Burkitt for Gen Xers!


Some of us nominated our favourites. One really liked Ailsa Piper's "Old Growth", because Piper is happy to admit to being old, saying "I like saying I'm old!" Our member sees so many people being "in denial". Other favourites included Sarah Holland-Batt's "Magical thinking and the aged care crisis" (3), Kathy Marks' "A life in books" (2) and Beth Mohle's "System failure". Honourable mentions included Helen Garner's "The invisible arrow" and Frank Brennan's "Contemporary loss". One member named Glenn A Albrecht's "One hundred years of sumbiotude"the most obscure article. 

Specific "stories" that individual members liked included that about the grand-daughter who was surprised by how forward-thinking her grandmother was, and the one (in Frank Brennan, "Contemporary loss") about the dying man whose family brought in his paintings to hang on the wall which resulted in conversations that helped personalise relationships between patient, family and staff.


With such a diverse set of essays/memoirs/reports/fiction/poems, it was hard to have a coherent discussion, so this report will be a bit "scatty" ...

Of course we talked mostly about aged care in general, referencing in particular Holland-Batt and Mohle for their excellent analyses of the current situation, including how we got here, and for their thoughts about where to next. One member particularly liked Mohle's discussion of the new role of Nurse Navigator that's been created in Queensland and which seen significant reductions in Emergency presentations and overall hospitalisation. Both authors decried the Aged Care Act (1997) which contains no standards, no requirements for transparency or accountability.

We discussed the fact that some articles, such as Jane R Goodall's, discussed the idea of developing the role of "elders" and what this might mean. A couple of us liked Goodall's statement that:

The call of the elders is not to dwell on the past, but to renew awareness of our roots in it, and our place in a longer time scheme.
We also talked a little, though not in great depth, about euthanasia and assisted dying. We liked Blatt's idea of "magical thinking", such as the idea some people have that they will be in a position to take themselves out. We also noted the discussion in Andrew Stafford's "Dying wish" regarding the fine line between euthanasia/assisted dying and palliative care.

Dementia naturally came up a few times during the discussion. Several were interested in the articles which described the different types of dementia. We all felt that dementia would make a big difference to the experience of aging and the sort of care we might need or accept. All bets could be off in terms of our self-determination!

Other takeaways (or things learned) from the book, included:
  • Mohle's extortion not to catastrophise old age.
  • The idea that being young is positive and being old negative.
  • Charlotte Wood's finding that you die as you live: if you are angry or grumpy during your life you are likely to be like that in your final years. We laughed at her concern about when you should reset your default position!
  • The problems of food and eating in old age due to swallowing problems.
In terms of our own feelings about aging, we were generally positive. We felt overall that that there are big advantages to being an older person, that when you are old you can speak your mind more. Most of us seem to enjoy being old, appreciating the opportunity it offers us to express our ideas, the increased time we have to follow our passions. We noted, concurring with Holland-Batt, that our generation is more focused on self-determination versus previous generations which tended to accept authority and do what they were told.

Of course, we shared our various experiences of the aged care system, mostly through our parents. A couple commented that what they looked like loss of agency, from their point of view, wasn't how their parent felt. In other words, it's hard to know how we will feel, how we will perceive the world when we are much older and more frail. One talked about how her mother, who had dementia, initially ended up in a psychiatric facility rather than an aged care one. Another remembered her father's comment that growing old involves having to accept loss, which is expressed in Piper's article as ageing being a continual process of letting go. 

There was some discussion about the volume overall. One commented on the order of the pieces, how it started with 77-year-old established author Helen Garner, and closed with a 70-something debut author, Vicki Laveau-Harvie. She also liked the segues, or links, between the pieces. Another commented that the voices contained in the volume were primarily middle-aged or 60-somethings, and that there were no real aged voices. (We admitted, though, that not too long ago people in their 60s were seen as aged). It sent her back to a book published in 1979, Ellen Newton's This bed my centre, which chronicles the experiences of a 70-something woman with angina who spent 6 years in a nursing home.

Other works/activities we were reminded of, included:
  • Lisa Genova's Still Alice (book/movie)
  • Kate Grenville's One life: My mother's story
  • Ellen Newton's This bed my centre (mentioned above)
  • Webinars being run by Dementia Australia
In conclusion we agreed that it's hard to see how current trends in aged care will pan out given the significant aging of the population. We noted the lessons, that we all know already, such as that exercise, social interaction and good diet are factors that can help us have a good old age. Returning, as we often did during the discussion, to Sarah Holland-Batt we considered her comment that current aged care practice demonstrates a failure of imagination. We'd love to see more imagination - such as along the lines presented by writers like Mohle and Burkitt - applied to the problem. We wondered what impact COVID might have on policies and practices in the future. Will the return to being more people and community-focused that we are currently experiencing carry through to all sorts of people-related policies.  

Finally, one member said she loved the ending of Helen Garner's piece "The invisible arrow". Faced with the idea that his grandmother might stop writing, Garner's grandson said he wouldn't like her to do that.

"Why not?"
"Because," butts in his twelve-year-old brother, bouncing his football in a forceful rhythm, "it shows we exist"

Present: 10 members

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