Connecting with the elderly

Picture of Kate Moriarty

Kate Moriarty

Kate is a writer, author and mother of six

When I was small, I knew heaps of old people. I’m not just talking about ancient thirty-year-olds, although we had plenty of those around as well. My grandmother, ‘Ma Ma’, lived with my family and was a constant presence in my life.

Around the corner from my home, three of my dad’s aunties lived together in a house that used to be part of their poultry farm, before they sold off their paddocks and got absorbed into the suburban sprawl. Once a year, we would stay with my Nana and Pa in the country, and every January Ma Ma’s sister and her husband would visit from America and stay for a fortnight at our house.


I was also familiar with all of Ma Ma’s friends and frenemies. Often, I would catch the bus with her for the five stops from Montmorency to Greensborough (in Melbourne) to play Crazy Whist with a group of other people in their seventies and eighties. There were prizes for the winners (usually a cream sponge, though once it was a mini hairdryer) and a miraculous spread for lunch. I would eat ribbon sandwiches and eavesdrop on all their gossip and news.


One of the benefits of knowing many older people is that it meant that narrow stereotypes of what an ‘old lady’ or an ‘old man’ looked like just didn’t hold water with me. I knew that there were many ways of being an older person. And, funnily enough, I knew that they were actual people, just like the rest of us.


This sense of connectedness between generations was normal for me, but these days it seems to be declining. It is increasingly more common for children to grow up in a different city to their grandparents, and many older people do not have children or younger relatives at all. The danger of this is that old people will not be on the radar of our future policy developers and decision makers. How can we expect people to consider the needs of older folks if they don’t have relationships with them?


When I talk to people who work in pharmacies and cafes, they will often tell me of older customers who drop in at the same time every day, just to have a conversation. If not for those in the service industry, many of our elderly would go for days without talking to anyone. Libraries also do a great deal to build community engagement for elderly patrons, with free IT help, programs and classes, clubs and guest speakers. The need is strong and it is growing. How can we best care for and improve connection with the older members of our society?



There is a nursing home in the Netherlands that has offered free accommodation to university students in exchange for thirty hours a month of their time ‘acting as neighbours’ to the elderly residents. Humanitas Retirement Village is located near Saxion University and student accommodation can be difficult to secure. The student-residents also spend time teaching new skills, in sending emails, Skype and social media.


Meanwhile, a program originating in the United Kingdom connects French language students around the world with isolated elderly residents in France. ShareAmi was launched for a handful of students at the University of Warwick during the Covid pandemic and now has more than six thousand members. Conversation partners commit to meeting (using videocalls) for three months to talk in French, with the option of continuing beyond this if desired. The program has been the impetus for many long-term intergenerational friendships.


The ABC television show Old Peoples Home for 5 Year Olds has brought to our attention the concept of cross-generational care. This series, and the follow-up series, Old Peoples Home for Teenagers, bring to light the benefits younger people can have from spending time with older people.


At my own children’s school in Melbourne, Grade 1 students walk to the retirement village next door to practise reading with the residents. In turn, residents of the retirement village are welcome to volunteer in the school’s Kitchen Garden program. The six-year-olds look forward to their weekly excursions and have been known to shout conversations over the fence at playtime.


It has been almost ten years now since my grandmother died. Gaynor, perhaps the last of Ma Ma’s Crazy Whist cronies, still lives two doors down from my mum and dad. You can see Gaynor’s kitchen from my parents’ back deck. I remember that kitchen well. It’s the place where I was fed biscuits and lemonade when I delivered messages and Amway orders from my grandmother to her friend, when I was eight and nine years old.


Gaynor, thankfully, is well-connected in her community. Members of the parish drive her to Mass, neighbours tend her garden regularly and she often comes along to parties and events with my family. My brother was telling me that my mum likes to put fairy lights on the back deck when they are home, so that Gaynor can look across and know that they are there. The image sticks in my mind. The tangled net of fairy lights, the delicate connections between each spark. I think of our mess of tiny efforts. Sometimes our attempts to build community feel insignificant.


But we keep trying and keep building and pray that enough small ventures can come together to form something that will make a person feel less alone.


Footnote: World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly will be celebrated on July 23.


Image: The Humanitas Retirement Village in the Netherlands.


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