from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: staying fit without Aged Care

September 11. It’s been six months since our Australian society got into panic mode over Covid-19. At first, there was the rush to secure our food supplies. Rumours abounded. A little later, we worried about exercise. As organised sport, gyms and council programs were halted we Zoomed into gym sessions or went out and walked the parks and streets.

Over time in South Australia, we have been lucky enough to relax –  a lot. We can now play tennis, go to restaurants, cinemas, play bridge and have guests at home. We can travel within South Australia, the Northern Territory and fly to Queensland.

I have resumed attending weekly yoga lessons at our local council hub. As an older person, health has become something I worry about a little bit more than before. It’s not just issues around COVID-19, but a sense that we need to look after ourselves – after all we have co-morbidities. To this end, I decided to go extend my program by going to the Pilates class also offered at my council hub. Pilates teachers talk non-stop about the ‘core’: the weakening ‘core’ as we age! No doubt, my body is in decline. Yoga is not enough.

So, I attended my first Pilates class and I enjoyed it very much and hoped to continue. However, I was told I needed approval from My Aged Care; this Pilates class was subsidised by our Federal Government for older people to enjoy. All the other attendees looked of a similar age and fitness to myself. I felt I would fit in.

My Aged Care was introduced in July 2013 by our Federal Government. The idea is to make it easier for older people to be assessed and supported with various services. I think the plan is to keep people in their homes, as fit as possible and as long as possible, so that they do not burden the old age homes or the medical system.

I already had an Aged Care number which is readily given to people older than 65.

I mistakenly thought this would be a simple process: I would phone up and explain that I would like to attend the Pilates class (citing the need for ‘core’ strengthening!). Obviously, it would make me fitter and stronger and more able to stay in my own home for years to come, thus being less of a liability on the government. Logical.

Not so fast. The kind woman at Aged Care informed me that I would need an ‘assessment’ before they would approve me for this one hour, once a week, Pilates class.

I hoped that this could be done with a few simple questions conducted over the phone. No. An appointment was made for me for an assessment in my own home.

‘Did I have a dog?

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Please could the dog be locked up before the assessment’.

‘Sure,’ I said.

I was now in the system and I did not pull out  – also I was a little curious.

So last week, Trisha, from Aged Care, came to our house. She asked me to open the door (she did not want to touch the handle) and she made sure that we were socially distanced. I offered her tea or coffee. She said she was not allowed to have tea, coffee or even a glass of water. I told her that my almost toothless one-eyed Roy dog (desperate to greet her) was locked away. She said that the interview would take approximately one hour. I was bemused.

Trisha took out her laptop and said she had to go through the whole assessment. The questions were thorough – here are just a few of them: Did I have a social life? Friends? What did I do with my time? What kids did we have and where were they? Did we talk to them? Could I shower myself? Did I have handrails in the shower? She counted all our steps in the house. Could she see our bathroom? (That surprised me). Could I drive and shop on my own? Could I cook? What pain symptoms did I have? Did I have my own teeth? What medication did I take? Did I use pill boxes? etc ….

Forty-five minutes, later Trisha told me, apologising profusely, that she could not give me a ‘package’ because if she gave me a package someone else would not be able to have one.

‘You are fit,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry – you are not isolated.’

I lamely said I did not want a package. I just wanted to attend Pilates and was happy to pay the federal government extra part of the cost ($10). Uh-huh! No way was this possible.

Trisha left after telling me that I should be pleased that I was ‘on the system’ because if anything happened to me, they had all the data about my life!!! They sure did!

The kind of services My Aged Care offer to elderly people is impressive. I had had no idea of the range and scale of the support offered. I must say that we are lucky to live in a society that has put in place such services. But I am somewhat horrified by the bureaucracy that it involves. And its inflexibility.

Recently, I read the Economist magazine’s special feature on dementia where they reported on this looming world-wide crisis. I wonder for how long Australia can afford to support their ageing population in the Aged Care way. In 2107, 15% of our population was 65 and over. (9% in 1977). Growing steadily. People are living longer as well. Our Federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, says our ageing population is ‘an economic time bomb’.

Never fear. I can go to my Next Generation club – further away – for Pilates classes but it’s not so friendly and filled with lithe young mothers in Nike and Lululemon lycra gear. So be it. I am quite pleased that I was rejected for an Aged Care package. Obviously, I am too fit, too busy. For the moment.

From Brenda in Hove: It’s Part of my curriculum

the Toulouse-blue crepe van

11 July. I have been feeling a bit poorly for a few weeks and haven’t been out much. Truth be told, life felt somewhat joyless. Covid and attendant restrictions are getting to me. Today I felt a bit better and went to the park to find out if my legs still worked (they did). I trod my usual paths and looked out for anything different since I was last there. Same old thing: lots of men with very shaggy beards; lots of men who haven’t heard of clippers; lots of women with weird hairdos who clearly haven’t made it onto the appointment lists; boisterous teenagers being the only people who at least don’t seem as subdued as the rest of us but behaving rather recklessly nonetheless. No joy there.

I noticed that there are now well trodden, clearly discernible paths alongside the main paved paths around the park – made by people like me trying to keep an acceptable distance from the people on the paths – lots of them. I read somewhere (The Observer, 14 June) that these are called “desire paths” (can you believe it?) – paths trodden by people who are usually intent on a shortcuts but are now intent on keeping to social distancing measures. It struck me how furtive and suspicious we all seem now – avoiding each other as if our lives depended on it (and they may). If an alien landed from another planet, it would think we were a very unsociable species. And that is before we don our masks. No joy there either.

The children’s play area was open. Now there is a joyful thing! I love children and I love watching children play. They have been kept away from the playground for so many months that they were relishing being back. Children walking with their parents on the path and spotting the playground just took off, faster than they have ever run before. Amusing. And joyful.

And then I caught sight of a dear little Toulouse-blue van advertising French crepes (gluten free, by some miracle). I felt genuine joy! I love crepes and haven’t had a single one since I went on a gluten free (dreary) diet. The brand name was “Oui!” I leapt to it – even though I had to go back to the apartment for my card. It was delicious. It reminded me of what I already knew: joy can be found in small things. It doesn’t do to be too ambitious.

I read a book some time ago called The Book of Joy by Douglas Abrams in conversation with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. There was much to be learnt from it. One story stuck with me and comes to mind as I try to come to terms with a life after Covid (challenged as I am by my advanced age). The author’s father had fallen down some stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury – with no guarantees that he would ever return to his former self. As it happens, he did, eventually. When one of his sons said that he was sorry he had had this terrible experience, the father replied, “Oh no, not at all. It’s all part of my curriculum.” (page 157)    

I think it is very much like this with Covid. We have to learn to find joy in new ways. It’s part of our curricula.     

From Brenda in Hove, UK: “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky …”

Hove Beach, UK. a sunny day for beach huts

28 May. So far we have been told to take our exercise close to home (really, Dominic) and I have obeyed that instruction. The brakes seem to be coming off somewhat so I ventured down to the Hove seafront today. It is officially half term for the schools and normally we would see thousands of tourists on the beach-front but the town councillors warnings to people to stay away from Brighton and Hove seem to have had effect – even in the glorious weather we are enjoying.

There were quite a few people on the beach and in the sea – but distances more than respected – and the same went for the promenade (and not a mask in sight). It was more than a very relaxed and pleasant experience; it was so normal; it was a joy! .

People had also returned to their beach huts and there was an unusual amount of DIY going on.  Quite a few are scruffy and one wonders why some people don’t sell their huts if they clearly haven’t used them for years. They sell for something between £16,000 and £25,000. High price to pay! Anyway, hot owners out in force, with their deck chairs and picnic tables hauled out and the kettles on – and much sun worshipping in evidence.  

Much to my surprise, Hove lagoon café was open for take-away after being closed since lock-down. Hurry on over! Chips on the beach – new special treat. Another joy! Really. Nothing like a pleasure denied and then allowed.

Table tennis being played but lagoon and children’s playgrounds and paddling pool not in use. I miss the sound of small children playing.

Cyclists much in evidence as usual and it is worth noting that the line-up of bicycles provided by the Council had been added to – and there were lots of newly painted cycle lanes on the way to the beach.

What I had sorely missed was just looking at the sea. We have lived near the sea for more than half our lives and I never tire of contemplating the waves and the sun playing on the water. Such bliss to be able to indulge such a simple pleasure again.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: follow the tortoise …

a tortoise walk

April 28.  Casual walking out of a house, down the street, into a park or out to the countryside, has long-been the most practised and least studied form of recreation.

For most people in most times, it was the basic form of relaxation.  Until the twentieth century, domestic over-crowding meant that it was often the only means of escaping the press of people and finding some privacy.  Because it was essentially unstructured and unrecorded, it has rarely received the attention of historians.  Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, to which I referred on April 24, is, like a handful of other such books, essentially an account of literary walkers, from Rousseau and Wordsworth onwards.  The one exception is the now elderly account by Maurice Marples, Shank’s Pony (1959).

In Britain, however, one of its most common forms, walking the dog, has long been counted.   During the nineteenth century an increasingly firm distinction was drawn between walking with a dog, and dog-walking.  Next to the immobile pedestrian, the greatest fear of polite town dwellers was the uncontrolled dog.  It was at best a source of noise, pollution, and unwanted physical contact for other pedestrians, and at worst a threat to life through the widely-feared disease of hydrophobia, or rabies. Taxing dogs, which began in 1796, was a means of policing their mainly urban owners.  Rural working dogs were exempt.  Following reforms to the cost and efficiency of taxation in 1867, reliable records were kept.  By 1877, there were nearly 1.4 million licensed dogs in Britain, mostly in towns and cities. At least as many owners again were believed to be avoiding the tax.  By the second half of the twentieth century the figure had reached four million, doubling again before the licence fee was finally abolished in 1987.

In most countries in the coronavirus lockdown, some kind of exemption has been allowed for exercising a pet.  Last week a story went viral of an Italian woman who had been fined for exceeding the time limit for this activity.  Her excuse was that the pet was not a dog, but a tortoise, and there was a photograph to prove it.

Initially I had much sympathy for the woman.  In my adult life the only pet that I have owned myself, as distinct from the family cat, was a tortoise, named Herodotus, or Hod for short, after the first historian.  It always seemed an appropriate companion for an historian, or indeed anyone engaged in the slow business of writing a full-length book. At this time of the year Hod would be trundling about the garden, eating buttercups and clover as he recovered his strength after the winter’s hibernation.

But then again, a tortoise really does, in Kipling’s terms, walk by itself.  Cats are in fact always aware of human company and generally seek to be close to it.  But a tortoise is entirely indifferent.  That is what makes it so relaxing a pet.  No complex emotional interactions.  Our cat would walk surprisingly long distances with us when we were out on an expedition.  Not Hod.  It is not so much about mobility.  On a hot day, especially if there is a tortoise maid in the offing, a tortoise can manage a turn of speed.  Rather it is a matter of independence.  There is just no way in the world you can get such an animal to follow you down the street.

I am afraid the Italian police had the right of it.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: going backwards …

spring-time isolation

April 24. Towards the end of Wanderlust, her fine history of walking, Rebecca Solnit passes by a glass-fronted gym, and looks in at the men and women relentlessly working on their exercise machines.  ‘The treadmill’, she writes, ‘is a corollary to the suburb and the autotropolis: a device with which to go nowhere in places where there is now nowhere to go.  Or no desire to go.’  (264-5)

The contrast was with more purposeful forms of exercise, the walk in the countryside, the bicycle ride from one place to another.  This, of course, was in a time where it was possible to undertake such movement.  Now it describes the fate of most citizens in most countries.  In my case I have a private field adjacent to my house, but the Shropshire and Welsh hills basking in this morning’s sunshine are out of reach and are likely to be so for the rest of the year. 

rowing backwards …

Instead I keep fit on a rowing machine.  It is a Concept 2, for those who take an interest in such matters.  A professional-level device which has withstood heavy use over the years.  British readers might know that it was on just such a machine that the broadcaster Andrew Marr gave himself a near fatal stroke seven years ago.  It is said to be the most efficient of all the gym equipment, exercising muscles from the calves to the shoulders, and also, of course, heart and lungs.  This morning I managed 2,924 metres in my standard fifteen minutes, which at my time of life is hard work.

I learnt to row at school in Kingston-upon-Thames.  I loved the business, the walk to the riverside, the sleek fours and eights on their racks in the boathouse, lifting them out as a team and lowering them into the water, adjusting the footstraps, gripping the oars, and on command, a racing start, going up through the gears to a full stroke. The surge of power so close to the water is one of the great sensory experiences.  Better still was the single scull that I could use.  Difficult to balance, but when you mastered it you could race like a motorbike across the surface.  Then back to the boathouse, lifting the boat and turning it upside down to empty the river water, and onto the racks.

My Concept 2 has none of these pleasures.  The machine is housed in what was once a medieval cellar below my house.  The room has been tanked out, fitted with bookshelves, a light-well and bunks for the grandchildren.  It is a pleasant enough space, but nonetheless underground.  There is no view.  No sound of the rest of the household, or indeed a rippling river.  Just the seat running back and forth on its track while I listen to the news on the Today programme.

It is difficult not to view the rowing machine as a metaphor for our current circumstance.  A disciplined activity which preserves my health and is going nowhere at all, day after day, backwards.

But there is another, more famous metaphor associated with movement on water, the last line of The Great Gatsby: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’  I am by profession and practice an historian.  This does not seem a problem to me.