Now Auld Acquaintance is Forgot…

Collective dementing sometimes allows us to forget our oldest.


By Fr Justin Glyn SJ

‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone, 
All just supply, and all relation; 
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot, 
For every man alone thinks he hath got 
To be a phoenix, and that then can be 
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

John Donne, An Anatomy of the World

Donne’s meditation on death may be grounded in a mediaeval view. However, his insight that we have become an individualised, atomised anti-society is even truer today than it was then. The world of aged care makes this particularly obvious.

Every month or so, I visit aged care homes in the north of Melbourne to celebrate Mass and to anoint those who wish it. It is a great privilege, giving me unbidden access to hidden lives and histories of beauty but it also involves immersion into worlds of sadness. In the process, I meet people who are clearly not – or no longer – part of networks of care or support. Some people relive their youth in conversations which hark back to happier times, some are all too clearly aware of their current circumstances. In a couple of cases, women with advanced dementia wordlessly clutch plastic dolls to their breasts. While cognitive skills and physical capacities may vary, a leaden thread of loneliness tends to run through interactions.

This is not to speak ill of the staff. They do what they can but they, too, are caught up in a world (savagely exposed during the height of the pandemic) where care work is systemically undervalued and underpaid. Many have English as a second language and are themselves in a land where their history, their struggles and their joys pass unseen. Recently, I joined with the choir at the local parish to organise a concert of old war songs for residents to listen to or sing along to as they were able. While the residents enjoyed the music, participated with gusto (and spoke of it for weeks), many of the Eastern European staff took particular delight in the Russian numbers included in the repertoire. Even though few (if any) were actually from the former USSR, there has always been a certain amount of pooled culture in the Slavic world, and it was the first time many had heard familiar music in decades. In a further sign of walled lives, many of their colleagues were surprised at this delight.

Donne’s insight that everyone wants to be an independent phoenix rather than a part of a network of interdependent humanity is graphically illustrated in a world where numerous reports into aged care go unimplemented and people whose need is obvious are often seen as inconvenient problems to be solved. How else to explain an environment where a lifelong carer and pillar of the community met her end (at the age of 95 and reliant on a walker) being electrocuted with a taser? Or where preventable deaths in aged care are described by the country’s Chief Medical Officer as the “reaping” delayed? It is little wonder that the Government’s response to the Royal Commission on Aged Care was to prioritise building “resilience” in the elderly (to be achieved by 2021) over “tangible” improvements in staffing, skill mix and training (expected only in 2025).

Until we recover a sense of society – a world where everybody – regardless of age or capacity – actually matters to decision-makers, where relation beyond “supply” and profit make it onto our communal radar, our elderly will continue to be consigned to the ashes by would-be phoenixes.

Fr Justin is the General Counsel of the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus.

Feature photo by Canva.