The recent tragic deaths of an isolated old couple in their 80s, in their Sydney home, have caused a lot of controversy. As pointed out by journalist Jenny Noyes in the 21 July edition of The Sydney Morning Herald, this has been prompted by a statement from the local police implicitly blaming younger people for being too absorbed in their selfie culture and digital technology.

Specifically, The Northern Beaches Area Command have implored people to “put down their iPhones and iPads, and hold back the selfies, and make friends with people you don’t know, and have a real conversation with your elderly neighbour who is living a simple life devoid of all electronic gadgets that contribute little to community cohesion.”

Making friends is certainly a salutary objective. Regarding your elderly neighbour as living a simple life devoid of all electronic gadgets, is, on the other hand, very likely to be a totally erroneous perception. Personal computers were introduced to Australia in 1981, mobile phones in 1987. While the early versions of each were clunky and cumbersome, the technology of both improved rapidly. In the late 1980s, and in his 70s, my father was using an Apple computer to translate his China diaries. By the mid 1980s, in my 40s, I was using a computer for work and at home, and towards the end of the 1980s I had my own bricklike mobile phone. And neither he nor I were atypical people of our generations.

So, what I am trying to show is that with that sort of background, the now elderly and old are actually very likely to be very well versed in the expanding range of digital technologies that we have been using since their introduction, and which the majority of us have been smoothly upgrading ever since. How much we want to use them for communication is, of course, a whole different thing, and depends on the sort of people we are, the family and networks we might have, or not have, and whom – consequently – we might want to communicate with.

Personally, I, my husband and all of the many old people whom we know, communicate a lot and regularly: with each other, the family, friends, services and a whole range of other links with everyday life, by phone, email, skype, texting, and so on. Some do facebook, instagram, twitter (five words: Donald Trump at 71), and such, but they are not for me, as I feel that they are too invasive. And, on the other hand, of course, we do also do the old-fashioned thing of actual face-to-face get-togethers.

Many of us, too, and not so long ago, had tried to convince our ageing and often independent-minded and resistant parents that they might need some help. And that experience has been a salutary lesson in showing us that we in our turn do need to accept that there might come a time when we too would benefit from some sorts of assistance to be able to go on living the lives we enjoy, in our homes or in some other form of assisted living. And this is what it does seem that that solitary elderly couple had some difficulties in coming to terms with.

As Fairfax Media reported, “the couple’s next of kin live overseas, so they were without family who could check up on their welfare. [And] more significantly, they were described as ‘fiercely independent’ and even ‘reclusive’, and police said they had ‘consistently refused’ aged care assistance and medical support.” Since the wife was blind and had a number of other disabilities, and the husband was her sole carer, it’s not hard to see what a struggle it must then have been for them both. And then, awfully, he died first and she was apparently unable to raise the alarm or get help for herself.

Through their sad, sad deaths they have shone a light on some practical strategies that we old people need to avail ourselves of:

  • We need to ensure that we are in regular communication or have some sort of signal, either physically or electronically, with one or more designated people who can sound the alarm if we fall out of contact. With digital technology this can be with people anywhere in the world.
  • If we have any physical vulnerabilities, we should consider getting and wearing a back-to-base personal alarm, that we can operate in a crisis (and according to an ABConline article, the good news is that alarm technology “is increasing in sophistication”).
  • If we are finding it increasingly difficult to do tasks such as housework or shopping, or are possibly in a demanding caring role, then it is imperative to get in touch with aged care services, and be assessed for the level of regular help and respite needed, and not be too proud or independent to accept that.
  • If we want to go on living in our own home as we become possibly more infirm, weaker, and less steady on our feet, it becomes vital to have the home assessed for safety and to reduce the potential for falls, as well as installing aids in the bathroom and elsewhere as needed.

By learning from their mistakes, we can ensure that the tragedy of their deaths might to some slight degree be ameliorated by showing us how important it is to reach out and take the steps necessary to be able to live more securely, safely and happily for longer in our homes.

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