We at HelloCare were saddened by Val French’s recent passing. Here we share Anne Ring’s celebration of her life, a story that first appeared in Life Times, the newsletter of OPSO (Older People Speak Out).

 

On March 12 of this year, just before the world as we knew it was swept away by COVID-19, the redoubtable Val French AM, who had worked tirelessly on behalf of older people, and on many other social issues throughout her life, died peacefully, surrounded by her family, at the age of 92.

The organisation that she had founded, Older People Speak Out (OPSO) published a tribute edition of its newsletter, Life Times.

The tribute includes the following account of how we shared a common goal of promoting positive ageing, and how that became the basis for a lasting friendship.

This was all thanks to a Victorian feasibility study that I was commissioned to do in 1998, and involved an examination of ways of promoting healthy body image in young females,

When I googled “media awards” for ideas of how such a concept might work as a part of a healthy body image project, the most useful items that came up were about some annual media awards for positive ageing, run by an organisation called OPSO, based in Brisbane, where I was living at that time. I got in touch with its president, Val, she immediately suggested that we get together, and it was an instant meeting of the minds.

We were in synch about so many issues, and pro-ageing was central to that, since the ways in which the ageing were featured – and not – in the media had been a part of my PhD thesis, which I’d completed a few years earlier. Since then, I had become a very vocal activist in identifying misleading advertisements by some cosmetic surgery practitioners, with a particular focus on how contemptuously the ageing appearance was treated in that arena. Fortunately, being then already 56, I qualified for OPSO membership and joined immediately.

Val and I differed in one regard. She, as many will know, was a brilliant front-line activist in all the issues that she had taken up so formidably throughout her life, with pro-ageing and anti-ageism being amongst the most dazzling stars in her firmament, but also including such diverse challenges as mental health, women’s issues and a school for prisoners. I am more of a backroom person, with occasional public appearances when presenting on something (like cosmetic surgery ads) that I know well. And Val had me doing that from time to time. But my main OPSO tasks were two: identifying media items that could be co-opted as award entries, and writing for the newsletter, which later gained its very apt title of Life Times.

After writing about various topics for a while, as a keen photographer I got the idea of doing a series where each contribution would feature one of my photos together with a story around its origins. Val immediately transformed that idea into one where each photo would have some relevance to an ageing issue.  Simple, and brilliant. I loved doing that. Sometimes a photo suggested an issue, and more often – with an issue in mind – I went through my photos to find one that fitted the bill. The overarching title for that series of articles was Old Bird’s Eye View of the World.

I continued to write for OPSO when we moved to Sydney, and our friendship remained strong, with our regular and lively annual get-togethers at Circular Quay when Val came to Sydney to spend time with family. At that time, too, we were both involved in writing projects, she with her memoir and I with my book on ageing well. And we had an enjoyable time exchanging sections of what we’d written, for each other’s comments. For me, it was a wonderful introduction to her amazing life, contributing so much to our society in such a diversity of areas in need of reform. I went up for her 80th birthday, and whenever I was in Brisbane I would visit her. The last time was in 2018, when the cherished photo of the two of us together was taken. After that, we spoke by phone until that was no longer feasible, as Val’s health (but not her lively spirit) slowly declined, and I kept in touch indirectly, through her friends in OPSO.

The news of her death was deeply saddening, but, in hindsight, I am glad for her that it happened when and how it did, in that she could be surrounded by her loving family. Now, in this time of the pandemic that has so rapidly taken over all our lives since her death, that might not have been able to be the case.

In 2015 I wrote an Old Bird article about one of my favourite topics: death and dying. This, for me, is not a morbid subject, but one that is simply one of the bookends of our lives, and one that older people, especially, do need to give some thought to as it comes ever nearer in our horizons. At the time of writing, one could talk about what might make a good death, and for many that involved dying peacefully in place and with our loved ones around us.

Finding a photo for that feature was not a challenge. I knew straight away that one (below) that I had taken in Italy some years previously would be perfect for “Mortality and the chance of a happy ending”.

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Now, however, as the recent news from Italy tells us, the deaths of young and old from coronavirus, in hospitals, can be a sad and isolated one. As described in The New York Times by the editor of a Bergamo newspaper, “ These are people who die alone and who are buried alone. They didn’t have someone hold their hand and the funerals have to be tiny, with a quick prayer from the priest. Many of the close relatives are in quarantine.”

In the city of Brescia, one attempt to help those who are dying has been to start “collecting donations of tablet devices to give to hospitals so that coronavirus patients can stay in touch – or say goodbye – to their families back home.”

Val in her prime would have been in the forefront of such ways of helping older people through these troubled times, but I do remain grateful that she was spared the possibility of a lonely death after her long life of contributing to others.

Vale, my dear friend.

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