Ageing: tender is the night

by Steve McAlpine


Sixty years ago, Australia was an ancient continent filled with youth. Many had fled ‘Old’ Europe, tired of the internecine fighting, the elitism, and the Procrustean bed with all its arbitrary strictures.

Now we are getting old. It struck me as I visited my father in the locked wing of his aged-care facility on his birthday this week. Once freshly minted youth are now decrepit, dying, demented. They escaped Old Europe only to wind up as Ageing Australia: Anglo, Slavic, Greek, and Latin names inscribed on bedroom doors along endless corridors. Now a vital new breed of 457 visa workers has arrived, primarily from Africa and South East Asia. The number of them working in aged care is striking. Simply put, they are taking the jobs that locals reject.

Once those jobs were things like concreting, until the Italians showed there was money to be made from it. But there will never be money in aged care. Never. Concrete is the foundation upon which things are built. The aged cannot hold up even themselves., and increasingly there are more of them. Fifty-year-old manufacturing workers aren’t blowing aortas from too much bread and dripping like they used to. Universal healthcare and public health campaigns have seen to that, dooming even the brightest and best-fed of us to dementia and frailty.

Last week in dad’s communal lounge, I witnessed something deeply lacking in Australian culture. A young African nurse gently manoeuvred a frail, shaking, demented man — skin like paper-bark, back twisted like an ancient vine, arms and legs curled like drying leaves — into an easy chair. And she did it not simply with practised, professional care, but with innate and freely offered tenderness. I do not know if the young woman was a believer, but the gentle dance was dignified and dignifying, the image of God flaring brightly in both of them for that all-too-short a moment.

Australia’s ageing population is giving us the opportunity to be tender. Looking after the old and infirm used to be everybody’s duty. And it was a duty. Despite that, it drew something from us that, in this rugged country, we damp down — a tender spirit. Now duty has gone by the wayside. Now we outsource tenderness, allowing us to focus on late modernity’s virtues: drivenness, wish-fulfillment, and satisfactory relationships.

Ephesians 4:32 says: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” God has given the church the opportunity to express tenderness before a watching world. The world has locked away tenderness behind coded doors, outsourcing it to migrants whose homelands cannot yet afford the aged-care industry. The church is called to fling open its own doors and extend that tenderness to a world that scorns what it will one day so desperately need when age finally catches up with it.

Steve McAlpine is married to Jill and, together with their children Sophie and Declan, they live near Midland, a historic working-class town on the edge of Perth’s eastern hills. They are planting a church there, while Jill also operates a clinical psychology practice. Steve’s OCD tendencies are sated by renovating, running, and writing, though never all at the same time.