I wrote this piece in the week that followed the airing of Q & A when the Royal Commission into Aged Care was about to be handed down. Because it coincided with a political maelstrom which continues as we speak, it could not be published as anticipated in The Age. There needs to be attention to the maelstrom, but we cannot continue to forget the frail amongst us either, and the countless women who have been subjected to abuse in Aged Care.
On February 25th Q & A on ABC TV was on Aged Care. Some people I’ve spoken to say it was the best Q & A ever. I have been on a road trip since that time so I can’t comment on the programs that followed but this episode was certainly a crucible, carrying discussion that reached high temperatures of fury, clarity, denial and unwitting privilege. From this heated melting pot there eventually poured vulnerability, mercy and tears.
As an oral storyteller, I hold great interest in what can be transacted between speakers and listeners in live audiences and in witnessing live audiences. I am intrigued by what may happen in the spaces between words. By the end of this program, as a TV viewer, I felt I had witnessed a kind of molten substance pouring through the speakers, the audience and through me.
During the program there was a transformation that came about following the four second pause waiting for a man with early onset dementia to gather his words. The host, Hamish Macdonald, had the capacity to hold the silence, a respect that gave the man, Tim Granger, time to assemble his sentence. Four seconds is a long pause in TV time, usually there would be gap would be covered over.
Before Tim Granger spoke, there had been the usual push and pull between government representatives and opposition about responsibility in Parliament and the handling of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation. The discussion was fast and furious, but carried more weight than mere posturing.
Among the panel were Dr Katie Allen, Liberal MP for Higgins, Clare O’Neil, the Shadow Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services. A large presence via screen from Melbourne was geriatric medicine specialist Dr Joseph Ibrahim, who along with Clare O’Neil managed to undo government assurances of ‘nothing to see here.’
An early question came from Yumi Lee in the audience. She asked, “…There are 50 cases of sexual abuse and assaults in nursing homes every week. Why is there no outrage about this cold, hard fact? Why is nobody held accountable? And why have we, as a community, decided that older women are not counted and they don’t matter?”
Geriatrician Joseph Ibrahim backed Lee’s question by pointing out that since 2007 the Serious Incident Reporting Scheme has reported to the Department of Health thousands of incidents of sexual violence. He said “There has not been a single report from either government or parliament or the department about what action has been taken and what’s been learnt from all of those assaults.”
Suddenly the distress of this information was in the room. It spoke more loudly than the empty space inhabited by Greg Hunt and Richard Colbeck – the two federal ministers responsible for aged care who declined to appear on the program.
We were in the presence of a train crash and suddenly we could imagine the bodies of the people inside the wreckage. There was heat in the room, love and anger and a seeping despair. And then there was a silence that felt more profound than anyone’s articulate speaking.
Two people in the audience had early onset dementia. The host introduced them, he knew something of their stories. When the first question came to Tim Granger, who was there with his daughter Prue, he was uncertain how to form his answer. He told us he had a problem with speech. He asked for the question again. Prue spoke about the fear of having to place her father in care and of not being able to imagine how he could ‘live his best life’ there.
Then Macdonald asked Granger a question that named the dread of moving into aged care: “…What do you say to your wife and daughter when this comes up, when you have to talk it through?”
At this point, 39 minutes and 28 seconds into the program there is a pause. Tim takes four seconds to formulate the words of his reply.
What is noticeable in Granger’s reply is what can hardly be said. Macdonald allows the silence without interruption and for a moment becomes not the across-the-whole-debate-host, but a human listening to another human. He is witnessing a 56-year-old man who cannot find the words to say what it will be like for him if he has to leave his home and family. In this pause lies the terror and aloneness and wordless vulnerability of losing one’s capacities.
There are actually almost no words for what this is like. Only in the pause is there room for us to imagine the lonely grief and the fear of abandonment that lives in every one of us and resides in this moment.
The moment could be an abyss, where a human stumbles through a crack in the earth and disappears unseen and unwitnessed. There could have been the gloss of the host turning away, filling the moment with false reassurance and the pretence that there was no train wreck. But four seconds of silence was allowed and the dignity of the speaker and the care in the listening carried the possibility of taking us to a new place.
The late Ursula Le Guin says of these moments of real listening, “…we become a community of present contemporaries; people breathing together.”
Moments later, after Granger’s daughter Prue had spoken, Macdonald’s voice cracked and he drew a deep breath while addressing the second man in the audience with early onset dementia.
A crucible is a melting pot, often earthenware, sometimes metal. It is too hot to hold and the extreme heat changes the elements within it. I love that the container may be earthenware. It reminds me that a grounded human can sometimes hold the heat of the moment. In the crucible the different elements interacting can lead to the creation of something new.
At the end of the program, Dr Katie Allen was in tears as she spoke about her father’s dementia, responding to a question about assisted dying laws. “I think the voluntary assisted dying laws in Victoria have been…I have to say, well handled. And I think that we need to have this sort of conversation, particularly for dementia.” She was able to say something that spoke to the bi-partisan frame that can enable change.
Something got poured out in that four seconds of struggling silence. The knowledge that this could be any of us, that no amount of power or privilege could preserve us from dementia and that all we have left is each other and the possibility of love and listening.