Unlikely friendship sparks renewed community connection
At the height of COVID-19 lockdown, a handful of older men and women were plucked from their Sydney homes and thrust into a social experiment that would transform their lives.
Aesh Rao was one of them.
The 77-year-old received a mysterious phone call that led her to be cast into the second season of the ABC’s Emmy-winning television series Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds.
It meant attending a church-turned-preschool on the doorstep of Sydney’s Coogee Beach and venturing into the community for activities over six weeks, and getting to know a group of rambunctious children.
“Initially, I was quite nervous about participating in the program, and I thought I’ll give it a go and see how it works out for me because I thought if I didn’t like it, I could always back out,” Ms Rao explains.
“But once I was there, I found it interesting.
“I was able to talk to people, and the day we met the children, it added another dimension to the feeling of happiness and being able to do different things than I was used to doing living on my own.”
The show has since been beamed into living rooms across Australia and raised awareness of the impact social isolation and loneliness can have on older people.
Older participants went through physical and mental testing at the beginning of the experiment, with results revealing concerning levels of frailty, physical weakness and depression.
However, follow-up testing at the end of the experiment found participants had renewed physical strength and mobility levels, positive mental health outcomes, and a better outlook on their lives.
“There is a change in me,” Ms Rao said.
“It is almost like I have allowed myself to go out and do different things.
“This opportunity opened doors for me to connect with different people and have conversations, rather than being with my friends, which is what I have been used to for so many years.”
Ms Rao developed a special bond with one of the child participants, Maddie, and recalls one moment where she was taken aback by the little girl.
“In an interview, we were talking about who do you think is a good friend, and she said ‘A good friend is someone who knows my joy’, and I was so dumbstruck,” Ms Rao said.
“I still am even now because I think that is so profound.”
She has kept in touch with Maddie and her family and wants to see a broader program rolled out to connect people living in residential with younger people in their community.
“Older people in nursing homes are not doing very much at all, and so it would break the monotony, and they would be doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do,” she said.
“In some cases where young children don’t have grandparents, it could be a good thing to have those family values developed.
“In my experience, it was quite enriching to be with that group of people, the conversations we had were good, and we did participate in activities with the children which were quite different to what I was used to.
“That did enrich my life.”
After losing her husband a decade ago, the social experiment gave Ms Rao a chance to explore and reconnect with her community beyond her circle of close friends.
“After losing my husband, there is a loneliness that I feel cannot be filled, but it has given me access to things I can do and forget about it and I look forward to doing those things rather than sitting there and thinking about my loss.”
Stay Connected and Supported in Your Community, an initiative from the Older Persons Advocacy Network, has been created to help older people remain active members of their community and continue living independently in their own home.
If you or an older person you know would like to discover options for social connection in person, over the phone or online, or services to help you keep your independence at home, call the Older Persons Advocacy Network on 1800 001 321 or visit the Stay Connected website.