For Anti-Poverty Week, 11-17 October, the Older Women’s Network hosted an online storytelling of resilience, trauma and rage against the machine that allowed women over 55 to become the country’s fastest growing cohort of homeless people.
The women’s experiences ranged from performance art to surviving domestic violence. There were union workers, authors, social entrepreneurs and experts in Aboriginal education and custodial policy.
In childhood, these women noticed the limited options for the mothers and grandmothers; in adulthood, marriage and babies affected their careers and earning potential; and now in retirement they are struggling with compounding factors of less savings, less super and an older retirement age.
The women saw enormous change in their lives and felt their march towards equality had regressed in their later years.
Elaine Paton is a writer, performer and director within the intersection of art and mental health.
Raised by a “fun but alcoholic mum” and dad with mental health issues, Elaine first felt stigma and shame as a child of a taboo Catholic divorce.
At age 64, she fought it again when she missed two rent payments and found herself evicted and homeless.
Elaine couch-surfed with friends for a year until finding transitional housing with six other women.
She said living with unknown people of different ages and backgrounds was difficult at first, but she found her feet and learned to adapt to the rules and regulations.
“It was the first time I felt I had a right to be there and I felt at home,” she said.
Elaine moved into public housing just two days before the March lockdown; she said it “completely and utterly” transformed her and her life.
“Six months later, it’s still dawning on me.
“I’m working on projects again and since COVID, the JobSeeker has doubled, I’m actually financially relaxed – it’s extraordinary.”
Chair of Older Women’s Network NSW, Beverly Baker, grew up thinking women ruled the world.
Her abusive husband made her think differently.
Beverly said when she left him (decades ago) her experience with government support – pre-dating Centrelink – was one of dignity and respect.
“I was invited into an office, where I told my story and they told me I was right not to go home,” Beverly said.
“I left with a rental deposit, a parent’s allowance paid in advance and told to come back when it was time to connect my gas and electricity.
“I saw my own death; I could not have my daughters see a woman be treated that way and my society said ‘yes, you’re right’.
“I would hate to be in that position today.
“Society today says, ‘go back, it’s your fault’ and if you do leave, here’s $40 a day.
“With the cost of living and only having $40 a day, you can be as resilient as all get out; you still can’t live.
“We are a resilient sex. We don’t need to be more resilient. We need decent policies that recognise our contribution. We hold up half the sky.
“It’s time for women everywhere to down tools and say ‘fix this or we’re not moving’.”
“We’ve seen an enormous change in our lifetime. We had little options, and told we had to give up our jobs when we married, and now we’re being told we have to work, when there is clearly no work out there.
“They need to lower the retirement age to 60.”
NSW Inspector of Custodial Services, Liz McEntyre, said an Aboriginal woman with cognitive impairment wrote her a letter from prison.
The woman knew Liz was a researcher and she wanted to tell Liz her life story and about the systems that fought against her.
The woman had a lived experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Clinical Depression, Anxiety, and Tourette syndrome.
One of 11 children, she saw her father assaulted by police and arrested and ended up in Child Protection; her brothers ended up in prison.
She became a mother at 16 and again at 20 and was beaten badly by her partner, before losing her own children to Child Protection.
Alcohol and drug abuse led to a mental breakdown and an incident with police where she said she was assaulted but charged for the incident as well as fined. She paid off her fine from gaol.
She had two more babies at age 37 and 39 to another abusive partner and again lost her children.
She described herself as a “victim turned perpetrator” and wanted to know where in the outside world she could find help to recover.
“Why is it just in prison?”
The social entrepreneur behind OzHarvest, Ronni Kahn, said the raised rate of JobSeeker had “eased the pressure” for the five million Australians who had accessed food relief at some point in the year.
But Ronnie said the other side of the story was the one million new people who had accessed the service for the first time.
She said the cohort was mainly international students, non-residents and asylum seekers locked out of government benefits.
“We are looking at falling off the cliff, which JobSeeker has somewhat postponed and it’s very, very scary,” she said.
“Older women are a high percentage of the need.”
Ronnie said the volunteer-run OzHarvest free supermarket offers clients a one-on-one shopping experience, to help people get their needs met.
She told the story of a woman in the supermarket who approached Ronni to explain that she was there because her husband had just lost his job.
“I told her to stop,” Ronni said. “You don’t have to tell us anything, let’s just go shopping.”
It was just after Easter and the supermarket had received a pallet of high-quality chocolate.
As the woman shopped, her little boy saw the chocolate and grabbed at his mum’s hijab.
“Mum, I think this shop is too expensive for us,” he told her.
Before exiting the store, the woman put five dollars in the contribution box and told her son they were able to help OzHarvest help other people.
Conversation moderator Caroline Baum finished the event by telling people to follow the Older Women’s Network on social media.
“We are mostly outraged on Twitter, we are mostly uplifted and inspired on Instagram, and we would really like to hear from you and your stories on Facebook.”