When Mum called to say her garage flooded, I drove down to Hamilton to help clean up.
When I arrived, I found boxes of books, clothes, paintings and drawings, some close to 50 years old, from when my sisters and I were kids, lying in shallow puddles of murky water that had leaked in through the walls and roof. Sodden on the concrete floor lay an ancient suitcase, brought from Scotland when my grandparents emigrated, filled with papers and letters and photos and documents.
Mum keeps everything. She likes to surround herself with objects – like an external brain made up of hundreds of tangible items that elicit memories and hold meaning. These items – often referred to as ‘memory objects’ – line her cupboards and drawers and pile up in the garage.
The external brain’s epicentre is the fridge. It’s plastered with photos of her university friends, cats and dogs long dead, kindergarten classes she once taught, her brothers, daughters, granddaughters, nieces and nephews, and of unidentified children of friends’ children’s children.
From the fridge, the memory objects creep through the house like ivy – drawings, postcards, vases, plates and newspaper clippings. Her parents’ lounge suite, ceramics clumsily moulded by kids’ fat little fingers, a framed picture that I drew aged five, bags stuffed with crumbling sprigs of lavender and carefully folded baby clothes – hers, my sisters’ and mine. They shoot down the hallway, into the bathroom, the bedroom, even the toilet (here lives a newspaper clipping about Hadrian’s Wall, a world map and an old concert flyer).
I call it clutter, dusty and chaotic. But almost everything in the house holds meaning for Mum, and I suspect these objects evoke fond memories for her, helping to fend off the loneliness that can creep into her life.
Humans are social animals, so experiencing long periods of loneliness can severely impact on our physical and mental health – leaving us prone to anxiety and depression and increasing our risk of things like dementia and heart disease.
Mum ticks a lot of the boxes that put her at risk of loneliness. For most of her adult life she worked as a teacher – a busy, exhausting, badly paid job. It was a stretch for a solo parent of a shitty teenager (me), but she was surrounded by people – friends, colleagues, kids, parents and caregivers. For Mum, teaching was more than a job, it was a social network. It held meaning and gave her purpose, it was part of her identity.
For people living outside of Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch, $650.34 is the weekly amount required to achieve a basic standard of living that includes few luxuries
Research tells us there are many factors, those aforementioned boxes that Mum ticks, that can contribute to loneliness. In 2018, some of the people most likely to feel lonely were unemployed. Though Mum’s actually retired, it’s not really by choice. Does that make her unemployed? No one is stopping her from applying for jobs, but her skill set is limited to little outside of wrangling pre-schoolers, which requires a certain level of energy, I’m told. It’s also harder for older people – especially women – to enter or re-enter the workforce. To me, Mum’s always been old. She was 38 when I was born, much older than my friends’ mums. Now she’s 77, and I’m 39 – about to start a family. We are both young at heart.
Another factor that can up the risk of loneliness is having a low income. The 2022 New Zealand Retirement Expenditure Guidelines suggest that for people living outside of Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch, $650.34 is the weekly amount required to achieve a basic standard of living that includes few, if any, luxuries.
Mum’s annual income, after tax, is $33,103, or $636.60 a week. She pays $450 a week for the rental where she lives with her memory objects and her two cats. It can be lovely there. When the sun’s out, she sits on the deck and reads a library book or sends extraordinarily long text messages to friends and family. In summer, she leaves the sliding doors open all day and grows flowers and vegetables in pots. She mows a little patch of grass, but lets weeds grow high in the garden beds, where the cats make nests to snooze in the shade.
It’s far better than the last place she lived – a boarding house with antisocial, often aggressive housemates and neighbours, usually with piles of stinking rubbish in the shared kitchen. (Living in boarding houses is an increasing trend among older women, who are less likely to be chosen as employees or flatmates.) But it’s also more expensive and the rent keeps going up.
In winter it’s cold, and damp. Mould grows on her clothes and shoes and the bathroom ceiling. Sometimes water comes in through the walls, and the carpet gets musty. Often from her bedroom at night, she can hear people in the flats across the road shouting and screaming, which keeps her awake.
She used to be friends with her neighbours – the nice man upstairs and the couple next door. Having them around made her feel safe. Often the couple would drop by with a meal, a loaf of homemade bread, or oranges off their tree. She’d repay them with a cup of tea, lemons off her own tree or fresh fish from my sister. They all kept an eye on her. But when the neighbours’ flats sold, and the rent went up, they all moved out. They keep in touch, but I know Mum misses having them right there.
She’s taken to reusing tea bags and pocketing instant coffee sachets whenever she gets the chance
Anxiety about money also keeps her awake at night. After rent, Mum has $186.60 a week to spend on things like power, food, petrol and insurance. Though many people in Aotearoa make do with far less, things are tight for Mum. It’s painful to see her struggle, to visit her at home and find a near-empty fridge.
She’s taken to reusing tea bags and pocketing instant coffee sachets whenever she gets the chance. In winter, despite the biting Hamilton cold, she keeps the doors and windows open most of the day to air out the house, only turning the heater on after dark. To further save power, she showers only every few days, and cooks all her food in the microwave.
There is a pervasive and toxic stress that comes with being broke. For Mum, debt is a constant worry, as are her living conditions, the wellbeing of her family and the cost of healthcare. At her last visit to the dentist, to have several teeth pulled out, she went without sedation to reduce the cost.
Being broke can also hinder the formation and maintenance of relationships. The large group of old friends she used to see so often – the ones in the photos on the fridge – she sees less of now. Without an income, she can’t make the journey out of town to visit, can’t afford to split the bill at lunches or trips out to dinner. She wouldn’t dream of ever saying that though – instead, she avoids their calls and emails, and makes excuses not to go. Other things that once brought Mum pleasure, like seeing a movie or having a glass of red wine, are off limits now too.
Just being around others is a significant salve for Mum, and she is not alone in that: in the UK, a survey found that 33 per cent of respondents deliberately caught the bus in order to have some human contact. For Mum, it’s people in cafes, rather than bus passengers, who keep her company. Most days she will go to a cafe – often McDonald’s, where her SuperGold card means she can get a $2 flat white. Surrounded by people, she sits for hours, reading the paper, sending those long texts punctuated with cat and flower emojis, writing cards and letters to friends that, more often than not, she doesn’t get around to sending.
But in March 2020, when the country went into lockdown, the cafes all shut. It was a particularly hard time for Mum. At first my sisters and I worried that she’d go stir-crazy and refuse to stay home. But in fact she avoided leaving the house, even for walks, so the only human contact she had was with my sister and niece (who live in Hamilton), when they dropped off groceries and sat in the asphalt driveway for a physically distanced cup of tea.
During lockdown, while many people stayed in touch with friends and family more than ever before, the bad cellphone reception and lack of internet connection at Mum’s meant calls would drop out or not even go through and video calling was not even an option. (Fortunately, this did not affect Mum’s ability to send her text messages.)
It’s not uncommon for people over 75 to not have internet at home. Others who tend to lack access are people living in social housing, unemployed people and those living with a disability. In Alone Together, The Helen Clark Foundation reported that people on low incomes can find the experience of loneliness particularly challenging because they often lack access to the material and social resources to buffer its negative effects, such as high-speed internet, warm comfortable homes and access to plentiful food: “During and after the Covid-19 crisis, affordable internet access has become even more important to enable people to retain social connections. There was already a strong case that a suitable device with an affordable internet connection should be considered part of the baseline for social inclusion, in the same way that a landline with free local calling was a baseline last century; in the post-Covid-19 environment this is even more important.”
In early 2021, a new job with a higher salary and more flexibility meant I could set up and pay for an internet connection at Mum’s place and work some days each week from her home. Mum can now make voice and video calls to her heart’s delight, though texting remains her preferred method of communication.
Like many women, Mum arrived in retirement without a partner, sufficient savings or a home
While loneliness tends to decrease with age, evidence both in Aotearoa and overseas suggests it begins to increase again once people reach 75. In line with this, in 2020, people aged over 75 were the second most likely group to feel lonely most or all of the time (after 18 to 24-year-olds.)
Since we know that poverty intersects with loneliness, it is alarming, but perhaps not surprising, to learn that in Australia, older women are the fastest-growing group in poverty. There are numerous factors that contribute to this. Like many women, Mum arrived in retirement without a partner, sufficient savings (thanks to the gender pay gap and the tendency for women to work less because of caring duties), or a home.
While home ownership is in decline across all age groups, housing is more precarious for low-income older women (especially Māori and Pasifika women), and renters are more likely to live alone with lower annual incomes, and with poorer health. As is Mum’s experience, renters are vulnerable to increasing costs of tenancy, and must also live with the risk of having to move out at any time.
Which brings me back to the flooded garage.
In order to save money, Mum had cancelled her contents insurance. Many of the damaged items were irreplaceable – it was the memories these things evoke that are priceless to her. Mum and I spent a nice few days together, going through these boxes of memories together, saving what we could, throwing out what we couldn’t.
My sisters and I have finally convinced Mum to join a waitlist for pensioner housing in Hamilton. The units look nice, warm and community focused, with plenty of space for her memories to spread.
Taken with kind permission from the new essay collection Reconnecting Aotearoa: Loneliness and Connection in the Age of Social Distance (BWB Texts, $17.99), edited by Kathy Errington and Holly Walker, available in bookstores nationwide.