If you have been tuning in to one of the most-watched shows on Aussie TV at the moment, the heartwarming ABC documentary series Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, you may have noticed something different about one of the “old folks”.
Eighty-five-year old Irene Axton stands out for two reasons: her evident sense of contentment and joy, and the cross necklace that never leaves her neck.
“I’m a Christian,” Irene shares with Eternity when asked about her choice of jewellery. “I wear it because of Jesus … and also because my three daughters gave it to me. The only time I’ve taken it off is when I’ve had surgery.”
Irene grew up in the Anglican church in the beachside suburb of Malabar in Sydney. She has great memories of singing in the church choir, youth fellowship bushwalks and bike rides, and whole-church picnics, where the congregation all piled onto a tram and trekked to a picnic location together.
“My faith became very important to me as I got older, and it still is,” she says.
Today, Irene is fortunate enough to still be surrounded by “a lovely Christian community” in her home at the RSL ANZAC retirement village in Narrabeen on Sydney’s northern beaches, where the TV series was filmed. She attends the ecumenical service at the village’s chapel every Sunday (there’s also a Catholic service) and sings in their church choir, as well as in the “Veterans’ Voices” choir, which performs regularly for the 1200 residents in the village’s independent living villas, hostels and nursing homes.
“I’m never lonely because there’s so many people around. There’s always someone you can go and see.” – Irene Axton
When they moved into the village 17 years ago, Irene and her late husband made it a priority to get involved in many of the activities on offer. This meant that even when her husband passed away several years ago, Irene continued to feel well supported.
“Everybody was there to give me company and was very caring. It’s just that sort of a place – it feels like we’re one big family … I’m never lonely because there’s so many people around. There’s always someone you can go and see.”
Irene is also not short on intergenerational contact as a mother of four children who have blessed her with eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
However, as Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds demonstrates, there are many elderly people in the village, and in communities around Australia, who don’t feel nearly as connected or happy as Irene. In fact, the whole purpose of the TV series is to address “Australia’s loneliness epidemic” among the elderly through intergenerational contact.
For those who haven’t watched the show, it’s a “social experiment” where ten four-year-olds share a preschool with 11 residents from a nearby retirement home. The hope is that by the end of the five-part series, the older people will feel happier and healthier, and that both young and old will have benefited from the time, conversations and activities they have shared.
According to CEO of Meaningful Ageing Australia Ilsa Hampton, “The causes of social isolation and loneliness in older people are complex and varied, ranging from socio-demographic risks (death of partner, lack of children, few friends), health conditions, and bereavement.”
She points to this alarming statistic: just over half of older people in residential aged care are estimated to be living with depression, according to a 2019 report by National Ageing Research Institute titled Mental Health of Older Adults. There is undoubtedly a direct correlation between this finding and another pointed out in the TV series: up to 40 per cent of people in aged-care homes do not receive any visitors.
Hampton also notes that “in almost all regions of the world, the highest rates of suicide are in men and women aged over 70 years. In Australia, men over 80 are most likely to die by suicide that any other age group.”
“What would happen if every church in Australia set up an intergenerational playgroup?” – Ilsa Hampton
The upshot of these findings for the church is that it is perfectly placed to “bring older people back to families”, just as Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds is attempting to do.
“When it is at its best, the church is an intergenerational family and has a huge opportunity to lead in linking the generations. What would happen if every church in Australia set up an intergenerational playgroup either under their own roof for people in the community, or with their local aged care provider?” asks Hampton.
Irene echoes these sentiments, adding that this type of interaction is beneficial not only for older people but for anyone feeling lonely.
“Churches could do lots more with mixing generations. They could have a special get-together for a luncheon or an early dinner – everybody bring a plate and all join in, perhaps have some music and a concert. Or have a big picnic, like the old Sunday-school picnics … where the whole family gets together,” she suggests.
“Churches could do lots more with mixing generations.” – Irene Axton
Now that the gruelling production schedule for Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds is over – 9am-4pm four days a week for seven weeks – Irene describes the experience as “very worthwhile, fulfilling, interesting and joyful”.
A somewhat surprising byproduct of her role in the series is the celebrity status it has brought her.
“I’m glad I never had any aspirations to be an actress … How do all these celebrities manage it?” Irene muses.
“If I go down to the local mall or shopping centre I have perfect strangers stopping me in the street. Although the response is so lovely that you couldn’t take offence to it.”
But more important is the fruit from the experiment that Irene is continuing to see in the lives of the residents involved. She notes that she’s seen some of those who used to stay in their hostel rooms out and about and even attending chapel services.
“A lot stay in touch; I see them at the ‘Dug Out’ (our café area) with the kids [from the TV program].”
“They walk around the village and wave to everybody. They call us their ‘grand friends’.” – Irene Axton
In other good news for these residents, they also continue to have contact with other children from Little Diggers Preschool – a “real-life” preschool in the RSL Anzac Village whose children regularly visit residents in village’s eight aged care homes.
“They just love to see the children coming in because they bring in their craft work and they sing to them and talk to them. They walk around the village and wave to everybody. They call us their ‘grand friends’,” Irene shares.
But while Irene values the company and connection offered through the TV series, her serenity and love of life point to the greater and more lasting hope that only Christ can provide.
When asked if she fears ageing, Irene replies: “I have no fears for the future … I find life very rewarding. I love my life.” And one of the key reasons for this, Irene says, is her Christian faith, which “gives me hope for a future.”
She adds: “And one day, when God feels it’s right for me, he will take me home.”