News & Events

Irene’s busting myths on age

August 1, 2018

Author, academic and Rushall Park resident Irene Renzenbrink could well be one of OCAV’s ‘ambassadors of ageing’. She keeps busting myths that suggest older people retire at a certain age, withdraw from ‘active service’ and quietly fade into anonymity. Irene’s story, featured in the Conversations for Change paper, Let’s Retire Retirement, shows she is certainly not retiring or fading!

Irene, 69 recentlycompleted a PhD in Expressive Arts Therapy at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. Her doctoral dissertation, So Many Little Dyings: Iluminating Loss and Grief through the Arts,was awarded magna cum laude (for the top 5 to 15 % of students).

Until recently she was also a board member of the International Work Group on Death, Dying and Bereavement. While she has calledRushall Park home for five years she often travels inAustralia and around the world speaking about grief, bereavement and palliative care.

Irene’s a great believer in older people continuing to work or volunteer in the community for as long as possible. A social worker for 40 years, some of her views on ageing were informed during her earlier work as a ‘Social Worker for the Aged’ in the City of Kew. Livingwith a rare chronic autoimmune illness for 20 years has affected Irene’s hearing, lungs and damaged her nose, but has given her a desire to live life to the full.

“I heard older people at the Senior Citizens’ Centre laughingly referring to their various medical ailments as ‘organ recitals’. From heart conditions to rehabilitation following a stroke or chronic illness, health issues were a central concern and a defining characteristic of ageing,” Irene said.

“Thankfully there are many other stories these days. Older people are travelling the world, learning new languages and skills, taking up new hobbies, working as guides at the National Gallery or the zoo. Others are helping refugees or working as volunteers in hospitals and schools. Advances in health care and medical technology have changed life expectancy so dramatically that many people over the age of 60 are continuing to live their lives as fully engaged members of society. Whether they choose to work in paid employment or as volunteers, the barriers seem to be tumbling down.”

“No longer are old people seen as helpless patients and clients on the receiving end of care, but rather as wise elders with much to contribute at a family, community and societal level.”

Apart from her academic work, Irene also encourages young people and participated in the intergenerational project between Fitzroy High School and OCAV residents at Rushall Park. As part of the project a student interviewed her about her life.

She spoke of her early life in Australia after the family migrated from the Netherlands when she was three years old. After gaining a scholarship to Melbourne University, Irene’s study and work life steered her towards care for the dying, grief and bereavement. Apart from hands on work, Irene has also worked to ensure health professionals have a greater understanding of how to best care for the dying.

In 2011 McNally Robinson published Irene’s book, Fluttering on Fences: Stories of Loss and Change, a collection of stories, photographs and inspirational quotations, for teaching or support to those who are grieving.

The publisher describes Irene as an Australian pioneer in the field of palliative care, grief and bereavement counselling and education. Irene is also the author of Caregiver Stress and Staff Support in Illness, Dying and Bereavement a collection of international perspectives on the complexities and management of caregiver stress and staff support.

Irene recognises that not everyone of retirement age will want to continue in paid employment, but those who do should not “be discouraged or denied the opportunity”.

She said a recent report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, showed Australians are increasingly working to older ages. In March 2016, Australians aged 65 and over had a workforce participation rate of 13% (17% for men and 9% for women), compared with 8% in 2006 (12% for men and 4% for women).

“In my own case, I decided on a career change at the age of 60. After almost forty years as a social worker, I decided to become an art therapist, and two years later, began to pursue my dream of undertaking doctoral studies in expressive arts therapy. At 69 I have finally acquired a PhD,” She said.

“I discovered the benefits of art therapy when my husband was undergoing cancer treatment. The experience convinced me that I wanted to work with people using the arts as a resource.”

To read the Conversations for Change paper in full.

“Our home has always been a place where family and friends are welcome.  Our cottage at Rushall Park is no different and the community of friends here is important to us and that’s why their work is part of my art box,” Jennifer Barden said.

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