Sara Graham wants seniors to take the initiative and get involved this Seniors Week. Photo: Chris Peken

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Sara Graham keeps coming back to one word: growth. The 78-year-old widow, who lives alone in Annandale, is keen to impress upon the community the importance of the “growing” bit in “growing old”.

“That’s the word I really think you should use,” she tells me.

If growth is the goal, engagement is the means. Ms Graham is concerned about older people’s level of activity and community participation, encouraging seniors to “get out and mix with people”.  She practices what she preaches – in between her many lunch clubs, discussion groups and meetings of Leichhardt Seniors’ Council, there doesn’t appear to be much time left over for anything else.

“Healthy ageing is very much associated with an active life and being involved in the life of the community,” she says.

A ‘healthy ageing strategy’ is the current preoccupation of Leichhardt Seniors’ Council, which meets once a month and feeds recommendations to the main council.

Erica Aronsten, 68 and on the council, said the strategy will help integrate housing and aged care with the activities necessary to stimulate older minds.

“There’s a lot of research being done around the world, including  the US in Los Angeles and New York, where lower-cost housing for seniors also incorporates a lot of amazingly creative activities like theatre, film, art,” she said.

“Creative activity helps us with our general cognitive abilities as we age, and it makes us a lot happier and healthier.”

The epicenter of that activity is the Hannaford Centre on Darling Street, Rozelle, which was established as a venue focusing on seniors in 1976. When the Inner West Independent visits on a Monday afternoon, there is a round of table tennis in session and an unfinished game of Scrabble. The centre will host exercise classes and other events as part of NSW Seniors Week.

But a key challenge for the Seniors Council is managing the future of aged care. John Williams, 68, who also sits on the council, explains that many facilities in the Leichhardt area are fast approaching their use-by date. Uniting Church homes established in the 1960s are showing signs of wear and tear, as is the Sister Dorothea Village in Annandale, which he says will have difficulty attaining reaccreditation.

“We are aware that Leichhardt Council is giving priority to securing accommodation and care for those seniors with age-related disorders who are most in need,” Mr Williams said.

“There is a Memorandum of Understanding under negotiation with Uniting Church’s care arm that will enable a new facility in Norton Street to include accommodation for aged persons with disabilities.”

Mr Williams said the council is also reassessing all zoning for aged care with a view to reconfiguring and expanding capacity. He said a push toward better childcare services is also vital – census data shows that 22 per cent of Leichhardt residents aged 65 and over provide unpaid childcare, some close to full time.

Other challenges involve transportation – the group notes that while the area is well-served by buses, not everyone can get to a bus stop. Ms Graham knows people who would like to attend events such as the monthly HOPE luncheon (Healthy Older People Eating) or the Not So Young Club, but can’t because they are unable to access transport.

For others, it’s simply a matter of putting themselves out there.

“Sometimes you have to take the initiative,” Ms Graham said.

“We’re trying to shake things up,” Ms Aronsten added.

“We’re all going to live so much longer now – and that’s a long time to fill in!”