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I'm a graduate research assistant, so when my supervisor, Dr. Christine Walsh asked me to interview Anne Cartledge, one of Aging in the Right Place's (AIRP) collaborators and Older Persons with Experiences of Homelessness (OPEH) advisors, I felt slightly underqualified. My experiences of writing are academic, not personal, and certainly not journalistic. It didn't help that my supervisor forewarned me, "go in prepared, she is one smart lady".
A quick google search of Anne, reveals a substantial internet presence. Anne's Linkedin account states " self-taught advocate" and activist. Scroll further down and you'll find a Twitter profile: @birdjo. Could this be this Anne, I ask myself? I scan the Twitter page, it's her alright. Further down, an interview in Calgary's Avenue Magazine. This woman has been busy. My internet research gives me a brief idea of who Anne is – a social worker, a community organizer, an activist, and advocate, and perhaps most surprisingly a poet. When I interview Anne, she is not shy about her talents. She says to me almost immediately, "you know, my friend and I just gave a lecture to architecture students the other day and they said we were the best guest lecture they've had." I'm instantly impressed. She then tells me that she read one of her poems at a conference on homelessness two years ago, and received a standing ovation. I must confess, Anne is not fulfilling the images I had in my head prior to the interview of what a 70-year old senior is like. I don't know what I was expecting- quiet, feeble, hard to understand? Anne is none of those things, she is fierce, unapologetic, incredibly wise, and has a cheeky sense of humor that would make anyone laugh.
I quickly learn many things about Anne. She came to Canada from Holland as an immigrant when she was only two years old and her family settled in Southern Alberta. She's lived in many places in Canada, from the West Coast to Toronto, but has spent the past two decades residing in Calgary, 16 years to be exact, in a one-bedroom apartment she calls home. Prior to living independently Anne lived with one of her daughters. She provided childcare for her grandchildren for many years, until she found herself experiencing emotional abuse. Needing to establish firm boundaries for herself, Anne had to leave the situation, and through the support of a counsellor was able to connect with Calgary Housing. From there she found the apartment she lives in now, but sadly has been unable to repair the relationship with her daughter. Not having close relationships with family, Anne experiences ongoing isolation and loneliness.
The pandemic has not made things easier for Anne; Though admittedly, she has learned how to cut her own hair. She describes the pandemic like many of us do, as a blessing and a curse. A blessing because she has learned to do certain things, like haircuts, and ordering groceries online, but a curse for the self-described hugger. Anne confesses she has not given or received a hug in over a year. In that moment, my eyes well up, she looks at me and with a stern admonishment cautions "don't start with me or you'll be seeing the waterworks going, my dear."
When I ask Anne, who does support her in lieu of not having family support, she tells me about a young man she met about five years ago, who started out as her volunteer shopper. Every two weeks he picked Anne up from her apartment and took her grocery shopping. Anne says they developed an unexpected friendship. Though he was born in 1988, and she was born in 1951, Anne says they've always understood each other. Though the young man is no longer Anne's shopper, they've stayed friends and Anne has become a part of a broader family and community through him. Anne tells me with a grin on her face, "you know what he calls me?" and with an even bigger smile says, "Shenanigans." With a matching grin I reply, "I am not surprised."
Anne got involved as a seniors' advocate several years ago when she noticed a Twitter advertisement posted by University of Calgary researcher, Dr. Victoria Burns, as part of the Beyond Homelessness research project. The ad sought seniors with experiences of homelessness or housing insecurity. Because Anne had experienced housing precarity, or what is described as the hidden homelessness, she joined as a co-researcher. Hidden homelessness, Anne identifies as not "being on the streets or anything like that but bouncing from place to place." As a young mother, Anne was faced without secure housing, and her and her children bounced from one relative to the next.
It was from the Beyond Housing project that Anne became connected to AIRP. I ask Anne what she likes best about participating in AIRP. She pauses, then replies, "the people, and being vocal." We discuss what it means for her to be vocal, and she says that it keeps her alive and gives her purpose. Though it is at times hard on her emotionally and physically, Anne says "someone's gotta’ do it." Other seniors' issues Anne is passionate about include the poor transition from AISH [Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped] to old age pension, and the institutionalization of seniors. I ask her what advice she has for social workers and social work students like myself who are working alongside seniors. She advises, "you should not work with seniors if you don't like them." She asks, "do you see them as people or do you see them as a job?" Anne also cannot emphasize enough how important it is to listen to the voices of older adults. Her personal experiences have shown her how often seniors' opinions and ideas are dismissed on issues that pertain to them. Anne concludes, "I mean let seniors be in charge of their lives." It's that simple.
By Jill Hoselton
AGING IN ISOLATION
By Anne Cartledge
Every day starts the same as before
I get up not because I want to
But it is because I have to...
Even being old my body will not, can not rest.
I hear the sounds of life...gleeful they be
Just outside the massive door to my home
Everyone else but me, I got the message
Has got somewhere else to go, to be.
Oh never mind, not one person
Cares enough to come and ask
And this old body and mind, cannot,
Will not, venture out there any more
Family has decided that I am not useful
They have their lives, I am not welcome any longer
To be there, and to help me is not their job
My empty nest is so bare, cold and foreboding ....
Loneliness and isolation for some
Are the realities of aging....
Leaves too much time for thinking, mourning...
And this old soul spends too little time doing.