A growing number of mature women are finding ourselves at risk of home-lessness. We have reached this point as a result of a combination of three factors, bad health, bad judgement and simple bad luck. This is my story.
I am a retired professional. I started my adult life as a school teacher, then moved across into adult training and then technical writing mid-career when teaching started taking its toll. The fibromyalgia that had started it’s journey through my body was making it more and more unrealistic for me to remain in the full-time workforce, but I did not realise what was wrong with me until my late 30s. I kept working but moved out into contracting where I could control my hours worked to some degree. I tried to find part-time contracts so that I did not have to work the full week, and fairly short contacts so that I had time to recover between contracts. This meant that, although my hourly rate was quite high, my annual income was always very low; not enough to squirrel away large amounts of cash, and not reliable enough to take out a mortgage. Every spare cent went on trying to find a cure for fibromyalgia — something that still eludes me. Is fibromyalgia my fault?
I also had a couple of significant relationships, but these were never going to last. I did not realise that at the time, of course. No reason to go into details. My first husband was just too good for me, organised, disciplined, fit, highly intelligent. We got on very well intellectually but we could not share our personal passions. My as yet un-diagnosed fibromyalgia kept us from doing the same things and sharing his love for bush walking and mountaineering. My second relationship was the opposite. From too responsible I swung to totally irresponsible. That was never going to last either. The worst “judgements” of my life were my decisions relating to men, to leave the first and get together with the second. If you look around now you will see that the only women who are financially safe are those who either got good husbands and kept them, or those who were extremely highly paid. 45% of single women over 45 are on the basic income or less. Think about what that means! Is failing to find the right man my fault? Well, maybe. But how many “right men” are there out there?
The end of my teaching career coincided with the end of my second relationship. From that point I was on my own. The fibromyalgia had progressed to dominate my entire life. It is hard to build relationships or careers when you are in constant pain — and I didn’t. I struggled each day just to get out of bed and drag myself to work, where I felt I had to pretend to be well. As a contractor, I thought, rightly or wrongly, that I would never get another job if people knew I was sick. So I hid my pain. I got enough work to get by. This was all compounded by my sister, a supporting mother with three children, being diagnosed with cancer. Now every cent I earned not only went on trying to fix my fibromyalgia but also in subsidising her battle to beat cancer. For 13 years I funded her battle until she lost. She died in 1994. I refuse to call that bad judgement. I would do the same again. She was not an easy person, but I miss her. Is helping my sister my fault?
Then I was hit with the dot.com crash of 2000, which also coincided with the end of the work brought about by the introduction of the GST. I couldn’t get the next contract. For the first time I had to sign on at CentreLink and what a shock that was to the system. The system is so cruel and demeaning. If I did not have PTSD before then, I certainly had it after my dealings with CentreLink. By then I was 50. I did get contracts after that, often to find myself as the oldest person in the company I was contracted to. It was then that the reality of age and beauty discrimination set in. There were lots of market shifts in our industry, and when the market collapsed, the old women were first out of work, followed by the old men, then the less attractive women, then the less attractive men, then the beautiful women. Ability had nothing to do with who stayed employed. The Adonis men, despite their frequent incompetence, kept the show going until the market recovered. As recovery set in, the order was reversed, with the old women last to get back into work. Is age and gender discrimination our fault?
And now — insane house price inflation so we cannot afford even the lowest market rentals. Is that our fault too?
Should we have to defend ourselves now?
Imagine my shock when I decided to come out of hiding and tell my story on the SBS Insight show, Women on the Edge, to find the we women were being blamed for our financial mismanagement! I was shocked into action. I set up the Facebook Group, Housing Alternatives, to capture the energy generated by the show, while I thought about how to make the most of this very public humiliation.
Should we have to defend ourselves against charges of financial irresponsibility now? Are we unworthy of having a safe refuge called home because we lived our lives as best we could, but did not accumulate wealth? Is all human worth only to be measured by money?
And now I tell my story, not to defend myself, but to tell other women they shouldn’t have to feel ashamed and they shouldn’t have to defend themselves. We have all lived our lives as best we could, and in our retirement years can expect support from the society we have helped build. All our stories are different, with different elements of bad health, bad judgement and bad luck. Let’s get over defending ourselves and fix this problem — and if we have to do it ourselves because no-one else will help us, then that is what we will do.
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