Noeline Brown Speech - Women at Work research launch
25 March 2013

Noeline Brown Speech - Women at Work research launch

“Older Women’s Perceptions” Report- 7 March 2013

Noelene Brown Speech- 26 mins

Thank you. Hello everyone, a couple of decades is right. In fact I’ve just celebrated my 50th year in show business. Thank you. It’s no mean feat in Australia spending 50 years earning a living as an actor, I can assure you. We’re not all over there in Hollywood. A lot of us have stayed here and fought the good fight. I worked overseas for a little while, and I was so desperately home sick for my own country that I came back, and I haven’t moved from these shores, except for a little holiday now and again.

First of all I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we meet on today.

As Australia’s first Ambassador for Ageing, it’s been a wonderful experience for me. You may not know that’s who I am. I might just let you know, I’m not only Noelene Brown, actor, I’m Australia’s first and only Ambassador for Ageing. So I represent an ageing community and that’s fair enough because I’m ageing as well. I’m very much part of the demographic. I have to tell everyone how old I was at last birthday, 74, because I think it’s only fair that everybody knows that I am part of that ageing demographic.

So a lot of things in this research would resonate with me.

When I first started my career, I didn’t become an actress straight away. First of all, when I was at school, you got to go back to the 50s when a lot of you would have been at school. We were trained to jobs that we would expect to have- which were probably a typist, if we were lucky enough we might have been a nurse, or we would have worked in shops.

So I was a rather naughty girl at school, so I left the school I was in my first year because they’d asked me to repeat because of my naughtiness. And I said no, not on your life. So I went to another school where we were taught to be stenographers and typists, and you did business principles, and typing with ancient “Olivetti” [brand of typewriter] with covers on the top to music. Do you remember all of that? Now the ridiculous thing is, the keys on the typewriter are all like that, so the keys wouldn’t stick together. But what have we got on our computers and our phones and everything now, the same keyboard, which makes no sense to me at all.

I wasn’t really a naughty girl; I just had that look on my face. So I was always out in the hall. Anyway, I couldn’t wait to leave school. I was 15 years of age. And it upset my family, they actually wanted me to stay and do my matriculation. But no, I just wanted to get out and they were ______ because we didn’t have much money at home, and my mother had been very ill, and to keep her, my father gave up a year of work, unpaid leave, so he could care of her. I’d like to say I felt the need to bring some money into the house, but I just actually wanted to go out and buy earrings and stuff like that.

So, I went to work at the age of 15. And I was lucky because I got a job in a municipal library in (my local town) which was a couple of suburbs away from where I lived. My first pay check was three pounds 10 shillings a week. Now if I didn’t get the bus to get to work, it was just a bit too far to walk and get there in time, if I had to catch a taxi, it took most of the money, I was at three pounds 10. And of course I would have been paying board, as we all did in those days. So wages were very very very low. So I was in the library for a number of years. I liked it, it was a great job. I had lots of opportunities to learn because to me a library is a university. So I was getting an education in this wonderful place.

There was a wonderful woman, who was a mentor to me, the Chief Librarian. And the Chief Librarian was also a talented painter, had a bit of skill in that regard myself. But she thought I would be better as an actor because I used to go to the shows and come in and do the sketches that I’d seen on stage. So she encouraged me to become an actor and join the local theatre group which was called “The Puppet playhouse”, so called because it only seated 70 people but it was my first experience of real life theatre and going there and being in a show. So I didn’t go to university to learn to be an actor, I was thrown off the deep end in the swimming pool and I had to learn to swim.

It was a wonderful experience which she gave me, she encouraged me, and we’re still friends. Now that woman is 13 years older than I am, so she’s 87. And she still paints, she’s had a few problems with her health but she still exhibits and I think that’s wonderful because that’s another skill she had in her life as a famous librarian in Sydney. A famous and terrifying one I’m told, but for me she was a wonderful person.

I’ve got to speak to you; it’s about women in the work force. I’ve talked about myself, and actors always will, but that’s all about me. But I have actually seen the cities around Australia grow into these exciting places that they are today. Melbourne just keeps getting more exciting. Brisbane, I don’t know if you’ve been there, Brisbane used to be just a quiet little country town now it’s an exciting wonderful city.

I’ve seen fashions come and go, just like you. Remember the wedge style shoes of 2010, they were called the platforms in 1970, and here they are again. I remember the first year I brought home very very very high shoes, with a platform and a very high heel. And my mother said when you’re sick of those shoes, don’t ever throw them away, you’ll never believe that you wore them. Fashions have changed, and they do as I say come and go. We all remember what we were doing when the first man walked on the moon, and when President Kennedy was assassinated and the day the Second World War ended.

I do remember the day the King died, it must have been the 50s, was it? The early 50s. Our head Mistress stood on the steps at assembly, the assembly was outside and she said “The King is dead” and we all laughed. We didn’t laugh because the king was dead, we laughed because the wind had blown her dress up and you could see she was wearing bloomers. We did have some strange educators. In the 40s and 50s I can only assume that a lot of them were off to the war and had found other things to do. That was probably why I had that look on my face.

One of the most important changes I’ve seen is this attitude and behaviour of women over the years. So in the 50s as I was saying, things were very different. We were mostly conservative, we dressed conservatively, and young women wore the same clothes as older women. I’ve got a photograph of myself at the age of 15 in a dress a 40 year old woman would have worn and a hat as well. And I certainly remember as a 14 year old or 12 year old going to get a first perm. Remember the torture, now this was in the days of having an electric perm, so it might have been a bit before that. Hairdressers put all these things on me and one of them actually burnt the top of my ear off, and I thought that was supposed to happen, that’s what happened when you got a perm, the smell of burning flesh. So I’m glad to say you don’t have to have those things anymore.

Today women over 40 wear whatever they like, their hair styles are wild they dress in clothes that would have been considered outlandish, they hold senior positions in local and federal governments, and they juggle working careers with family obligations and much more. We have a female Prime Minister. We have a female Governor General. We’ve had female Premiers. It seems that we can do anything.

So speaking of the trends of days gone by, if this was the 70s or 80s, I’d be here; actually it’s a bit before that I think the 50s and the 60s. I’d probably have a little shade of blue in my hair, because we were regarded the people of my age as the “Blue Rinse Brigade”. But now if you have a blue rinse in your hair, it’s considered wildly funky. So I think that if you saw masses of blue haired grannies of yesteryear they’d think the country was being run by a lot of old age punks.

So reaching this great age of 74 it’s made me understand what is important in life. That is family, friends and community. I have to say its work as well because I love my work. But reaching this age, I’ve decided it’s no longer the time to worry about the small stuff, so I suppose you call this wisdom that comes with age. I spend more time doing what I enjoy, reading and taking my dog for a walk and cooking for friends, and volunteering.

Now a lot of us, a lot of older women volunteer. And I read recently, when I first started this job as Ambassador for Ageing, I had this information that tells you Volunteering Australia is worth an estimated 75 billion dollars to the economy every year, but in the last couple of years somebody has actually done some research recently, this person from Adelaide, I don’t have the person’s name. The researcher believes it’s worth 200 billion dollars to the economy every year and she reckons its worth more to Australia than mining.

I just forgot there’s something I actually forgot when I first started to talk. I was going to tell you in today’s paper they were talking about a number of people who have reached the age of 100 and more. And the centenary is one of the biggest growing demographics in Australia. Many of us are going to be 100. These people were interviewed and one woman said her reason for living to this great age is “well I don’t drink and I don’t smoke, It’s not that I’m a teetotaller I just don’t like the taste of it, I do have the occasional sherry.” I love that. Sherry and Champagne don’t count.

So I have to go back to the Ambassador of Ageing stuff, because that’s why I’m here, and they actually paid my airfare. So I will have to talk a little about my role and the messages I promote about healthier and active ageing. Unless I’ve spoken for too long? I’ll just do that, I’m used to that.

So what does the Ambassador of Ageing mean? Am I just the Ambassador for older Australians? Maybe I should just be called the Ambassador for everybody, because as soon as we’re born, we’re ageing. There’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. Good face creams may ward off wrinkles for a while, but there’s no time machine available to take us back to when we were young.

So it’s really about how we age, and how we cope with what is after all an inevitable process. In today’s world there’s lots of advice on how to stay healthy, and live longer. Medical services have never been better and perhaps best of all there are more of us than at any time in history. We’ll never be short of company. In 40 years, 1 in 4 of the total population is going to 65 years and older. Well, from my point of view, 65 years is young, and the 65 year old of today is nowhere near the 65 year old of say my parent’s generation, who might have died before they turned 65. So, I don’t just promote healthy active ageing messages, I also try and dispel the myths about growing older.

One such myth is the unfounded fear that the world is coming to an end because we have an ageing population so I say don’t worry about it. We’re all doing very well, thank you. I’ve met very many older Australians and older women particularly who are living life in the fast lane and some of them are in demanding jobs. People in their 90s are doing PhD’s; in fact I think there are 20000 people in their 80s and 90s doing their PhD’s. I hope it’s not 2000. It’s a hell of a lot anyway. So I believe older women and men, because I can see some men here too, are a fabulous bunch. Well there you go. As our male counterparts who have never lost their passion for living.

The truth is there is life after 60, 70, and 80 and even beyond that. And the vast majority of older people in Australia are happy, involved and active. And make a great contribution to their families, to the community and to the nation. Many older Australians still participate in the paid work force either in full time or part time positions, they also contribute, as I mentioned before, in that voluntary basis.

So I’d like to talk about how we can age well. Some effective tips I have, we can look after our health by eating a balanced diet to ensure our bodies are well nourished, and we can also take a bit of regular exercise. It doesn’t have to be a lot, and it doesn’t have to be all at once. Half an hour a day, an hour a day I think is better than that, and taking care of the brain because as we get older, we really need to challenge ourselves. This is actually, the more you challenge yourself the more you’re going to live to be a happy and effective older person. People say I do the cross word every day, that’s fabulous, but you just get good at cross words. Do something that you didn’t think you could do. Like go on Dancing with the Stars, when you didn’t think you could dance, which I did because I did it for charity because I have a couple of charities I would do anything for. I thought I’m not going to make a fool of myself on national television, so I thought I might only be on for a couple of shows. I was lucky enough to be teamed up with Carmelo Patzino. It was the first show he had ever done, and he taught me how to dance, but he only taught me how to dance with Carmelo Patzino. I’m still hopeless dancing with anybody else. But I must say if ever you get the opportunity to go on Dancing with the Stars, the only opportunity to be in the arms of a man exactly half your age. I can recommend it.

I only brought that up, because it was something that took me out of my comfort zone, and when I talk to older people I say to them, if somebody opens the door and says to you, come in join me, join this group and you say I don’t really want to do that course, or I don’t really want to, but just go through that door. It may not be the door that leads you to what you want to do with the rest of your life, but it will lead you somewhere. And it is a marvellous thing to do, to take that deep breath and say, yes I can do that.

This is what I do as Ambassador of Ageing, I spread those messages. We can always do something with our brain matter, I encourage people to go along and visit their public library, learn bridge, learn anything new. Have those stimulating conversations with people that you haven’t met before. The more friendships you have the better off you’re going to be. People say I’ve got all these friends but yes, get some new ones. Because when you’re talking to your friends that you’ve had for such a long time you’re just nodding in agreement with each other, you want to challenge each other.

There’s another misconception that I like to explode, to bury, and that’s older people cannot handle technology and the truth is that people over 55 are the fastest growing users of internet. I’ve seen people of 84 learning how to use the computer for the first time, and they say well it isn’t brain surgery, it’s not hard. It does open a whole world, if you’ve got a computer and you can log on to the internet, then you’ve got all the libraries of the world available to you. As you age, sometimes you’re not as mobile and it’s a wonderful opportunity to renew that education. I think it’s also good for keeping in touch with family and friends because Australians move all over the world, our grandchildren are in other countries, and it’s a marvellous thing to be able to talk to them on Skype. I use it all the time, I probably use it a bit too much. I’m quite happy if I have to go to the toilet in the middle of the night I can check my emails. So another misconception, how often are senior Australians portrayed in the media as being frail older people living in nursing homes?

Fortunately this is changing and there are groups such as, I don’t know if you know, Older People Speak Out, and that organisation was founded by a woman who teaches media studies. She awards the media annually, and if they give accurate representation of older people they get a beautiful award, and a very nice awards night, like the Logies. I think that’s a wonderful initiative thought up by an older person. The truth is the vast majority of us over 65 are not frail, will not live in nursing homes, the most recent data I’ve seen is that 94% of people over 65 are actually living in their own homes- Either alone or in a group, or as part of a family.

The good news is that the majority of older Australians want to live at home, and they do. They want to be part of the local communities and they are. They want to stay connected to their family and friends and they do. Older Australians, particularly older women are looking to a future where their desire for independence, flexibility, and broader consumer and lifestyle choices will increasingly take precedence. I’m pleased to say senior Australians are challenging the old, tired notion of ageing and challenging them successfully.

So as I look back on my life as a woman, I rejoice because of all the extraordinary things it means to be a woman in this world. Women have always been capable of great things, and I am pleased to say we now live in an era and a country where we can blossom like we’ve never been able to blossom before. Older women have paved the way for a brighter future for younger women where the limits of today seem endless. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Older women have made sacrifices over the years to make a better world for women in general. When I was growing up, women have had to leave the work force, as you were saying earlier, as they got married and had children. And for many decades, had those rather menial jobs like typing and cleaning, and if they were lucky they’d be nursing or getting a job where there was a girl Friday, where they ran the office where the men couldn’t even type a letter, for heaven’s sake. There are men still running the country there, who can’t type a letter, it’s just ridiculous.

Women of today enjoy a much broader range of employment opportunities, and there are women who are now employed in senior positions in both the public and private sectors. There are many women running their own successful businesses, I am pleased to say we live in a great time where there are those greater opportunities for women to reach their full potential. There is still some way to go, because women don’t always have the confidence they deserve to live the life they dream. But the future is much brighter because of the efforts of older women, and our society has certainly been revolving in the right direction.

I’d like to now close with a quote from a former American Vice President Hubert H Humphrey, who was still seeking the Presidency in his 70s and who remained active and involved in political life almost until the day of his death. “The good old days were never that good, believe me. The good new days are today. The better days are coming tomorrow. Our greatest song is still unsung.”

Words that should be a calling call for people everywhere, acknowledging the past, live for the present and rejoice for the future. Thank you.