Why we should reach out to older, vulnerable people

February 20 is World Day of Social Justice – recognising the need to promote efforts to tackle issues such as poverty, exclusion and unemployment.

In keeping with the spirit, we’d like to share the story of Phillip May and how community support and secure, affordable housing made an immeasurable difference to this vulnerable man’s life in his last years.

Phillip was farewelled by around 70 people at North Ringwood Uniting Church on December 12. During his 72 years, Phillip was plagued by mental and physical health issues and at one point became homeless.

Things turned around for Phil when he found permanent public housing at Villara in Wantirna South and support from non-profit organisation VMCH, among other community groups.

A VMCH Home Care Package (HCP) allowing him to remain living independently at Villara, and social connections with staff at the adjoining Wantirna VMCH office, saw Phil “the happiest he had been” according to his friend, Derek Sweatman.

Derek (pictured above left) met Phil at church 15 years ago and the pair formed a lasting friendship. “He was a very determined fellow who was warm-hearted and generally kind to everyone,” Derek said. “He was a positive character, given his circumstances, and people were impressed with his sense of humour and care for others.”

In 2012, while in hospital being treated for an infection and congestive heart failure, members of Phil’s church and hospital social workers became concerned for his welfare living alone in his unit. They found Phil a retirement village in Croydon.

“We thought it would be best for him. But we were wrong. He was an independent man and wanted to live alone,” Derek said.

Phil found himself shared accommodation in Vermont but wasn’t happy there – he wanted his own place. Through various community interventions, including support through VMCH’s Assistance with Care and Housing (ACH) program, Phil moved to an independent living unit at Villara in 2016.

“He loved that place,” said Derek. “You could see the enormous difference between Phil at Villara and Phil without Villara quite clearly. It was critical for Phil and his mental health to have permanent, independent housing.”

Phil’s VMCH Case Manager Probo Leonard (pictured above right) said he was glad to have worked with Phil and to witness the benefits of connections he made, despite being a mainly solitary figure.

“I know he was appreciative of all the things we organised for him and I know he attempted to make life different for himself. Phillip made friends with residents of Villara and staff of VMCH when he would chat with them at their visiting coffee van.  For the last few months of his life, the coffee van drove to his home to give him coffee almost every day when Phillip was unable to walk to VMCH.”

The issue of a lack of secure, affordable housing for older Australians is pressing. Over the last decade, the number of older homeless people increased by 49 per cent, with the largest changes measured in people aged 65–74 and 55–64 (Aust Institute of Health and Welfare).

And while calls for more government funding for public housing options are obvious, Derek believes responsibility also rests with the community.

“Society is measured on how it treats the vulnerable. We still don’t always get it right. We need to reach people like Phil who are on the margin. If we had some way of tapping into what they feel and how they think, we would be far more effective rather than compassionate in the way we respond to them. It’s critical to people who are on the edge to feel as though they have a place of their own.”