As part of its austerity measures, the new Queensland LNP government has announced (not terribly loudly, mind) that it is winding down a number of government-owned aged care facilities. Some are closing altogether. Just down the road from me in Sandgate, two buildings at Eventide are going. Seventy jobs will be lost, 80 old people will be dislocated, and an army of local volunteers who help there have been stripped of their purpose. Locals are up in arms, and there has been a highly political rally outside the Home.
The argument is that the facilities are old, and it would cost too much to upgrade them to meet new federal standards that come in next year, but it’s hard not to suspect that the State Government has plans to eventually flog the site off to developers. The site is wonderful: seafront land looking northwards across Hayes Inlet to Redcliffe, and eastwards out to Moreton Bay.
In any case, it looks like the end of an era. Eventide has been in the suburb of Brighton since 1946, but its roots go back much further, to its origins as the Benevolent Institution in the early years of free settlement at Moreton Bay, before Queensland even existed as a separate colony.
In the 1840s, the first free settlers donated money to set up a hospital in Brisbane. As well as treating the sick, it also provided rudimentary accommodation for other ‘charity cases’, which could include
The mentally ill, handicapped and poverty stricken…. The dying, cancerous, cripples, unwed mothers, unemployed young men, alcoholics, children, the blind, infirm old people, the mentally disturbed and retarded… (Goodall, 22)
In the 1840s, nobody in their right mind would enter a hospital if they had family or friends – or funds – to allow them to be nursed at home. The hospital was for the poor and the isolated, and in early Brisbane there were plenty of them. Immigrants were often alone in the world, without the support of an extended family, and for those who fell on hard times, through illness or old age, the Brisbane Hospital and Benevolent Institution was the last resort.
In 1859 Queensland became a separate colony. At about the same time, medicine was becoming more professional. New developments such as anaesthesia, the germ theory of disease, and recognition of the importance of hygiene, all changed the nature of hospitals. They were no longer simply dumping grounds for the mad, the sad and the bad. On the contrary, these people were seen as an embarrassment to be hidden away.
The islands of Moreton Bay were a convenient dumping ground for many inconvenient groups: Peel Island became a leprosarium, St Helena a prison, and at Dunwich, on Stradbroke Island, the abandoned quarantine station was recycled to accommodate the inmates of the Benevolent Institution. The new government moved them in 1866.
Like lepers and prisoners, these people were virtual prisoners. One inmate had been a convict at Dunwich between 1827 and 1831. In 1867 on his third escape attempt, he made contact with Aborigines he had met nearly 40 years ago, borrowed a canoe, and vanished to the mainland. (Goodall, 67) Most inmates were less enterprising, and their graves can be seen on the outskirts of Dunwich today.
Change finally came at the end of World War II. During the war, the RAAF training school was based on the shores of Moreton Bay, on reclaimed mangroves opposite Redcliffe. When the air force moved out in 1946, the Benevolent Institution and its residents – 768 in all – moved into their abandoned buildings. The complex was named Eventide.
As the name suggests, the main inmates were old people. By 1946, the world of charitable institutions had become more specialised, more professional. Other charity cases, such as orphans, single mothers or the insane, all went to separate institutions. And however inadequate, old age pensions and unemployment benefits meant that there was a safety net of sorts.
That left the aged, especially those without family or funds. I remember visiting Eventide as a child in the 1950s. Somebody – perhaps a friend of my grandmother’s? – lived there. The old people were mostly confined to bed, in long wards without privacy or personal space. The cinder block rooms were grey and cold. Even then, I hated the name ‘Eventide’ with its sense of finality: ‘God’s Waiting Room’.
In the 50+ years since then, aged care has changed – thank goodness. There is much more effort made to help people stay in their own homes. At the same time, as our population ages, private aged care – for those who can afford it – is big business.
For those who are old and poor though, there are still very limited choices. Winding down Eventide won’t help.
Joseph B. Goodall, Whom Nobody Owns: The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, An Institutional Biography 1866-1946 (Ph.D, University of Queensland, 1992)
This time last year:
Family Papers, 4 November 2011