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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Lipmann’s evocative Hidden works paint haunting picture of Melbourne’s older homeless

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Dorothy “Dot” Lipmann AM notes humbly that she’s “lucky” to have been a painter her whole life.

But, in fact, it’s the Melbourne public that are fortunate to have witnessed her latest collection of poignant yet alluring works, entitled Hidden.

Aptly showcased within the secret basement beneath a wine bar, at not-for-profit Melbourne gallery fortyfivedownstairs, the collection of oil paintings (viewable online via this link) provides a glimpse into the lives of older persons experiencing homelessness that Lipmann has encountered as a volunteer at Wintringham aged care facilities.

Founded by her husband Bryan Lipmann AM in 1989, Wintringham is a not-for-profit organisation that provides aged care and social housing for persons 50 years and over.

“A lot of our guys are pretty damaged; they’re all disadvantaged,” Bryan tells Aged Care News

“We take the people that the aged care industry has turned its back on.”

The organisation now has in operation seven full-care aged care facilities – including one new, dementia-specific facility – in metropolitan Melbourne, along with two facilities in Hobart and Shepparton that are under construction and more than 20 affordable housing complexes across metro and regional Victoria and Tasmania. 

Wintringham cares for about 2000 elderly homeless people each night.

While the Federal Government definition of an older Australian is anyone aged 65 and over – Bryan insisted at the start of Wintringham on redefining the minimum age for their homelessness-oriented care to begin at 50 and above.

A lot of our guys are pretty damaged; they’re all disadvantaged. We take the people that the aged care industry has turned its back on.

Bryan Lipmann

This is due to the premature ageing commonly occurring in the homeless population, a cumulative effect of poor nutrition, chronic illness, and the stresses of not knowing where they are going to sleep.

“We’ve got people in the 80s and 90s, and even their hundreds, but they’re the survivors,” Bryan says.

“They’re not normal; most of our guys die young.”

Having volunteered at Wintringham facilities for in excess of 30 years, Dot has encountered a variety of unique and vibrant personalities, with many providing inspiration for her artworks. This two-fold service to philanthropy and the arts earned her appointment as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2020.

While Dot’s previous collections from 2012 and 2016 document a variety of the faces – men and women – of Wintringham, her latest collection is dedicated to elderly women who use cars, couch surfing, house sitting or cheap and dangerous boarding houses for shelter.

“They’re the fastest growing group of people in crisis and are largely hidden,” Dot explains.

Dorothy Lipmann with her favourite painting from her exhibition ‘The Tent’ (left) and ‘Howling at the Moon’. Photo: BIANCA ROBERTS.

“Many have never imagined they would become homeless, buffeted by their environment and hidden behind structures that limit their choices economically, socially and politically.”

As Aged Care News reported in December, older women are uniquely vulnerable to experiencing homelessness.

Overrepresentation in lower-paid and part-time work and time taken out of the workforce to care for children; consequently, a reduced capacity to accumulate superannuation and other assets; and vulnerability to domestic violence all contribute to women’s heightened risk.

Latest census data shows that between 2011 and 2016, homelessness in the female over 55 cohort grew by 31 per cent.  

Many [elderly women] have never imagined they would become homeless, buffeted by their environment and hidden behind structures that limit their choices economically, socially and politically.

Dorothy Lipmann

“These women face an uncertain future, having no security, assets or savings,” Dot notes.

“All suffer from a profound loneliness that leaves them intimidated and with a feeling of hopelessness.”

Dot depicts this growing socio-economic crisis through a mix of portraits of real women she’s met while volunteering, as well as symbolic representations of common situations faced by homeless women, including her personal favourite from the collection: The Tent.

“It’s some recollections from photographs, but it’s mainly their character and their psychology,” Dot tells Aged Care News.

“It’s usually something about them that excites me, that gets me working.”

Dorothy Lipmann’s painting, titled ‘Shickered’, depicting Patricia, a Wintringham resident, in a state of turmoil.

“They don’t have family. So, we can become their family – you really do get to know them, and they get to trust you.”

Dispelling homogenous stereotypes and celebrating residents’ individuality

‘Shickered’, provides a candid representation of the mental turmoil of many Wintringham residents.

Alcohol is not banned at Wintringham facilities, providing residents do not cause public disturbance.

“It’s not an institution” notes Dot.

According to a December 2021 report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), an estimated 43 per cent of the Melbourne homeless population reported alcohol and other drug use problems.

But only one-third reported that they had these problems prior to experiencing homeless.

These women face an uncertain future, having no security, assets or savings. All suffer from a profound loneliness that leaves them intimidated and with a feeling of hopelessness.

Dorothy Lipmann

The remaining two-thirds – the majority – reported that they acquired drug and/or alcohol dependence after, and therefore as a result of, the commencement of homelessness.

In recognising this nuanced reality, Dot says she wishes to depict “the psychology of the subject without reverting to caricature”.

Dot never defines Wintringham residents by any lifestyle factors; in fact, through her work she is aiming to disband homogenous, stereotypical assumptions as she consciously creates multiple paintings of the same subject, communicating to the Australian public the unique, robust personalities of each individual experiencing homelessness.

Patricia, in one of the paintings, titled Funding, is self-assured with a hint of cheekiness as, tight lipped, she gestures to the camera.

It was a moment observed when Bryan was filming content to present as evidence to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in 2019, where he’d been called on to provide positive examples of best practice regarding person-centred care.

Patricia depicted in ‘Funding’ (right) and Josephine in ‘Lightning Strike’ (centre). Photo: BIANCA ROBERTS.

“Because there was so many bad stories when the Royal Commission had been held, they wanted Bryan to go over to Perth and tell a good story, what you actually can do with people, improving their lives,” Dot proudly recalls.

“So he took a video of [Wintringham facilities], and as soon as the camera came out: whoa, here’s Patricia! 

“She was wonderful, and she said, we need FUNDING!”

Government lawyers initially dismissed the worth of watching video content from Wintringham, but Bryan would not take no for an answer, Dot recounts.

“He insisted… the Commission needed to understand the complexities of these people.

“They’ve got multiple problems; they are homeless for a reason. It can be very hard to win their confidence.”

But in describing these gritty facets, there is never the intention to disparage her subjects.

The provision of support without housing doesn’t work, and provision of housing without support doesn’t work. But if you put the two together, you have a beautiful outcome. That’s the principle; that’s Wintringham in a nutshell.

Bryan Lipmann

As Dot guides Aged Care News through each painting, there is gentle endearment in her voice, tempered with an honesty that demonstrates not a lack of care, but quite the opposite: an enduring, unconditional commitment to understanding and working with older homeless persons, no matter the trauma they carry.

“Their suffering deserves empathy and compassion,” she says.

“They need extra care and time, and no one really knows just what they’re like.”

Dot recounts her relationship with a particular resident of Wintringham who is non-verbal.

“People who won’t communicate verbally, their character comes out in other ways, especially their rooms,” she says.

Inspired by an oddly timed lightning strike during winter, Dot’s portrait, titled Lightning Strike, was an amalgamation of her concerns around climate change with the apt representation of the character of the resident.

“That’s her character; she sort of has outbursts and then she’ll squirrel away… she’s of European heritage… her Mum used to come every week to visit her but she just pushed her away.”

With their unique balance of compassion and candour, Bryan and Dot Lipmann have contributed to building an infrastructure that has made tangible differences to thousands of homeless older Australians over the years.

And it may come as a shock to the Government, who have as yet not developed a permanent solution to accommodate the estimated 116,000 homeless persons across the country, but according to Bryan homelessness is not hard to solve.

It comes down to more than bricks and mortar: support must complement housing provision in order to truly turn a homeless person’s situation around, with neither factor independently sufficient.

“The provision of support without housing doesn’t work, and provision of housing without support doesn’t work,” he says.

“But if you put the two together, you have a beautiful outcome.

“That’s the principle; that’s Wintringham in a nutshell.”

More about Wintringham

Wintringham is a Melbourne-based not-for-profit welfare organisation created in 1989 to address the scourge of elderly homelessness.

After an unlikely career change from jackaroo/slaughterman in rural Western Australia to a Melbourne social worker at Melbourne’s (now-closed) Gordon House homelessness shelter Bryan observed how existing services neglected the care needs of older residents, as they were subsumed into the general homelessness population without a second thought.

He laments that “Wintringham shouldn’t have to exist”, but with a fire in his belly and an undying passion for social justice, he developed Wintringham to address the gap himself.

“The sole motivating philosophy at Wintringham is that of social justice. We believe that all elderly people, regardless of poverty or lifestyle, have the right to live an independent and dignified life.”

To seek assistance for someone aged over 50 who is homeless or at risk, contact Wintringham staff on 03 9034 4824.

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