The ageing of our population is one of humanity’s greatest triumphs and it should be celebrated.
Through the ageing of our population, we will enjoy generations with an unprecedented level of wisdom, experience, knowledge, expertise and capacity and the potential this provides for social, economic and environmental benefit must be realised.
However it is unfortunate whenever ageing is spoken of in the public domain – particularly when the estimated number of older people for coming decades is highlighted – that it is punctuated with negativity, problems, and fear. The term “ageing tsunami” is even commonly used by our key public figures.
Perhaps it’s because the ‘greying’ of our population is a phenomenon that has been a long time coming but one for which we remain largely unprepared. So, as we approach a Federal Election it is imperative the governors of our near and longer term futures give due priority to ageing – both in the individual and collective sense.
Let us stop referring to the unprecedented ageing of our population in future tense. Forget what will happen in 2035 or 2050 – let’s talk about now!
With currently five million Australians aged 65 and older and the net population of people aged 65 or over increasing by at least 120,000 per year, the time for our conversation about how we properly embrace longevity has arrived.
The fact we will have proportionately and actually more older people in our communities is not a catastrophic disaster that should see us fleeing our suburbs. To the contrary – it creates a wonderful opportunity for our society.
The first and most important step in seizing this opportunity, is to redefine the way we view ageing. Currently becoming older is perceived as the cessation of full participation, the decline of physical and mental capacity, and the elimination of one’s potential. An older person is viewed to be of diminished value. In a world increasingly ‘PC’, wise people have attested that our cultural and structural disregard for older populations is indeed the last prejudice we’re allowed to have.
Alternatively, key research from Australia and the U.S. demonstrates that when people are exposed to a more positive perception of ageing they not only extend their life by several years, rates of illness are reduced, (including memory loss and Alzheimer’s) and participation and quality of life are enhanced.
Ageism can be eliminated by looking at our population ageing through an opportunity based lens rather than problem based. For instance, better employment pathways for older people and genuine representation in leadership and positions of influence within our communities. Post-career systems should be created by governments in conjunction with industries to promote purposeful lifestyles for seniors, with younger individuals and communities the added beneficiaries.
Barriers between younger and older generations need to be eliminated to enable meaningful and cooperative associations that provide mutual benefit. Inexpensive interventions can help achieve this such as helpful transport timetables, appropriate communication mediums and creative local planning regimes. Without question an engaged older population provides economic and social benefits from workplaces to health systems, consumer impacts to the value of charitable and volunteer work.
Numerous policy levers can be shifted to the correct levels to foster successful ageing, but no lever should be pulled in isolation. Dismayingly to date, most public discourse and policy attention is given to ageing-related elements on their own – the pension system or aged care or superannuation or age-related discrimination or housing or transport… rather than an imperative whole-of-ageing approach. A symbol of genuine commitment towards successful ageing would be for whichever party takes Government in May to include a senior cabinet ministry responsible for the whole-of-ageing agenda, not a portfolio just for “aged care”or “senior Australians.” Such a position must influence the strategy for our nation and be “at the table” when economic, fiscal and social policies are being conceived.
A great way forward for any government would be to commit to funding and regulatory regimes that embed preventative and restorative pillars to our health, support and care systems. Regimes that empower individuals to optimise their health and well-being. Imagine that – a society that invests in opportunities for people to live and age well, thus reducing the impact on public health and economic resources.
Of course some of our elders will require different types of assistance. It is our responsibility as a society to be more aware of the risks and challenges for older members of our community such as the threat of elder abuse and the need for access to great care and services when required. The vulnerable must be protected and all people no matter how frail or old supported to age successfully. A comprehensive approach is required from all levels of society to ensure our infrastructure, systems and rules foster ‘successful ageing’.
Successful ageing must be self-defined and underpinned by an understanding that irrespective of one’s health or social circumstances, there are passions to be pursued and potential to be realised. We must provide information and education to our communities about successful ageing. Namely the paramount importance of planning to retain one’s control, the immense value of positivity and the need for participation.
Our societal responsibility is multi-faceted but surely indisputable. Whether we uphold it or not will determine whether the doubling of our lifespans over the past 150 years becomes our greatest accomplishment or our worst crisis.
The onus is on each of us to ensure our aspirant governments act in accordance with this responsibility.