Both the study of gerontology and issues of ageing have shaped where I am today and my current role as Age Discrimination Commissioner.
Background – gerontology and ageing advocacy
In the late 1970s and early 80s, I was teaching health science students and becoming more and more interested in the study of gerontology. I was also acutely aware and increasingly unsettled by the fact that the baby boomers were reaching the peak of their adult lives, and that policies were not in place to deal with the impending increase in the number of older people that would occur in the ensuing 40 or so years.
This concern led me to pursue an interest in gerontology, to co-develop the first gerontology post-graduate diploma in Victoria, and to introduce courses in gerontology and life cycle development into the undergraduate health science courses. There was a degree of resistance to this and I remember being questioned by the clinicians in physio, OT, speech and the other departments - ‘Why gerontology? We already have geriatrics’. And my response was, ‘why child psychology and early childhood development when we already have paediatrics? These students need to know about the well elderly not just well children!’
These battles to promote issues affecting older Australians would prove to be ongoing when I entered the political arena, particularly in the Senate. I was concerned that people, especially women, were being forced to retire at 65, when many had not saved enough for retirement or could clearly benefit from extending their working years.
In 1990, the Minister for Social Security at the time had given an undertaking to remove age discrimination from all existing federal legislation. Nothing was done.
Frustrated with this climate of inaction and prompted by the numerous representations I had received from public servants and statutory office holders, who were being forced to retire at 65, I introduced a private member’s bill into the Senate in 1992 to abolish compulsory retirement in the Australian Public Service.
In 1992, the Government response to the House of Representatives Standing Committee for Long Term Strategies Report gave in principle support to ending compulsory age retirement. This was not acted on.
In 1993, Senator Bolkus indicated that the Government intended to act but the Attorney General’s Department was working towards a comprehensive age discrimination policy. So we waited.
In 1994, The McLeod Report reviewing the Public Service Act concluded that compulsory retirement should be excluded from the revised Act. Result – still no action.
We had an election in 1993, my 1992 bill lapsed, and I resubmitted it in 1995. It was not brought forward by the then Government for debate.
I was given the task of developing the Government’s preparations for the International Year of Older Persons. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I lobbied hard for us to remove the compulsory retirement age for Commonwealth Public Servants and Statutory Officeholders. The former was achieved in 1999 and the latter in 2001. The Age Discrimination Act took a little longer and was enacted in 2004.
In my advocacy, lectures and political battles involving the affairs of older people over the years, I have had in mind that the concerns of those older people would one day become mine and that of the enormous cohort of baby boomers born after World War II. Self-interest is always a good motivator!!!!
Ageing and advocacy
This brings me to the focus of today’s lecture – ageing and advocacy.
I have just highlighted some of my personal experiences in advocating on issues of ageing – the resistance, frustrations and persistence required.
In this lecture, I hope to share with you some of what I have learned in advocating for the rights of seniors and what I hope to achieve in my current role.
First, why do we need effective advocacy for older Australians?
Baby boomers aged 65 and over make up approximately 15% of the Australian population (1), and the 2015 Intergenerational Report has projected that the number of boomers to enter this age range will more than double by 2055.(2)
Major age reforms only began emerging in the 1980s. It had taken far too long and I think there are some important lessons we can learn from history.
The Hutchinson Report of 1954, 50 years ago, was the first major social survey of older people in Victoria.
Among other findings, the report identified issues regarding the inadequacy of the age pension and recommended abolition of its harsh means test. It drew the link between old age, retirement and poverty, and noted the particular vulnerability of older women, who were more likely to be in poverty and living alone in their old age. It considered Australia’s early retirement system ‘wasteful, costly and demoralising’ (3), recommending that those, ‘fit and willing to work’ should be encouraged to do so. (4)
It is ironic that it is still the message of Susan Ryan’s Willing to Work Report launched in May of this year, 60 years on.
Who is, or are all of us, responsible for the repetitive nature of the recommendations and the length of time that passed before we saw any major social policy action?
As academics, gerontologists, researchers and members of the community, how can we learn from the past and what can we do better to achieve much needed outcomes and timely change for the ageing cohort of baby boomers?
It was noted in relation to the Hutchinson Report that , ‘though the report was published as a book, little effort seems to have been made to promote and distribute it, perhaps due to the adverse press response’. (5)
In light of this, I hope to challenge us all with a few questions as we think about advocacy for the ageing population:
- Are we outcome driven with our research and ideas on ageing?
- When I have had the opportunity to speak to researchers and educators in gerontology, and there are some here this evening, I have challenged them, and I am challenging you.
- Do we take our research and sell it to government and relevant stakeholders such as statutory office holders, community leaders, stakeholders and other movers and shakers?
- Do we make an effort to insert ourselves into other courses and disciplines that affect older people such as urban development, financial planning etc.?
- Do we make appropriate connections, outside our immediate professional circles, to fuel debate in our research, to gather interest and excite the curiosity of others?
- Are we making known this knowledge we have about older Australians, then and now, and its implications for policy?
I have on many occasions at gatherings of medical scientists bemoaned the fact that I had never, or maybe once or twice, when I was a backbencher, been invited to visit a medical research institute, or have requests for meetings with medical researchers. When I asked one Director of an Institute why this may have been the case he replied, ‘We didn’t know you were going to be the Health Minister’. My retort was nor did I, but had I been appointed to another Cabinet ministry it would have been useful for the Health Minister to have an informed colleague sitting around the Cabinet table.
My message to you, whether you are a researcher, someone who works with older people, or an interested community member, is that one of the most important things you can do is to engage with the backbenchers. They have time and you can develop some very useful, and with your assistance, ‘informed and enlightened’, contacts. You may be undertaking research which has local implications, for example my local council has conducted a four year project on women at risk of homelessness. Your research may relate to a specific area e.g. rural, inner city etc. If you are a worker, carer, or interested community member, you have a role to play too. You need to identify your local state and federal members. Make an appointment to see them, and explain how your research or experience could assist their constituents. And don’t forget your Senators! You have 12 on one side of the river and 12 on the other.
You never know, your local backbencher may become a Minister. They may not be the Minister responsible for a social policy portfolio but may be the Treasurer, Finance Minister or another Cabinet Minister sitting around the Cabinet Table, who is more aware of the issues than would otherwise be the case, because you have informed them and shared your passion, knowledge and experience.
My advocacy priorities
I have an absolute aversion to good solid reports ending up in the graveyard of good intentions. Therefore I have made it my goal to advance as far as possible, the implementation of sensible recommendations and practical solutions in relation to three main topics.
First, elder abuse. Elder abuse can come in a variety of forms with financial abuse appearing to be the most common.
It is a complex and multi-layered problem. Most perpetrators are close family members such as sons and daughters.
As the National Australian Research Institute (NARI) highlighted in its research, while many victims wanted to be free from abuse and gain recompense for financial losses, they also expressed concern for the perpetrator and wanted them to receive appropriate drug, gambling, alcohol, mental health or other treatments and supports.
The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) recently released its findings and recommendations following a 15-month national inquiry into elder abuse. The report, Elder Abuse - A National Legal Response, was commissioned by the Australian Government and is the result of 117 national stakeholder meetings and more than 450 submissions.
The Eastern Community Legal Centre in Victoria, nurses, police, Aged Care Assessment Teams, carers etc., The Network, came together to discuss and contribute to a joint submission to the law reform discussion paper of draft recommendations.
The Victorian government has recently funded 10 Elder Abuse Prevention Networks, to help raise awareness and put policies into action to prevent elder abuse. We need more of these in other jurisdictions.
I am absolutely determined that the voices and efforts of those who have contributed to this inquiry do not go to waste. I know that the Government is already working on implementation of the report including the development of a National Plan and prevalence study. I will continue to advocate and work with governments and stakeholders to ensure that as many of the recommendations are implemented as possible. If it takes a community to rear a child, it takes a community to protect our vulnerable older citizens.
Second, Willing to Work. The Commission’s Willing to Work report, published last year makes it clear that many older Australians are willing and able to work but are prevented from doing so by age discrimination and lack of positive policies and supports.
In light of our ageing population, higher workforce participation of older people is both a demographic and economic imperative. It is also good for business.
I have been speaking with relevant Ministers and their departments about recommendations relevant to their portfolio. Recently I attended a Roundtable Discussion with senior representatives from several government departments to explore ways to enhance the workforce participation of older Australians and possible areas of collaboration.
I have also been approaching industry and peak bodies about the benefits of older workers including encouraging the development of CPD courses or training for HR and managers.
IRT Foundation holds Career Check Up Expos to assist older Australians to plan their futures and receive advice about working and retirement. If one were to be held in this region, it would provide an opportunity to promote the value of older workers in the Albury Wodonga area.
Many older Australians, especially those who are suffering or reaching the end of their lives, cannot wait 10 or 20 years for relief. They need action and advocacy now.
If this isn’t enough to motivate you, self-interest should be sufficient. Barring a premature death, each and every one of you is going to get older. As academics, students, professionals engaging with older people, and community members, the future you create for older people will set an example and culture for how you will be valued and supported in old age – it is up to you as to what the climate will be like in the mid-2000s.
1. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Feature Article: Population by Age and Sex, Australia, States and Territories (Cat. No. 3101.0 – Australian Demographic Statistics, June 2015). At http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/featurearticlesbyCatalogue/7A40A407211F35F4CA257A2200120EAA?OpenDocument (viewed 12 September 2016).
2. Commonwealth of Australia, 2015 Intergenerational Report: Australia in 2055 (5 March 2015), Report, Ch1. At http://www.treasury.gov.au/PublicationsAndMedia/Publications/2015/2015-… (viewed 12 September 2016).
3. P Jalland, note 3, p 157.
4. P Jalland, note 3, p 159.
5. P Jalland, note 3, p 160.