Interview with the Minister

The Hon Mark Butler MP, Minister for Mental Health and Ageing

Q. The world has not yet witnessed a time when there will be more people aged over 65 than under 15. How will this be managed in Australia? What are the key issues and how can they be addressed?

A. The first point I would like to make about ageing is that the debate in Australia has focussed too heavily on the downsides and not enough on the upsides. An ageing population is the product of successful and sustained population health. Humans have wanted to live longer. Now there is the chance for a fruitful, healthy and productive time after a peak period of work

Australians can (mainly) take for granted that they will have this time.

We all need to get a bit more positive about ageing because we have all worked hard to achieve this

Yes, there will be significant fiscal challenges and we will [need] the wit to deal with the significant opportunities. On the upside, older citizens will now have more time to travel, perhaps volunteer, have quality time with grandchildren and hand them back when they become cranky.

There are many potential social benefits but we do need to find ways to use wisdom/experience, perhaps in individual mentoring or for social mentoring.

In my constituent meetings many older Australians are turning up to talk about how they are living. It is clear that older Australians have a lot to contribute.

Interestingly, research from Kings College, London, reveals when it comes to a concern about ageing, Australians rank fourth highest in the world.

So people are thinking about consequences of an ageing population. There is a well-document impact on expenditure on health, pensions and the challenges in Aged Care. We are not just living longer – a bit longer than our parents – but we will be much healthier

The big question really is, How do we ensure the older generation remains healthy and productive?

Q. In Turkey at a conference on ageing the consensus was that isolation remains one of the main problems for older citizens. Is this true in Australia?

A. The worst fears for many who are aged over 65, is that of not being valued, not having meaningful things to do, and a whole range of mental health challenges.

Flexible work is important – we haven’t yet had a good discussion around this. We also need to overturn mindset about turning 65

My own father drank and smoked. I have looked in the mirror and stated to myself – I’m not my father. I can live a healthier lifestyle.

The sort of thing that worries me with older people is when they are not socially connected. This impacts their physical and mental health and feelings of worth and dignity.

We have worked hard to get to this point – now we need to ensure our extended life is a valuable one.

Q. The current older generation is the last to reasonably expect to live longer than their parents do/did. This is because lifestyle diseases are becoming more prevalent. How does the government view this? What actions can we expect to see?

A. Making healthy lifestyle choices is not traditionally a government activity. We have depended on civil society to do this. But there are ways government can help including a preventative health agreement and the significant amounts of money going into healthy ageing activities. One example is that of walking groups – working with the Heart Foundation and local governments. This works particularly well with single older people with the bonus of the social aspect and the cup of coffee. These are the ways in which a government can catalyse.

Q. What policies are in place/planned to deal with the coincidence of an ageing population and the projected shortage of aged care nurses?

A. The shortage of aged care workers is a real challenge – perhaps the most challenging out of the full range of challenges in aged care.

People are entering care later, but with an increasing prevalence of dementia. There is a need for a skills mix and money invested in skills and benchmarking. However for those medicos who want an interesting job – as well as one which is worthwhile and valuable – aged care is a very satisfying area.

Pre-war we fought infections and disease, post-war smoking and cardiovascular disease. The next wave is significantly diet-related, particular concerning Diabetes Type2. So we ask what does this mean for the longevity of the current generation and it comes down to a better nutritional base. Obesity is a real worry, and connected to the proliferation of processed foods and reduced levels of physical activity. This is the business of families but good practice is something government can encourage.