Meet our tireless advocate on ageing

Dr Kay Patterson lives and breathes her role as Age Discrimination Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). It appears to be an extension of what she has been doing since she was a teenager.

As I park my car before our interview, she calls to me to adjust the position so that it is more central. “If an older person parked on the right they’d have trouble getting out,” she says. She’s right. Later, in a coffee shop – she swears by a turmeric latte – she was disappointed to see the postman drive down the footpath past the door on his motorbike. “Imagine if you just stepped out – particularly if you were an older person. They shouldn’t do that.”

She cares.

Dr Patterson was born in Sydney, left school at 15 and later managed a small business, returned to school and then gained a bachelor of arts, a PhD in psychology and a diploma of education. She lectured health science students for 11 years and studied gerontology at two universities in theUS. She used that knowledge to co-develop the first Victorian post-graduate diploma in gerontology.

Then came politics and 21 years as a Senator forVictoria. She served in various shadow ministry portfolios before being appointed to Cabinet as Minister for Health and Ageing and, in 2003, Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues.

She retired from Cabinet in 2006 and from the Senate in 2008. But that retirement didn’t last long and she was appointed Age Discrimination Commissioner in July 2016 – a five-year, full-time role. She has served on a number of not-for-profit boards and voluntary positions and is a director of the Brockhoff Foundation and an Honorary Professorial Fellow atMonashUniversity.

Dr Patterson, AO, celebrated her 74th birthday in November. She is halfway through her term as Age Discrimination Commissioner and is already planning for what comes next. To say she is tireless does not do her justice.

But she did make time for a lengthy interview with YourLifeChoices.

YourLifeChoices: Your role focuses on the rights of older workers, elder abuse and the need to encourage innovative solutions to homelessness. How should older people expect to be treated in society?

Kay Patterson: Older people themselves have to be proud of what they do and how much they contribute to the community. They do a huge amount of voluntary work. Look at all the organisations, such as the CWA – one of the fastest growing women’s organisations inAustralia. A lot of older people have helped during droughts and fires. You have people who volunteer in nursing homes. They’re very active and contribute a lot to society and that should be highlighted and celebrated.

Older people also play a huge role in grandparenting. I think we underestimate the importance of grandparenting. My grandmother on my mother’s side and my grandfather on my father’s side were really significant people in my life.

I believe it’s important for those of us who can to be out there saying, look at what older people are doing and contributing.

It’s beholden on older people to be positive and expect respect. If you don’t expect respect, maybe people won’t give it to you. It’s a two-way thing.

Many younger people don’t get exposed to as many older people as they might have done 30 years ago.

But they see their parents deciding to move, to travel overseas, keeping their jobs, looking after grandchildren and they see them as active. It’s much longer before people are seen as frail and older than it used to be when I was young.

A survey conducted by the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) and supported by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that up to 30 per cent of Australian employers are still reluctant to hire workers over a certain age, and for more than two-thirds of this group, that age was over 50.  How do we fight ageism in the workplace?

KP: Just exposure, keep them thinking about employing or working with older people.

I read an article the other day about a woman who put on a secretary at 62. She had just handed in her resignation at 80. Older people value their jobs enormously.

They have made a huge contribution toAustraliathrough bringing up a family and/or working and volunteering. You shouldn’t feel inferior. Go about your business with pride. Eleanor Roosevelt said, in effect, people can only make you feel inferior if you allow them. I agree – if you’re older, don’t let them do that.

I also think we can be a bit ageist towards young people. Do we underestimate what young people can do? Sometimes ageism can work both ways.

Why don’t more older people speak up about elder abuse?

KP: A lot of older people are too embarrassed to say they have been abused because the abuse is usually financial and can be perpetrated by a son or a daughter. An older person doesn’t want to say they’ve made a mistake, they may feel embarrassed that a child has done this to them and so it’s better to hide it and try to get on with life.

I don’t think that is what should happen. We are shining a light on this as a major issue for older Australians.

Research by the National Ageing Research Institute found that almost all of the victims of abuse said, “we don’t want to go to court; we don’t want them to be imprisoned; we want them to understand what they have done; we want some recompense; we want the family to be kept together”.

What was the trigger for your interest in gerontology?

KP: Maybe it was the relationships I had with my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather. I talked a lot to older people. It was early on that I was sensitised to older people. Then I studied gerontology at the Universities of Pennsylvania andMichigan. They were ahead in the world in studying ageing. I set up – with others – the first post-graduate qualification in gerontology inVictoria. It’s still going. It was then that someone suggested I should be in politics.

Can you tell us some of the more satisfying achievements in politics?

KP: The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) wasn’t always indexed. It is now, but it took me three times to get it through. I believed it needed to be more sustainable and fairer across age groups as they aged.  I also pushed for the Age Pension Bonus Scheme.

The plight of older people looking after disabled children also concerned me. I met parents who had bought apartments for their disabled son/daughter. The property, by necessity, was in the parents’ name.  When they went to get the Age Pension, the apartment was counted as an asset and they weren’t eligible for the pension. We introduced a Special Disabiity Trust designed to assist parents who had provided for their disabled son or daughter.  That wouldn’t win an election, but it changes the lives of people who have really tried hard to look after a son or daughter.

I also queried why Age Pension day was once only on a Thursday. Now people can nominate a day.

How would you describe your time as Age Discrimination Commissioner so far?

KP: I’m just two years in – I felt my first year was tilling the soil.  I have limited resources and so have had to cut my coat to fit my cloth. I am focusing on older workers, elder abuse and women at risk of homelessness. I am promoting the adoption of the AHRC Willing to Work Report and the Australian Law Reform Commission Elder Abuse Report.

Are you able to have work-life balance?

KP: I enjoy reading, swimming and spending time with friends and family. I used to religiously attend pilates twice a week, but I don’t get there as often as I’d like to now. That needs attention. But I do manage to get 10,000 to 15,000 steps a day and I do that without fail – wind, rain, or shine.

I’m very strict about eating properly and not cutting corners. And talking to people outside my immediate area of work. I told Julia Gillard when she became PM she should try to contact one person outside Parliament every day. I would say there’s never a day goes past when I haven’t adhered to that. Isolation and loneliness is what makes older people more at risk of depression and/or elder abuse. It is vital that people try to keep as socially connected as they possibly can.

I am not able to do as much voluntary work as I used to before I took on this role.

I’m already thinking about when I get to the end of this job what I can do at 76. You need to. You’ve got to make decisions when you can, not when they are forced on you because you are ill or when some other issue arises.

Who is the person you most admire?

KP: Lorna Lloyd Green (obstetrician-gynecologist). She mentored me. She worked full time until she was 76 delivering babies, then she then did a two-year music therapy course, because she was a beautiful pianist, and worked three days a week in two hospices where she could also use her medical knowledge to explain to people what was happening to them. She was a very gentle, strong soul. I gave the eulogy at her funeral (in 2002). I believe it is vital to have friends who are younger as well as older – to learn from them and share what you have learnt as well.

You can follow Dr Patterson on twitter at @DrKayPatterson and on Facebook at @AgePositive.

Have you experienced ageism? Do you have a range of friends of varying ages? Do you agree with Dr Patterson’s words about social connections?

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Janelle Ward
Janelle Ward
Energetic and skilled editor and writer with expert knowledge of retirement, retirement income, superannuation and retirement planning.
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