Is living longer worth the bother?

As a researcher at the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI), Melanie Joosten is well placed to answer, ‘Why is there such an emphasis on living longer when we don’t like or respect older people?’ 

Melanie Joosten is a researcher at the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) and an author. She has published a novel, Berlin Syndrome, and more recently an anthology of articles, A long time coming: Essays on old age, which is published by Scribe. In her book she explores the question, ‘Why is there such an emphasis on living longer when we don’t like or respect older  people?’

We asked Melanie about challenging the discriminatory conceptions about older people as well a more positive direction for society in understanding ageing.

How would you change the world for the benefit of older people, if you had to choose one single action/issue?
I would get rid of the expectation and need for a five-day working week so that everyone’s job was more flexible and we could all have a better work-life balance. It would make life more enjoyable whatever your age, and would make people less judgemental about those who aren’t working or actively earning income. This would mean people could work part-time throughout their lives and would not put off ‘living’ until retirement. It would also make it easier for family members and others to care for older (and younger!) people in their lives, rather than at a cost to their career and income. Of course, tied to this issue is the need to address Australia’s housing problem and inflated property prices – if housing was more accessible we all wouldn’t be so reliant on having to work long hours.

[In your book] you assert that older people are continually having to prove that they are important and have lots to offer society. Why do you believe this is so?
Our society tends to relate a person’s worth with their wealth or economic potential. That means that people are seen as important and contributing to society when they are being productive and employed citizens. Anyone who sits outside of this – such as women on maternity leave, the unemployed and artists – are considered to be ‘leaners’ rather than ‘lifters’. Economists speak of dependency ratios where children and those over 65 are considered to be dependent on the rest of the population. This unfairly leaves older people having to highlight their contributions – through caring roles, volunteering, and remaining healthy – for fear of being seen as taking too much.

How might society respond to people (of any age) and address their life-stage needs with an age-neutral, or at least, non-discriminatory attitude?
There is a tendency within society to make judgements about a person’s behaviour in relation to their age – and this ends up doing everyone a disservice. From disempowering teenagers by telling them they don’t know what they’re talking about to ignoring older people opinions as irrelevant we marginalise any views that fall outside the mainstream. It also means we pit younger generations against older ones. By simply blaming baby boomers for the housing difficulties faced by Generation Y we aren’t attempting to address the real problem of growing inequity and a huge class divide.

You say that we need to ‘reframe’ how we feel about ageing, as a part of life, not one of decline, negativity and the need to be hidden.
We all want to live longer but none of us want to be old – why is this so? There have been huge gains in longevity that give us extra years to enjoy the high standard of living we have in Australia, and yet we treat older people as though they are a burden on our economy and welfare system. We all have different needs at different times in our life and old age is no exception. To grow old is not to be a failure but a success – a lot of the problems people face in later life are caused by how society treats older people (and how we see ourselves) rather than ageing itself.

Older people tend to be concerned about being a burden. Where did this come from – and how can it be countered?
The last fifty years has seen the rise of the individual over community – there is a focus on self improvement and independence rather than the collective good. This focus on independence means that when we need help for things we used to be able to do ourselves we feel like we’re failing and becoming a burden or an imposition on our family and friends. But independence is a myth – we rely on others to grow our food, sew our clothes, build our houses – we don’t do any of it alone and ageing is no different. Asking for help as we age is not becoming a burden, it is part of belonging.

You note that the positive ageing movement has led to a perception that you are only ageing well if you don’t look your age. Is this a real problem?
I think it sets up unrealistic expectations – and they often affect women more than men. Female celebrities are put on the covers of magazines and celebrated when they look young for their age: comments such as ‘It’s amazing, she doesn’t look 70’, just make every 70-year-old woman who does look 70 feel like she’s doing something wrong.

Do you think that programs, such as mixing aged are and childcare, are beneficial?
Yes, without a doubt. Within families people of all ages get on well with one another and rely on each other. But it doesn’t happen as much outside of the family where we all tend to socialise with people our own age or an adjacent generation. Creating more opportunities for older and younger people to mix helps get rid of negative stereotypes around old age. People in aged care can benefit from having fun with children, while also assisting with children’s education by helping them learn to read or garden or cook or use computers.

With people working longer and less likely to provide care for grandchildren, are both generations missing out?
I think it’s up to the individual – some people may enjoy caring for their grandchildren, others might rather visit with them. Regardless, there tends to be a unique bond between grandparents and young grandchildren that seems to benefit everyone in the family, including the parents. A lot of women can only return to work if their parents or in-laws look after their children – but that can put a lot of pressure on the grandparents who might still be working themselves or have other things to be doing. 

To find out more about Melanie Joosten, visit www.melaniejoosten.com

And to buy A long time coming: Essays on old age, visit Booktopia



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