Wake up Australia

Report from the Istanbul Initiative on Ageing 4–6 October

Wake up Australia

In my role as a director of the International Federation on Ageing (IFA), last week I was privileged to attend the Istanbul Initiative on Ageing (IIIA) along with nearly 500 other delegates representing more than 60 nations. The theme of the program was intergenerational solidarity. Workshops, panels and presentations covered the ‘waterfront’ of ageing population issues, ranging from age-friendly environments, economic challenges, health, safety and security issues and service provision.

It is impossible to do justice to the depth of knowledge and debate which took place in Istanbul, so I have chosen to highlight one key panel discussion – that of gerontechnology and innovative ageing solutions. This panel had an Australian emphasis, with papers from Maree McCabe (CEO Alzheimer’s Australia Vic) and Professor Elizabeth Ozanne (University of Melbourne), in addition to Mr Stijn Bannier (PhD researcher, The Netherlands) and Dr Avani Maniar (Vadodara, India). Maree shared some success stories in gerontechnology from the Alzheimer’s Australia perspective, Stijn featured his work using a ‘hospitality’ model for research into gerontechnology and care and Avani presented results from an innovative program utilising university students and resources to train older Indian citizens in new media.

It would be satisfying to report feeling proud that Australia is keeping pace with ageing innovation around the world. But I left this panel session on gerontechnology with a strong sense of disappointment in our engagement with this important discipline.

There are three standout global megatrends which no genuinely smart nation can afford to ignore. They are digital communication, sustainable living and ageing populations.

Gerontechnology combines two, if not three, of these important challenges, i.e. using digital innovation to support and serve older citizens in both developed and developing nations.

And where does Australia stand when it comes to the discipline of gerontechnology?

Basically nowhere.

It seems we have little in the way of a coherent national policy, ongoing funding or an intention to embrace this challenge.

Along with many other OECD nations, our population aged 60 and over is set to nearly double between 2020 and 2050. So you would expect that our need for a Minister for Ageing is a no-brainer.

But no, according to our new Prime Minister, this role is no longer important enough to merit a position in his cabinet. It is now an ‘add-on’ to other, apparently more important, ministerial roles.

Almost as negative is the state of play when it comes to investment in research and development (R and D) for gerontechnology. I’ve been around long enough to remember former Hawke Government Minister and one of the biggest brains in the country, Barry Jones, and his call for Australia to become a smart country. When you have a tiny population occupying a vast arid land, you need to use your wits to survive and prosper. Barry Jones saw the need for funding and support for research in science and technology. He wrote about it in his bestselling book, Sleepers Awake. But since the early 1990s, we have seen little further support for serious research into new technologies. And as technology assumes an even greater prominence in our economic wellbeing, would it not make sense to fund it?

Again, apparently not.

Professor Ozanne’s highly illuminating paper on her current research – a systematic review of the efficacy and affordability of smart technologies for older citizens – notes that Australia continues to fail to invest the necessary funds in such technologies.

Now I am sure that there are any number of reasons our new Government – as well as our former Labor Government – will offer as to why the funds were unavailable for R and D into gerontechnology to support older Australians to ‘live longer and better’ in their own homes.

Any number of excuses will be forthcoming. But, quite frankly, none of them should wash. Smart people and smart countries know that you need to spend a buck to make a buck. Today we are facing a worldwide challenge of massive proportions. How do we create efficient and cost-effective technological solutions to help older citizens remain healthy and independent for as long as possible?

The nation which comes up with the best solutions – and commercialises and exports them to the rest of the world – is the one whose economic future looks the rosiest. The Japanese and Koreans get this.

Australia doesn’t.

Isn’t it ironic to recall that when agricultural innovation was needed, Australia was the nation which responded, with the stump jump plough and the Sunshine Harvester? When transport innovation was required, we came up with the black box. When hearing was an issue, the cochlear implant was the answer.

But now there is a need for technological solutions for older citizens and we are missing in action.

Australia – where the bloody hell are you?

A copy of this blog is being sent to the Hon. Kevin Andrews, Minister for Social Services (who is also partly responsible for matters to do with ageing). Mr. Andrews’s response is invited, for publication in the November 15 edition of AgeWave Australia.


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