Can older mean better?

Tomorrow is the International Day of Older Persons as declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 1990. It is an opportunity to raise awareness of age-related issues and to celebrate the contributions of older people around the world. In Australia it tends to slip under the radar somewhat; perhaps a sign of our ‘she’ll be right, mate’ attitude to most things – or our lack of understanding of how much all of our lives will change as our society ages with an increasing number of older people and fewer younger.

For too long we have tended to focus on the negatives of ageing societies too easily accepting the suggestion that the old are rich and greedy and the young will have to work far too hard to support these ‘old geezers’. Hopefully the appointment of former Senator Susan Ryan as our first dedicated Age Care Commissioner in July this year will encourage more rational and productive debate around the positives of ageing society – as well as the challenges.

But what does ‘ageing society’ really mean anyway? An ageing society – and Japan is perhaps the most extreme example in the western world – is one in which there are a higher proportion of older citizens due to the ‘boom’ in births immediately post war, until the introduction of the birth control pill in the mid 1960s combined with longer life expectancy. Most developed nations are facing the challenges of dealing with increasing numbers of 50 and 60-year-olds, not to mention the leap in centenarians. These challenges include: 

  • funding state pension systems,
  • caring for those who are frail or suffering from dementia,
  • creating age-friendly cities and villages for those who are less mobile and
  • tapping into the skills, expertise and wisdom of those who have been on the planet a long time and seen it all before.

There is a tendency to believe that technology will save us. That regardless of the needs of older people, a gadget can be invented to solve their dilemma. Again, Japan seems to lead the field with the extreme example of robot pets as companions for the frail aged. I say extreme, as I do not believe a machine is a solution for isolation and loneliness. Surely only real people can provide the love and emotional care we all need, no matter what age we are. So yes, technological advances may well provide cost-effective solutions to help older people feel more secure and supported if they choose to age at home. But this is just one strand of a multi-dimensional response which is required to best support a rapidly ageing society.

Creating solutions for meeting such challenges is not just the responsibility of government. Private companies, not-for profits and individuals all need to rise to the occasion as well. And far too often policymakers have reached conclusions and made decisions on behalf of older people. There is a pressing need to invite all generations to become involved in what is necessarily an inter-generational debate.

For every problem, there is a solution and often that solution goes beyond the original issue, delivering widespread benefits in other areas as well. The perceived ‘problems’ of ageing societies are really opportunities for us all.

The need for skilled workers?

So many older adults wish to stay involved, connected and contributing. They just want to work on a more flexible basis. This won’t hurt their retirement savings any, either.

Infrastructure?

Our construction industry is suffering due to a ‘soft’ economic outlook. So why can’t Australia lead the world in designing and building best practice ‘universal’ dwellings which allow us all to ‘age at home’ and not in institutions?

Pressure on pension funding?

For too long most Australians have been in denial about the need to plan and save for their later years. More financial education from a very young age will help ALL Australians become more financially independent, leading to more choice as they age.

We are often told that we need to become a ‘smart’ country to prosper. We seem to have lost the running in many fields of endeavour in recent years, including alternative technology, agricultural innovation and manufacturing. So maybe there is a new frontier which we can conquer? On October 1, why not turn your thoughts to ways we can best support and engage with older Australians whilst serving the needs of ALL generations? Now there’s a fun challenge.

What do you think?
Does looking after older Australians have to mean penalising the young?
Do you have a great idea to further this debate?

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