By Myfan Jordan COTA Victoria Policy Officer in the Autumn 2015 Newsletter of the Community Information and Support Victoria.
Populations across the globe are ageing. Commonly, reports describing this demographic shift put an economic spin on it, embedding signifiers of older people as a burden, a drain on financial, health and familial resources. Australian statistics predict a population increase of 8 million over-65’s by 2034 with an increase of more than 15 million by 2054[i]. Common myths about ageing – particularly assumptions around capacity – often ignore the economic and social contribution older people have made and continue to make as workers, as carers and in volunteering.[ii]
As most of us who work in the community sector know, human rights seek to empower individuals to fully participate in the social, economic, cultural and political life of their communities. Yet while most of us accumulate rights from the time we are born, many find rights diminish as we grow older. In the history of humanity, only a minority have lived into older age. We are in a new and exciting phase of longevity, with pioneering work to be done around the traditional assumptions which support human rights discourse.
In 2002, the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing sought to explicitly recognise equality for older people, supporting our aspirations to remain free and independent, to participate in the life of communities, to receive appropriate care and to live fulfilled lives with dignity.
One might assume in a wealthy democracy like Australia, where the language of human rights is broadly understood (we have an Age Discrimination Commissioner, a Victorian Charter of Human Rights), that equality for older Australians is a given. But at Council on the Ageing Victoria (COTA), we hear older Australians describing their experiences very differently: many encounter embedded and systemic inequalities in a pervasive culture of ageism.
‘There is a new and politically supported criticism of older people, as if we are taking something from the community, rather than contributing as we do.’
Many older people face discrimination in the workplace and in accessing paid work; many compete for rationed services – including medical care. Access to appropriate and affordable housing is at breaking point and for those whose lives have been educationally or financially disadvantaged, age may bring poverty and isolation. Older people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, asylum seekers, sexually diverse older people, those with a mental health diagnosis – many of whom will have experienced harassment and discrimination throughout life – may see age compound their marginalisation.
Frailty and decreasing mobility may confer dependence: physical, economic and psychological. In this context the vocabulary of rights is easily dismissed. Diminishing ‘choice and voice’ bring a sense of identity loss, rendering older people invisible. And while this will be particularly significant for older people with dementia, those in residential aged care or in hospital, it also has a much broader scope. At COTA we regularly see evidence of how this invisibility underpins inequality and social isolation[iii].
‘There is an inherent attitude in our population of ignoring the older person, and lack of respect!!’
‘Most older people become invisible after 60…’
It is important to apply ‘gender goggles’ to ageing[iv]. Evidence shows older women are not only increasingly at risk of financial abuse, but – as many of you from service agencies will be aware – also may experience physical abuse and neglect. Financial disadvantage is also strongly gendered:
‘A significant group of women, like myself, are single and aged 60 plus. We are the group who were in the workforce pre compulsory super, then got married and weren’t able to contribute to super even tho we were in the workforce (at that time married women were unable to contribute,) then had kids, (not working thus no super), and didn’t/couldn’t start putting money into super until it became compulsory. Many in this group got divorced in their 40’s and 50’s and had to start again in the workforce, buy or rent a home and were not able to access a proportion of husbands super as part of the divorce settlement even tho they had contributed (due to legislation preventing this at the time). This group are largely still working because they still have a mortgage, have little super assets and when they retire will be mainly reliant on the pension as they will use the little super accumulated to pay off the mortgage.’
While it is important to acknowledge that not all older people are struggling economically[v], we do need to recognise that systemic inequities perpetuate disadvantage and many pensioners struggle with increasing costs of living. One in three older Australians are now living in poverty[vi] and Global AgeWatch recently listed Australia as ‘the lowest ranking in its region for income security, with the highest old age poverty rate.’[vii].
Clearly, we need to move towards a society where equality for older people is more actively recognised and addressed. But how can we do this?
We should start by ensuring the voices of older people are embedded in structured systems of community engagement. Only by listening and valuing our views can Australia begin to address its ageist culture and build age-friendly communities. Luckily, The WHO’s Global Age Friendly Cities and Communities Guide[viii] provides us with an established framework to guide this. By directly involving seniors in local planning and decision-making, Age Friendly Communities harness the expertise of older residents to make places ‘friendly’ for all ages. Age Friendly Communities deliver outcomes ranging from physical (addressing transport barriers for instance) to social environments (robust discrimination legislation.)
Participation in the decision-making processes of government is increasingly recognised as “a fundamental human right[ix].
We also need to campaign for a UN Convention on the rights of older people. Internationally, the push is on to establish a covenant on the rights of older people. COTA Victoria (and nationally through the federation of COTAs) actively support this campaign. Why do we need a convention? Well, the universal language of rights is made stronger by detailing specific rights for different groups – protections become explicit. As a good international citizen, Australia has an obligation to ensure the rights of older people are adequately described and upheld. We need to convince governments using sound evidence and a groundswell of support from civil society – and this is where you can help. Join the good fight by getting involved in the Global Alliance on the Rights of Older People (GAROP) campaign at http://www.rightsofolderpeople.org.au/how-to-get-involved/)
Or contact COTA for more information on campaigning and age friendly communities. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Source: ABS Population Projections, Australia, 2012 to 2100 (Cat. No. 3222.0) series B (2013).
[ii] E.g. volunteering contributed $16.4 billion to Victoria in 2006 – a significant proportion done by older people.
[iii] In 2015 COTA Victoria will be publishing a Working Paper on Invisibility
[iv] Brasher, Kathleen, The Age (11 December, 2014)
[v] Daley, J. & Wood, D. The Grattan Institute, The Wealth of Generations (Dec 2014)
[viii] World Health Organisation, Global Age Friendly Cities: A Guide (2007)