Let’s change our attitudes – the gateway to tackling ageism
29 September 2021 at 4:55 pm
There’s no perfect solution for ending ageism, but we need to start systematically addressing the root of the matter now, writes Uniting NSW.ACT chief executive Tracey Burton, ahead of Australia’s first Ageism Awareness Day.
As the Delta strain turns life upside down on the east coast of Australia, the most fundamental change recommended by the Aged Care Royal Commission report is getting little attention.
It’s Australia’s attitudes to our elders that underscore the real problem that aged care faces – or more specifically, ageism.
It’s the source of the neglect and the underfunding.
The topic of ageism is not as easy to understand as staffing ratios, nor does it make a news grabbing headline compared to an appalling tale of elder abuse. But it is the reason all those things, and other failings mentioned in the royal commission report, happen at all.
How often have you heard that our older people are a burden? Elders are perceived as a problem to be solved; the costs and the challenges associated with caring for them.
Counsel assisting the royal commission says that older people were frequently associated with negative descriptions such as “vulnerable”, “frail and slow”, “closed-minded”, “lonely” and “scared”.
Despite calling this out, we see ageism affect the federal budget and the response to COVID-19 this year.
The government says it wants to create jobs. It says it wants to improve aged care.
So, why is the aged care sector, one of those most directly affected by the pandemic and one being criticised for understaffing, not seen as a possible solution to the mass unemployment?
Aged care needs more workers, skilled migration has ground to a halt and more than a million people are out of work.
If you join the dots, it’s obvious to see that financial support and resources are mainly going to jobs that require hard hats and hi-vis vests, while those in the care sector industries are largely ignored.
If the sector could get the equivalent of a Job Keeper or Job Maker scheme, or greater investment in aged care, we could supply scores of job opportunities and provide better, more personalised care for older Australians.
In 2016, there were 366,000 people working to support 1.2 million older Australians. By 2050 we will need 980,000 workers to care for 7.5 million people.
The aged care sector could give people deeply meaningful work, create vocational programs and inject spending into regions and cities all over Australia. It’s a vital means of boosting economic growth in the years ahead.
These are not new ideas. There have been plenty of suggested ways to reach these objectives.
In 2018, Professor John Pollaers chaired The Aged Care Workforce Strategy Taskforce. He told the royal commission in October last year that the 14 strategic actions recommended in the report had still not been fully acted on.
My experience with older Australians is that the vast majority are living longer, healthier lives and are active and healthy.
Our staff at Uniting’s aged care services are always telling me that it is the relationships they foster with elders that is the most satisfying and inspiring part of their job.
Counsel assisting the royal commission recommended that “looking after older people should be a part of who we are. We should have an innate respect for them and elevate their place in our community. All of Australia should value and develop our connection with them.”
There’s no perfect solution for ending ageism, but we need to start systematically addressing the root of the matter now.
Let’s start that journey this week as we mark Australia’s first Ageism Awareness Day on 1 October which coincides with the UN’s International Day of Older Persons.
We can begin by raising the issue of ageism in conversations in our own homes, at workplaces and at cafes and pubs when we emerge from lockdown.
We need every Australian to do their bit to challenge ageist attitudes they see in others, as well as themselves.
Let’s check our assumptions and follow through on our actions while ensuring they’re grounded in compassion and respect, not discrimination.