ADJOURNMENT;International Day of Older Persons – 14 Oct 2008

I rise to speak today in recognition of Australia’s International Day of Older Persons, which was celebrated on 1 October as part of the broader United Nations International Day of Older Persons. The day was an opportunity to recognise and celebrate the contributions older Australians make to their families and communities, and to encourage participation by older people in community activities. One of Australia’s greatest assets is its older Australians. They have helped shape modern Australia and continue to make significant contributions to society with a lifetime of skills, knowledge and experience.

Australia’s theme for this year’s International Day of Older Persons was social inclusion. The social inclusion agenda aims to: create opportunities for individuals to participate not just in economic life but also in Australia’s civic and social life; recognise the complex and different barriers which prevent participation and the real impact these have on individuals and communities; and acknowledge the need for early intervention, prevention and treatment strategies which provide a pathway to inclusion and a continuum of care.

I had the privilege recently of hosting, in my electorate office, an awards recognition ceremony celebrating the International Day of Older Persons. This enabled me to acknowledge the contribution that these older citizens make to my community through their work, through their skills and, perhaps most significantly, by sharing their experiences. I could think of no more representative group to highlight the theme of social inclusion than the group of Kingborough senior citizens whom I had the pleasure of honouring on this occasion. The range of community activities with which these wonderful people are associated is amazing. They include creative writing, exercise programs, meals on wheels, fire awareness and the creative arts—to name but a few. And all have some degree of involvement with local seniors community groups, such as the Kingborough Seniors Action Group, Channel Action Through Seniors and the local chapter of the University of the Third Age. It was just unfortunate that I did not have the space to honour more people, as there are many, many more throughout the area that are worthy of recognition. Of course, this group is representative of the many older persons throughout Australia whose tireless dedication to the broader community and sense of self-sacrifice is truly inspirational.

Ageing people represent a global issue or set of issues which transcend boundaries between developed and developing countries and between rich and poor, and which challenge the traditional dichotomy of the social and economic policy spheres. That is not to gloss over the specific nature of the challenges facing developing countries versus those of developed states, such as Australia, but rather to highlight that the challenges or, as I would like to emphasise, the opportunities posed by an ageing population are universal.

Recognising the need to respond to these demands, the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1991, the United Nations Principles for Older Persons. These principles were articulated for policymakers to incorporate into national programs. Five quality-of-life characteristics were identified: independence, participation, care, self-fulfilment and dignity. The Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, adopted in 2002 and signed by 159 countries, reflects a global consensus on the social dimensions of ageing. Based on the view that ageing represents more than a political and policy challenge but is a true milestone of human achievement, the Madrid plan articulates three interrelated themes which provide a powerful statement of the opportunities provided by an ageing society. There is ‘empowerment of older persons’, ‘full realisation’ of their rights and potential, and public recognition of the opportunities and challenges of an ageing society. Together, these themes inform the development of a policy approach to ageing that is integral to the national development agenda.

Two immediate questions arise when considering the Australian national development agenda. What do these global opportunities and challenges mean for Australia? Does the Australian demographic context reflect these global trends? On the second question, the most recent data provided by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is conclusive. Australia is a rapidly ageing society. By 2036 the proportion of the population aged 65 years and over will constitute 24 per cent of the total population. This represents a doubling of the number of persons in this population group over a 30-year period. Again reflecting global trends, the number of Australians aged 85 years and over has doubled over the past 20 years and is now projected to grow more rapidly than other age groups.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics, in its most recent survey, found that the number of people aged 65 years and over increased by 2.7 per cent in the year to June 2007. By comparison, the rate of increase in the group aged 40 to 64 years was 1.7 per cent. Of greatest significance though is the fact that the gap between these two groups is widening over time. This trend will only continue as the baby boomer generation ages and advances in health care extend life expectancy. A challenge will be to understand how the baby boomer generation will view themselves as they age. It was once observed that in the Australian context older people were to be seen but not heard and in many cases not even seen. This view has never been acceptable. It is based on the many myths surrounding the aged members of our community that went largely unchallenged for many years.

I want to briefly consider and dispense with three of these myths. Myth 1 is: older people are entirely dependent. Yet it is the case that, amongst those aged 85 years and over, some 74 per cent live independently. The average age for entry to permanent residential care is 82 years for both men and women. Furthermore, some 94 per cent live in private dwellings in the community. The vast majority of these folk go about their lives without the need for assistance or support.

Myth 2 is: older people represent a drain on the public purse. What a cruel myth when one considers that almost one quarter of men aged between 65 and 69 years participate in the workforce along with 13 per cent of women in the same age group! The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that 24 per cent of older Australians provide direct or indirect financial support for adult children or other relatives living outside the household. Almost half of Australians aged 65 to 74 years provide unpaid assistance to someone outside their household. They also provide some 11 per cent of carers and 13 per cent of primary carers who provide support to people of all ages with a disability.

Myth 3 is: older people have nothing to offer the community. Again, this is simply a falsehood. I refer again to the small group of members from the Kingborough community as evidence of this. Not only do many older members of the community have much to offer but they are willing and able to do so. What a wonderful yet still largely untapped community resource!

To ensure that older members of Australian society are able to actively participate in their communities, it is important to consider the concept of active ageing as promoted by the World Health Organisation, which has as its central objective the aim of extending the healthy life expectancy. This involves promotion of the social and mental components of health in addition to the physical ones. In Australia this has found expression in policies and programs developed by both the government and non-government sectors.

We have seen how empowerment and protecting the rights and ensuring the dignity of older persons are today recognised internationally as crucial issues in the context of a society for all ages. This implies that policy making must be both forward looking and comprehensive. It can be argued that there is no one area of public policy that is not influenced in some manner by the ageing of the Australian population. Recognition of this fact implies we need to develop policy processes geared at mainstreaming ageing into all relevant policies and programs.

The previous government, to its credit, recognised this with the establishment of the position of the Minister for Ageing, a practice continued by the Rudd Labor government, and commencement of work on the development of a strategic approach to ageing policy. I wish to once again refer senators to the social inclusion agenda which has been articulated by the Rudd government and suggest that it provides a suitable framework against which to respond to the opportunities and challenges posed by an ageing population. The social inclusion agenda accordingly seeks to create opportunities for individuals to participate not only in Australia’s economic life but also in its civic and social life and to recognise the complex and different barriers which prevent participation and the real impact this has on individuals and communities. It also acknowledges the need for early intervention, prevention and treatment strategies which provide a pathway to inclusion and a continuum of care, as I have already mentioned.

The Rudd government further recognised the need to promote a positive view of ageing with the appointment, in April of this year, of Ms Noeline Brown as Australia’s first national Ambassador for Ageing. The role of the ambassador is to promote a healthy, positive and active ageing message within the community and to lead promotional activities to ensure our communities value and respect older people. In conclusion, I would like to inform the Senate of the following quote from the Ambassador for Ageing, which I believe all of us have a duty to recognise:

“Australian’s aged over 55 contribute an estimated $75 billion every year in unpaid caring and volunteer activities. What a staggering contribution to our nation and this is certainly something I am extremely proud to publicise … “

To this I can state with confidence that the group of older Australians whom I recently had the privilege to honour would join me in saying, ‘Hear, hear!’