1 October is the United Nations International Day of Older Persons. It is difficult to feel celebratory as we enter the third month of lockdown against a virulent virus that threatens the health and life of all people, but especially the oldest and sickest, and most particularly those in residential care.
It is appropriate that this day falls within the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, knowing that a large proportion of the nursing workforce is over 50 years of age. These soon to be older persons are keeping our health and aged care systems going at a time of great stress and at considerable risk to their own well-being.
It is also the beginning of the Decade of Healthy Ageing and, with vaccination rates rising in Australia, we can look forward to a time when older people can resume a life that is close to how they imagined their later years. The Hunter Ageing Alliance is endeavouring to facilitate this by making Newcastle and Lake Macquarie into age-friendly cities.
People over 65 years will soon comprise a fifth of the community. Social justice alone suggests that our communities should be designed to meet the needs of this large proportion of the population. Our economic health may depend on turning Newcastle and Lake Macquarie into cities in which older people wish to live, creating employment, and to which they wish to visit, spending their considerable wealth.
Covid has exposed some of the weaknesses in our society impacting on older people. Social isolation, already a major problem, has increased, bringing with it loneliness, depression and vulnerability to extreme weather. The number of older people, particularly women, either homeless or with insecure accommodation, has increased. Domestic violence against older women, and elder abuse, have been aggravated by the isolation forced by Covid.
Older people are similar to younger people, with just a few more wrinkles. They have the same interests, the same hopes and the same desires. Unfortunately, our communities do not see them in this light.
Older people may not necessarily wish to remain in their own home which may now be too large for their needs or inappropriately designed. They do not, however, wish to move to a retirement village on the outskirts of the LGA away from their social network, public transport, shops and social facilities such as libraries and pools.
Apart from a range of appropriately designed and located accommodation options, including low cost housing, older people need exercise and recreational options. Walking tracks need safe and clean unlocked toilets, seats and shade. Public parks need exercise equipment specifically designed for older people and not simply for children or for pumping iron.
The end of life brings its own problems highlighted by the recent Royal Commission. We still await any significant Government response to address the long waiting times for Community Care Packages and the understaffing and inadequate payment and training in residential care. Lack of options for older people at the end of life contributes to the high prevalence of suicide in older men.
Most older people do not need care but do need access to all the facilities that contribute to quality of life – accommodation, recreation, social involvement and physical activity. The Hunter Ageing Alliance has been formed to work with all three levels of government to improve the range of options for older people and to ensure that those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale are not excluded.
The economic health of the Hunter may depend on our cities becoming places where older people wish to live and want to visit.
Dr John Ward