From the very opening moments of the Women, Ageing and Disadvantage symposium, hosted by Seniors Rights Service in November, the focus was on the importance of respect for older people.
Speakers at the symposium, which attracted an audience of 120 with another 100 people tuning in via a live webcast, approached the issue of women’s ageing and disadvantage from a broad range of perspectives.
Yet strong common themes emerged – the need to combat ageism, change attitudes and listen to older people from all communities; how being respected, living visibly and with good community connections led to better health outcomes; and the crucial need for more social and affordable housing.
In her Welcome to Country, Aunty Ann Weldon, from the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, said respecting elders was the essence of her Wiradjuri culture.
“My upbringing as a child was certainly led by the elders, by old people,” said Aunty Ann, who grew up on an Aboriginal reserve in Cowra. Now she was an elder herself, “our wisdom and our journeys can certainly pave the way for young ones to come”.
With journalist Ellen Fanning facilitating, the symposium was divided into two panel discussions, the first covering the issues women face as they aged, and the second examining what needed to be done to address the situation.
Welcoming people to the event, Seniors Rights Service president Margaret Duckett told the audience that 500,000 older Australian women were living in long-term income poverty, and that factors such as pay gaps, domestic violence and basic sexism meant women had many more barriers than men in achieving a comfortable old age.
Director of the OPAL Institute, Dr Catherine Barrett, who works to prevent the sexual abuse of older women, said age and sexism created disadvantage, and attitudes needed to change.
“If we could transform our attitudes, we would prevent the sexual abuse of older women,” she said.
Speaking via Skype from Melbourne, Dr Barrett said data on alleged unlawful sexual contact in rest care had been collected for the last six years. Every year, there were between 370 and 440 reports of unlawful sexual contact where neither the person reporting nor the alleged perpetrator was cognitively impaired. And yet that data had never been acted upon.
“We are not using that data to develop education programs, to inform research, to inform policy, to prevent sexual abuse in older women, and what is that if that’s not ageism?” she asked.
As for family violence, around 400,000 older women had experienced sexual violence at home, she said. “Why do we think that stops at age 65?”
Dr Barrett said financial abuse was often cited as the most common form of abuse against older people, but it was only the most reported. “There is so much shame and silence around sexual abuse that it’s not being reported,” she said. “We’ve got a real problem with a culture of not listening and that’s what places women at a disadvantage.”
Sarah Lambert, director, community health and regional services with ACON, said living visibly, without discrimination, was vital for people from the LGBTIQ+ community as they aged.
While this was the first generation of women “ageing out and proud”, they faced unique problems and concerns as they approached the age of needing care, she said.
Many older women feared discrimination if they disclosed their gender or sexuality; or being denied visitors from their “chosen families”, or being outed non-consensually. Some people receiving home care felt obliged to “de-gay” their homes or pretend to be flatmates not partners. “All these things really eat away at their core as individuals and their abilities to live their life engaged, visibly and vibrant, and that impacts on mental health, on health and wellbeing, on all facets of life,” Ms Lambert said.
“The ability to live visibly, and to be connected and to be celebrated is really crucial for healthy ageing and to combat some of the disadvantage that women in our communities experience.”
Kimberley Olsen, founder and CEO of Trans Employment Program Australia, said the trans community faced particular problems in employment and ageing and it was important to listen to and learn from their stories.
“A common thread across all of the trans community, no matter when you transition, is that you pay a very high price for that transition and that price is in disadvantage, particularly in the workplace,” said Ms Olsen, who applied for 128 jobs after transitioning, receiving just seven replies, four of them saying they did not employ “people like you”.
She eventually landed a job at ACON and went on to start the Trans Employment Program.
“I see with all the people I’m assisting through the Trans Employment Program real barriers to employment and therefore real barriers to income and real barriers to lifelong security…
“That means we’re significantly disadvantaged at the point where we find ourselves requiring aged care services.”
Professor Deborah Loxton is co-director of the Research Centre for Generational Health and Ageing. She is also deputy director of the Australian Longitudinal study of Women’s Health at The University of Newcastle, research that has involved 57,000 participants spanning four age groups – women in their late 20s, women aged 40-45, those in their late 60s/early 70s, and those in their mid-90s.
The data shows that women who experience divorce and separation and particularly those who also have a period of sole parenthood suffer economic stress and poorer health for many years, possibly their lifetimes.
There is also a lifelong impact for women who suffer abuse in childhood or adulthood with a deficit in mental and physical health many years after the abuse occurred.
Prof. Loxton said just as the data highlighted where the problems lay, it also offered clues on solutions. “Invariably, women who have good social support around them…do better than the women who don’t have good social support,” she said.
The importance of connections – to country and community – was also highlighted by Barbara O’Neill, Aboriginal support worker with the Junction Neighbourhood Centre in Maroubra.
Ms O’Neill said much of her work dealt with intergenerational trauma and the long-term effects of colonisation, such as chronic ill health or older people taking care of grandchildren because their children were incarcerated or battling drug problems.
She often came into contact with older people on the La Perouse mission, she said. “They have problems that other Aboriginal grandparents have but they have their home, they have their land, they’re living on their country. That goes so far towards their strength and resilience.”
This contrasted with older Aboriginal women who had fled domestic violence or poverty in rural or regional areas and found themselves living isolated on housing estates in Maroubra, Malabar or Matraville. “We have older women who have been disconnected from everything,” Ms O’Neill said. “Without that connection to who they are, they’re just going to get sicker and sicker and sicker.”
In the second panel of the day, Jody Broun, the new head of the NSW Aboriginal Housing Office, spoke of the importance of supporting older Indigenous people to participate fully as they aged. She also said more research was needed into what healthy ageing looked like for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“We tend to always go into deficit language and deficit services but we should be doing more strength-based approaches for our elders.” Ms Broun said it was vital to treat elders as people who can be self-determining, and to include them in decisions. “Too often we’re not engaging, or worse, even ignoring elders in the design of services to meet their needs, or in response to their care needs.”
She also stressed the importance of training for aged-care services and employees. “There’s a real lack of cultural understanding and cultural safety and appropriate services being delivered. Denial of culture is a significant abuse of our elders. Racism continues to be an issue.”
Terrie Leoleos, project manager with the Ethnic Communities’ Council of NSW echoed Jody Broun’s words on the need for older people to be involved in offering solutions, and offering support into old age.
“We often talk about what a program will cost to implement but we’re not looking at what it costs not to implement,” she said.
“If we don’t support the person they end up in hospital, they end up in counselling, they end up in care a lot earlier than they should. What does that cost government rather than putting something in place at the early intervention stages?”
Former Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan agreed that cost should not be a focus. She said while we could undo the difficult and disadvantaged life of a 70-year-old woman, we could do things to help now. “Government policies should be much more targeted at doing those things. And let us acknowledge that it will cost money. It will cost public funding (but) public funding is there; it is available.”
On the upcoming royal commission into elder abuse, Ms Ryan said it was important to make it matter. One of the things that would reduce mistreatment of older people in care was mandated numbers of qualified and properly trained staff. This included training in cultural diversity, and dealing with LGBTIQ+ and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients.
Homelessness and the need for more social housing was in the spotlight in both forums.
Lesley Robson, housing specialist with Baptistcare, said with 150,000 people on the social housing waiting list, and older single women the fastest growing demographic of homeless people, social housing was failing to keep up with needs.
“It costs billions of dollars in health for the homeless, so why are we not doing something that promotes being in safe, stable, affordable accommodation,” Ms Robson said. “Housing is a basic right.”
The CEO of Homelessness NSW, Katherine McKernan, said the solution was simple – significant investment in social housing: “We say 500,000 social and affordable housing homes over the next 10 years across Australia.”
Also needed were policy platforms that gave older women priority to social housing, as well as affordable and long-term private rentals, and housing models that suited older women.
Professor Julie Byles, co-director with Deborah Loxton of the Research Centre for Generational Health and Ageing at The University of Newcastle, said 14 per cent of women in their late 60s or early 70s were still working, usually because they needed to and usually casual or part-time. Many of them were renting.
“The people who are renting are really precarious, one pension or pay packet away from homelessness. Work is precarious, housing is precarious so a lot of people are living precariously as they enter older age.”
Sam Edmonds, national project manager with the National LGBTI Health Alliance, said there was little data collection on LGBTIQ+ people and she emphasised the importance of talking to LGBTIQ+ elders themselves to find out what they want and to ensure questions are asked in a culturally safe and sensitive and safe way, so people feel comfortable responding.
Ms Edmonds also pointed to sexism in legislation, using the “king hit” policy as an example.
“Someone gets king hit, everything changes, everything escalates,” she said. “A woman dies nearly every day from violence, but… tumbleweeds. Where’s the angry response to that from the government? Where are the legislative changes?”
Ms Edmonds also said we need to challenge the depiction of old people in the media. “We’re not going to change a lot in society until we change how we see older people and how we think they are,” she said. “And it needs to start from primary school.”
To watch the video of the Women, Ageing and Disadvantage symposium, visit the page here.