The activist generation that shaped modern Australian society must wake up and fight for rights, argues Dr Ralph Hampson.
Baby boomers don’t like the idea of growing old, but many are currently being forced to face reality, negotiating the aged-care system on behalf of their parents or themselves. What a rude awakening this is: negotiating complex healthcare systems; confronting Alzheimer’s disease in themselves or their peers; contemplating downsizing; and managing their superannuation, to name just a few of the challenges.
With the value they place on youth, independence and choice, baby-boomers find it difficult to imagine themselves in the same position as their ageing parents. They say things like, “I’d rather be dead than end my life in a nursing home.” They can’t imagine themselves being old, frail and dependent.
Baby-boomers are an activist generation – think women’s rights, equal pay, LGBTI rights and political activism. Baby-boomers have the skills and passion to create a better aged-care system, but have their heads buried in the sand about the next stage of their lives. Most wait for a crisis to happen, an illness, a fall or a partner dying.
Further, Chris Phillipson, a noted British gerontologist, points out there is increasing focus on ‘age resisting’ practices, including physical exercise, self-control and disciplining of the body; as a result identity is framed around resisting old age. Sociologists Christopher Gilleard and Paul Higgs, writing about the culture of ageing, ask rhetorically: “Few books would find a mass audience by addressing issues such as how you could ensure your time in a nursing home is as pleasant and comfortable as possible …?.” Even the feminist and activist Betty Friedan, when researching her book, The Fountain of Ageing, said the thought of entering residential aged care filled her with an “overwhelming dread”.
The time has come to face ageing head on.
Ageing is like all other life stages: there are losses and gains, but we tend to polarise the conversation into just one or the other. Most of us will live longer than our parents. The Australian Institute of Health Welfare (AIHW) estimates that men aged 65 could expect to live another 19 years, to 84, and women, a further 22 years, to 87.
The challenge then is to start a conversation now about how we are going to embrace both the opportunities and challenges, so that we can create a better, more dynamic aged care system. As Atul Gawande states in his recent book Being Mortal, “We want to retain the autonomy—the freedom—to be the authors of our lives.”
With energy and a clear focus we can challenge the outdated notions of aged care.
It is important to keep people at home for as long as possible, but not deny that some people will require residential care.
Let’s encourage people to let help in, rather than viewing this as some kind of failure. Let’s advocate for smaller, homelike facilities which provide people with meaningful lives, whatever their condition.
Let’s make sure that the liberations created through the political action of the 1960’s and 70’s are harnessed and used to create an aged care system that will meet our needs and serve our human rights.
Dr Ralph Hampson is a consultant, commentator, speaker and advocate for changing the aged care space. He is teaching on the University of Melbourne’s new Master of Ageing.