A few bouts of age-related discrimination has inspired Dr Patricia Edgar to set about changing the way people view ageing, she tells Natasha Egan.
Patricia Edgar is fired up. I can hear it in her voice over the phone.
A writer, film and television producer and policy analyst among other things, Dr Edgar is well-known for her work in setting standards in children’s television, and for campaigning against discrimination.
But her latest axe to grind is ageism, having experienced it first-hand.
Dr Edgar wants to change how people view ageing. For instance, she thinks the negative economic and health consequences of an ageing population are overstated. “The claim is that we really can’t afford this ageing cohort who is coming through. They are going to break the bank. It is not right,” Dr Edgar says.
She wants to instead challenge people to focus on the rich and varied lives older people lead. Dr Edgar illustrates this in her book In praise of ageing where she tells the stories of eight active and engaged seniors who have lived into their nineties and beyond.
On finding talent for her book, Dr Edgar says it wasn’t difficult but rather a question of when to stop. It all started with Lesley Falloon, a 93-year-old biochemist, arts lover and marriage celebrant, whom Dr Edgar has known for a long time.
“I was at a function and she was there. Her 90th birthday was coming up and she was just so bright and sparky and she looked fantastic. I thought, now what is it that makes you like that and somebody else just want to go and sit in the corner.”
While genes play a role, Dr Edgar thinks the answer to a productive older life is one’s outlook. Those doing well and enjoying themselves have a positive attitude toward life, and manage the gradual slowing down of their bodies while continuing to be excited about the future, she says. “You must have things to look forward to and you must keep up a friendship circle.”
A history of advocacy
Dr Edgar, who is also a sociologist, educator and researcher, says she brings all the skills gained along the way, including much experience in policy development, to her new interest in ageing. No stranger to advocating for change, Dr Edgar began lobbying on aspects of media from the time she returned to Australia at the end of 1969 after studying at Stanford University, with her efforts often leading her from one role to another.
For example, after beginning as the first chairperson of the Centre for the Study of Media and Communication at La Trobe University in 1970, speaking out in the media led to her being the first woman appointed to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board. It was 1975 and Gough Whitlam was looking to elevate women in senior roles, Dr Edgar recalls.
There she got involved in the development of content standards for children’s television, which in turn brought her into conflict with the commercial TV industry not so keen on regulations.
“I had a very high profile of being the bad woman of Australian media at that point,” she says.
Not easily intimidated, Dr Edgar continued to write and speak out. A lecture she gave in November 1979 on setting up a Children’s Television Foundation drew the attention of then Victorian arts and educational services minister Norman Lacy who told her he would like to take it on.
She began working with Lacy in 1980. Following a year of intense lobbying across the country by Dr Edgar, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation was formed in 1982. The following year she was made its founding director and held that position for 20 years.
Discrimination a key driver
I ask Dr Edgar if ageing is her new passion. “It is certainly one of them,” she responds, telling me she has been passionate about everything she has done. Dr Edgar says she has always had the view she would only work in things that really interested her then move on when finished. “I always had a kind of instinct for politics and the way to bring about change so I got involved with one committee after another and it all did come together.”
When she ran into obstacles it would often set her off on different directions, she says. “Discrimination against woman certainly fired me up in my twenties and thirties and so I did quite a lot of work in that area as a result.”
Her first career was as a secondary school teacher but when she married Dr Edgar recalls she was forced to resign. “It was outrageous. I thought that was wrong then. And it was wrong. Any married woman had to resign from the teaching role and they were put on a separate role. You couldn’t get superannuation if you were married. You couldn’t contemplate a long-term career.”
Similarly, discrimination inspired her to speak out on ageing and write In praise of ageing. Not surprisingly it was age discrimination this time. Dr Edgar turned 77 in March.
In three separate episodes, Dr Edgar says she was shocked that her age had an impact on preventative health measures. When she turned 70, Dr Edgar was told she would no longer be notified that her two-yearly pap test was due. She could still have the test, but wouldn’t be reminded. Then during a bowel cancer check, which she had done every five years, she was told it wasn’t necessary to come back because she was over 70. A similar thing happened following a routine mammogram.
Dr Edgar, who had breast cancer when she was 52, couldn’t believe her doctor said not to come back. “I knew because I chaired the breast cancer network for 10 years that your risk of breast cancer is greater the older you get. And if you have had it before your risk is also increased.”
It turned out her doctor was retiring and offloading his patients. Instead of giving advice to go to another doctor, Dr Edgar says he told her she didn’t need to come back.
“I questioned my GP. I said what’s going on here? Basically he said it takes about seven or eight years for a cancer to develop. If you’re going to get a new one at 70, you’re close to age expectancy.
“So they’re really saying you’ve had your share. You’ve had your whack. If you get to 78 and it catches up with you, well that’s stiff. You’ve had a good life. I just thought this was insane.”
With a focus in medicine on prevention in order to live longer and lessen the time you are dependent on the system, if at all, it doesn’t make sense, she says.
“Logically, in terms of cost, you have got to keep people well as long as possible. You’ve got those three things. You have to eat well. You have to exercise. You have to maintain your body, see your doctor, and get good advice.”
Overhauling ageing’s reputation
This ties in with Dr Edgar’s grievance that people see an ageing population as a burden. She says it is the main theme you get, and from the economists in particular the focus is about how there are going to be so many non-productive old people draining the system through access to pensions and health care.
On righting this wrong, Dr Edgar says thinking needs to change from an early age about how old is old, retirement and the age pension. Naturally the pension age has to go up, gradually, Dr Edgar says, pointing out that when it was introduced most people didn’t make it to 65.
“You are not old at 65 and the word old is just used wrongly. You are still in the middle of a very active lifespan. I don’t think a person is old until they are reaching perhaps 80 and beyond. But they are not old at 60 and 70 and they cannot expect, as they have been taught to expect, that somebody is going to look after them and pay for them.”
Similarly, exercise and nutrition are key for everybody because people have got to get in the right habit when they are children, she says. “Obesity is certainly an issue. That’s the issue that’s going to break the bank.”
On convincing policy makers about the positive aspects of ageing, Dr Edgar notes that most politicians are young and don’t think about ageing.
“It is appalling there is no ministry for ageing. It would be the farthest thing from Tony Abbott’s mind. He is a very fit active man. He wouldn’t think about being old.”
However, it will eventually happen because there will be so many older voters, she says, adding it is important for people to start speaking out. Similarly, older people need to realise their potential for later life. She says a lot of people who have read her book have told her it was like “an epiphany” and now see they have a lot of meaningful years ahead.
“It has been transformational for some people to simply be told, ‘It is not that bad. There are a lot of really positive things and you have a lot that can go on in your life.’ As more people come to realise this, it will then have a political impact,” Dr Edgar says.
For her part, Dr Edgar plans to continue her campaign to promote positive ageing through writing and talking to people in a position to make a difference, such as those involved in research and gerontology. In fact, Dr Edgar and her husband Dr Don Edgar are the inaugural Ambassadors for the National Ageing Research Institute.
Dr Edgar on:
You can’t sit in a chair for a couple of decades and think you’re not going to suffer. People have got to get out and be active. Walking is probably one of the best things you can do. I live in Fitzroy, an inner suburb of Melbourne. I have a car but I can walk to most things. I swim. I go to a gym for strength exercises. I don’t do that as often as I should but I do that. Falling for older people is probably the biggest hazard and that’s strength, that’s muscle strength.
Maintaining a healthy brain
That is all about thinking and applying your thinking. So reading, writing are very important aspects of that but also interaction with people. That’s really important. Once you start closing down your life you close down the opportunities to test your thinking, so get out there. I go and see a lot of films. I do the Sudoku and the crossword each morning. I see a lot of people. All of those things are part of keeping engaged and keeping stimulated.
Selecting the people in In praise of ageing
They are all people I knew. They loved being a part of the book. They were terrific because I think with a lot of people at that age, they get to the stage where people don’t think that they are very important. And they don’t understand the incredible lives they have led and the richness of their experience and what they have got to offer. It was for all those reasons.