Above: Human right lawyer, Professor Simon Rice, opens debate on the meaning of ‘being old’

Why do you want to know how old I am and why does it matter? […] 

If you can say, it doesn’t matter how old I am, it’s how good I am, that’s what we are aiming for.”

By Keryn Curtis

What it means to be ‘ageing’, to become ‘old’ and to be an ‘older person’ will be the challenging question informing debate when policy thought leaders convene for the annual COTA National Policy Forum next Tuesday. 

With the theme of rights, respect and recognition, the forum aims to tackle entrenched views about ageing, in particular, says COTA’s national policy manager, Jo Root, the assumption that policies around ageing are all about care.

“We want to get away from the concept that discussions about older people are discussions about care,” she said.

“Care is one element of ageing policy but we want to focus on the fact that older people are members of society and citizens with the same rights and entitlements and responsibilities as everyone else – to housing, an adequate standard of living, good healthcare, workforce participation and the respect and recognition for their contributions,” she said.

But as opening speaker, the human rights lawyer and Director of Law Reform and Social Justice at Australian National University, Professor Simon Rice says, ensuring that the rights of older people are respected within the law remains a challenge.

“It’s complicated,” he says.  “The law isn’t good at dealing with loose concepts.  It needs to nail things down, define categories, record things in writing and find rules that apply and don’t apply.  

“One of the things that doesn’t make sense in dealing with the law around age discrimination is that there is no clear way of defining ‘age’.  With other forms of discrimination there is a much clearer binary status under the law: you are male or you are female; you are indigenous or not; you have a disability or you don’t.

“But age doesn’t work that way. We all have age and what counts as being old or ageing can be defined in so many different ways,” said Professor Rice.

Defining age

He says there are three predominant definitions of age: chronological age, physiological age and what he describes as the ‘social construct’ of ageing.

There is a certain amount of variation and flexibility in physiological definitions of ageing, says Professor Rice, but chronological definitions of age generally lead to social assumptions which inform stereotypes which are the social constructs we encounter in understanding age discrimination.

He says it is essential to acknowledge and understand the social construct of ageing as part of any framework for laws and policies around the rights and responsibilities of older people, something he aims to explore in his presentation. 

“The role of law is interesting in this context.  The way in which the law can attempt to be a direct leader of social change through things like an international human rights framework and regulatory laws, rather like legislating for the wearing of seatbelts; or whether it is part of the zeitgeist, a shaper of social change. 

“Whether an international human rights framework is the most appropriate way forward will be one of the questions up for debate but I want to set the stage for the social construct of age and why it even matters.  My working title for this presentation has been, “Why do you want to know how old I am and why does it matter?’  That may change, but it demonstrates where we are trying to go with this.

“If you can say, it doesn’t matter how old I am, it’s how good I am, that’s what we are aiming for.

FACT FILE

The 2013 COTA National Policy Forum takes place at the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday 23 July from 9am to 5pm.  

Senator Jacinta Collins, newly appointed Minister for Mental Health and Ageing has confirmed her attendance at the event for an election panel debate expected to be one of the highlights of the day. The Minister will be joined on the ‘election panel’  by Bronwyn Bishop, Shadow Minister for Seniors and Senator Rachel Siewert, Greens Spokesperson for Ageing and members of the audience will be able to put their questions to the panel which will be mediated by journalist, author and social commentator Peter Mares.

For details and registration, click here.

Look at the program here.

Other speakers on the program incude:

  • Carol Bennett, CEO Consumer Health Forum
  • Ross Clare, Director of Research, Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia
  • Jennifer Clarke, Policy and Research Officer, Homelessness Australia
  • The Hon. Brian Howe, Member of the Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing
  • Pino Migliorino, Chairperson, Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA)
  • Ashley Moore, Associate Director, Urbis consulting
  • Professor Simon Rice OAM, Director Law Reform and Social Justice, Australian National University
  • Ian Yates AM, CE COTA Australia

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1 Comment

  1. Lawyers like to create ambiguity where there is none. Hence the statement “One of the things that doesn’t make sense in dealing with the law around age discrimination is that there is no clear way of defining ‘age’”. Age is clearly easier to define than race, religion, or sometimes even sex.

    I think we can all agree with “It doesn’t matter how old I am, it’s how good I am.” This being the case then it’s always a proof of “how good” (capability) not “how old”, “what sex”, “what race”, etc… we are. Anyone that can prove that behaviour or decisions have been made in spite of a person’s capability has a legal case. Age, sex, race, etc.. is immaterial to demonstrated capability. So we should be talking about capability not age.

    I think we can all also agree with “Older people are members of society and citizens with the same rights and entitlements and responsibilities as everyone else”. All adult citizens of a just society have the same rights and entitlements. They also have responsibilities to that society (e.g. be law abiding, pay tax, etc..).

    It is a personal responsibility to enhance and maintain one’s capabilities throughout life as much as one is able. The responsibility doesn’t stop at some predetermined age. The govt’s job is to provide a safety net for those who unwittingly fall below certain capability thresholds. We agree to pay taxes to cover this community need.

    Maybe a more comprehensive discussion could be about the scope of seniors rights, entitlements, responsibilities and capabilities without any age parameters. Respect for an individual (any individual) involves all these characteristics.

    We select people for roles in our society by their character and capability not their age, sex, race, etc…

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