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Ageing in Australia

Wednesday, 29 September 2021  | Ilsa Hampton


‘How do you feel about your own ageing?’ This is one of our interview questions at Meaningful Ageing Australia. Most of the time the person being interviewed sits back in their seat, as if taken there by some unseen force. A pause comes. No doubt in the silence there is some mixture of finding a truthful response and thinking about what might be expected in an interview. The point for me is not that people have to say x or y, but rather that they are able to tolerate, or maybe even enjoy, the conversation.

We are given plenty of reasons to be negative about ageing and lots of practice with ageing-avoidance behaviour. When do we flip from wanting to look older than we are to being disappointed if someone assumes we have more than our actual years? When does it become rude to ask someone’s age? Why do many of us answer ‘21’ for our age at birthdays when we pass a certain point? It seems ageing is nothing to be proud of in Australia unless you reach 100, at which point you are asked what the secret to longevity is. In a community survey we conducted with 1,200 people over 65, 77 per cent indicated they were not looking forward to ageing. Why is this? The top three concerns about ageing identified in the same survey were ‘not being able to do the things I love’, ‘loss of freedom’ and ‘being a burden on family’.

Anxiety about ageing only increases when we need to access services. The intense media attention on failures in the aged care system in the lead up to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety added fuel to each person’s home fire of fearful ageing. Even without the negative media attention, there is something about needing help that builds the flames. In a recent co-design workshop we conducted with home care clients, they vividly recalled the ontological anxiety that was provoked just by the fact that they needed support services. In a society that values ‘productivity’ and fails to celebrate ageing, accessing support is associated with loss of self.

The Aged Care Workforce Strategy Taskforce and subsequent Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety rightly found that they could not address the systemic issues in aged care without giving due attention to our failure as a society to celebrate ageing and value older people. And yet, in a report published by the Royal Commission in July 2020 (Research Report 5), it was found that most people do not think of older people as a burden. Notably, the same report found that many people have almost no exposure to older people.

At Meaningful Ageing Australia, our focus is on what becomes possible if care services assume that an older person is of intrinsic value, and the aged care workforce is invited into real relationship with each person they are supporting. We make use of frameworks developed by researchers and give them a real-world application. In most cases, this means applying the frameworks to ourselves, our own lives and our own ageing before expecting others to make use of them. We argue that, by giving older people the opportunity to know themselves, they will be in a better position when ontological threats come their way.

Instead of being defined by independence, autonomy and productivity, we may now be defined by connection to self, others, creativity, nature and ‘something bigger’/the transcendent, as in our ConnecTo framework adapted from Julie Fletcher’s PhD work. We might know ourselves by our values, beliefs, traditions and practices (Puchalski et al., ‘Improving the Spiritual Dimension of Whole Person Care’, Journal of Palliative Medicine 17, no. 6, May 2014). We might know ourselves by our opportunities to stretch to our full potential and by our service to others, as in the Map of Meaning framework developed by Marjolein Lips-Wiersma (see ‘The Map of Meaning and Ageing: a self-reflection guide’), rather than by a failing body and life’s losses.

Returning to our community survey, when prompted to consider anything that might be positive about ageing, the top responses were ‘having more time to do what I love’, ‘more time for my family’ and being ‘less worried about what people will think of me’. The most common sources of hope for all 1,200 respondents were ‘being with people who care’, ‘children’ and ‘grandchildren’. So it seems that relationships, after all, are central to flourishing as we age. Is this any different from life pre-65? Perhaps we kid ourselves that it is.

How do you feel about your own ageing?


Ilsa Hampton is the CEO of Meaningful Ageing Australia.

This article is from the upcoming issue of Zadok Perspectives and Papers on Ageing (Issue 152, Spring 2021). You can subscribe to Zadok here.

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