While we may not be able to slow the hands of time, the good news is that we really can unlock the secrets of maintaining health and happiness as we age.
I know this because last year – as Commissioner for Senior Victorians – I conducted one of Australia’s biggest research studies looking at the views of older people.
I asked people across regional Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne to tell me what they want and need to live a healthy and fulfilled life in their senior years. Almost 5000 people responded, helping to build a clear picture of what I have dubbed the “Eight Key Attributes of Ageing Well”.
Seniors spoke loud and clear about the things that make life worth living: respect, personal and health autonomy, connections to family and friends, and meaningful ways to contribute through work or unpaid roles. They said they wanted to be able to keep up in the technology stakes but also wanted alternative offline ways of accessing services and information.
Some of the results were surprising. Being able to get around was overwhelmingly ranked as a critical driver of life quality, with 92 per cent of seniors rating personal mobility as critical to health and social wellbeing. Simple things like dedicated seniors parking at the shops and more community buses can make the difference between isolation and participation.
Some results were very sad. More than 40 per cent of seniors said they were lonely, with one in five saying they lacked the “love and friendship” they wanted. Loneliness was consistently reported, regardless of gender, age and location.
Study participants also spoke of their experiences of ageism – of feeling invisible or being stigmatised as incapable, incompetent or worthless. Many had internalised this ageism, leading to reluctance to use personal aids such as walking sticks or hearing aids out of embarrassment – what I call the “personal waiting list”.
When asked to rank the factors that most diminished their quality of life, 28 per cent of seniors nominated ageism and disrespect. To put that into context, that is the same result recorded for feeling unsafe in public places.
In our study, seniors acknowledged that their own positive attitude is a key part of ageing well. They are very committed to taking responsibility for their own health and happiness. But they cannot do it alone.
Governments can do more to assist seniors with access to services, as well as providing regulation and oversight to better support seniors as they age. It is very heartening that the Victorian government has committed to setting up a new committee to advise on its ageing well response.
But this is not just a government responsibility. At a societal level it is within the power of each of us to do better when it comes to confronting and overcoming our own negative attitudes. It’s not age that’s holding our seniors back – it’s ageism.
Gerard Mansour is the Commissioner for Senior Victorians and will head a new Victorian government ageing well advisory committee.