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Australia's population is ageing. The Productivity Commission says by 2060, 14 per cent of Australians will be aged 75 years or older. With more of us living longer, what does the future of ageing look like?
By
Wolfgang Mueller / SBS Radio

21 Sep 2015 - 4:12 PM  UPDATED 23 Sep 2015 - 1:14 PM

 

Australia's population is ageing.

The Productivity Commission says by 2060, 14 per cent of Australians will be aged 75 years or older.

With more of us living longer, what does the future of ageing look like? Wolfgang Mueller finds out.

Life expectancy in Australia has dramatically improved over the last century.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says we now live on average 33 years longer.

National Ageing Research Institute Deputy Director Professor Stephen Gibson says the increase in life expectancy is a proud achievement.

"It's one of the major success stories of modern medicine and public health that we managed to change the typical life expectancy. In Australia it's 82 for women and 81 for men, so it's a significant change in how long people can expect to live."  

The longer we live, the more we increase the chances of developing dementia and other serious health conditions.

However Professor Gibson says the risk should not be overstated.

"You are more likely to have pain, you are more likely to have cognitive impairment, but even at 90 years of age, the percentage that would have cognitive impairment would still be less than 50 per cent of the population."

Professor Gibson says there are early lifestyle choices that can protect against dementia and support what's known as 'healthy ageing.'

"There are a number of interesting studies coming out now that show that if you stay fit and active in particular, it doesn't need to be a lot, you know half-an-hour of exercise a day, then you reduce your risk of getting dementia considerably. And the other important issue particularly as you get sort of late middle-aged and early older-age is to maintain social connectedness, have a useful role in society and make sure that you still engage with friends and family and other people, that's also quite protective."

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines healthy or active ageing as the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age.

WHO says healthy ageing allows people to realize their potential for physical, social and mental wellbeing throughout the life course.

Part of healthy ageing is people having access to enough funds to support them in periods of part-time or casual work or retirement.

It's a concern shared by today's young people.

"I'm looking towards my super, so I'm hoping that I'll have enough super. But then, also I'm also hoping that my retirement is not just me sitting around and you know gardening. I'm hoping that I have enough work till my ripe old age of death, like I hope to be working until, you know, the end, but when I say working it could be something completely different to what I'm doing now. I really see my future as not very confident, like I'm not sure that I have a good financial plan for the future or not."

Currently most Australians won't be able to fund their retirement without government help.

A recent HSBC Bank analysis found that most Australians' retirement savings and investments will run out within just ten years of finishing work.

Government payments like the aged pension will be called on to fill the gap.

A September 2015 Actuaries Institute report shows that when today's thirty-something middle-income couple eventually retire, 36 per cent of their retirement income will come from the aged pension.

Professor Gibson says the first step to narrowing the funding gap is an increased superannuation contribution.

"I'm not an expert on economic modeling but as I understand it, the current compulsory superannuation contributions is probably not quite enough for most people, it should be more like 13 per cent of income."

Today we live longer and we work longer.

The primary work of tomorrow is knowledge-based, requiring little or no manual strength.

Professor Kaarin Anstey is the Director of Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing at the ANU.

She  says traditional perceptions of older workers will be challenged.

"We'll expect to work longer, we'll expect to participate in society, the concept of retirement may go or completely be revolutionised, I mean, it's really an out-dated idea already."

Professor Anstey says most people want to be active contributors well into their senior years.

"Everything that we're discovering about ageing is that people want to stay engaged, they want to stay active.  A lot of people want to stay employed, want to contribute to society and are able to contribute. If there's nothing wrong with you there is no reason why you cannot be 100 per cent engaged. The word 'retirement' and its connotations is something I would like to see retired itself."

Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan encourages employers to be more imaginative with flexible work structures to cater for Australia's ageing population.

"Because of information technologies, a lot of work can be done efficiently and very well from home so people don't have to do a lot of travelling. It can also be that a forward looking employer can change the work structure so that a person who might want to transition to a three day week is able to do that with no loss to the employer or to himself or herself, and perhaps work in a shared job with a new worker starting off who only wants to work two days a week because she has young children or completing some studies."

The environment plays an important role in determining how we age.

Many cities and communities around the world are taking active steps towards becoming more age-friendly.

However challenges still persist.

Some of these are physical, like poorly designed buildings or lack of transportation that prevents older people accessing the places they want to visit.

Professor Kaarin Anstey says barriers result  from the way we think about ageing and the way we view and treat older people.

"There's an international movement around the age-friendly cities movement and Canberra was the first Australian city to join and that looks at things around transportation and housing and personal safety. We need new ways of thinking, new ways of planning society that's enabling for older people. It's interesting in the health area in particular; a lot of things were designed around people in their 20s and the same in road safety. Roads were initially designed for younger drivers and what we're realising is when we talk about age-friendly that we need things to be designed for adults of all ages. That really comes into urban design and architecture a lot."

The WHO has an active ageing goal, allowing that older persons remain valuable resources to their families, communities and economies.

Professor Anstey believes Australia will achieve that goal.

"Yes, I am very optimistic. We've got technology. I mean, we've got incredible untapped potential at the moment in technology and we don't know how far that can go and that opens up opportunities for us to connect with each other and it enables us to overcome things like disability or issues with transport and communication and time differences, geographical barriers. So we have everything at our fingertips and you know people are so innovative and creative, that I am sure we'll manage all of that really well, in a very positive, creative way."