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Australian Gerontology Association Conference: speech.

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Ms Julie Bishop MP Minister for Ageing

12 November 2003

Australian Gerontology Association Conference

E&EO Mrs Barbara Squires, President of the Australian Association of Gerontology. Delegates, ladies and gentlemen

Over the 36 years that this conference has been held, gerontology - the study of ageing across the life course - has, in my view, become one of the more intellectually exciting fields of study - and of enormous and increasing relevance to our society.

Gerontology is an inter-disciplinary endeavour - seeking to understand the complex interactions between the

● biological;

● psychological

● sociological,

● economic, and

● cultural processes associated with ageing.

Given the predicted demographic shift in our population, gerontologists - those with expertise in gerontology, and their research - will increasingly be in demand.

I’m careful not to say “ageing researchers and educators”, I know how I feel when people say “oh there’s the ageing Minister”.

Such dramatic changes in the composition of our population will greatly influence many of our nation’s policies and programs, as well as its overall direction.

Legislators, policy-makers, educators, economists, health care professionals and others will look increasingly at gerontology and gerontologists to help solve the issues, the challenges, the imponderables, associated with the issue of ageing.

Hence, I welcome and applaud the initiative of the AAG for again holding this conference.

The proposed agenda for the next two and a half days appears to raise every conceivable matter.

So, in opening this conference, perhaps I can help set the scene for your later deliberations.

Now, let’s start with the obvious - according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and according to everybody else, Australia has an ageing population - both numerically (that is in the increase of people over the age of 65 in our community), and structurally (the increase in the proportion of people aged 65-plus).

Now, while the total Australian population increased five-fold in last century, the number of people aged 65-plus increased 15-fold.

Just over 100 years ago, when ‘Australia’, the nation, was born, the life expectancy at birth for an Australian female was 59 years, and 55 for men.

And let’s not forget - the pension age was, at that time, set at 60 and 65 respectively for men and women.

Obviously, the majority didn’t live to receive the old age pension.

Yet today - life expectancy at birth for a woman in Australia is over 82 years, and, for a man, over 77 years.

We have added another 22-23 years to our life expectancy in just a hundred years. We have a third of a life again.

Yet the “old age” pension still kicks in at 65.

The Bureau of Statistics still use 65 as the benchmark for old age - yet in 1901, when this was legislated, only four per cent of the population was over 65 - and today it’s 13 per cent.

So my first question is - why is 65 still defined as ‘old age’? It’s century-old thinking - it’s an arbitrary figure - and when are we going to stop thinking of 65 as the threshold for old age.

(Obviously old age depends a lot on the perception of the individual. When I was 15, of course 30 seemed very old. When I reached 30, well 40 became the new ‘old’. Given the growing number of people over 65 who are living life to the maximum - I think we can assume that they don’t see themselves as ‘old’ - and in fact, I think the 80 and 90 year olds have become the new ‘old age’?)

Now, there’s nothing inherently problematic, can I say, about growing old.

Yet across nations, old age is often spoken in the context of a social problem.

Here in Australia, we still see ourselves as a young country.

Yet the cultural values of youth, and vitality and self-sufficiency and independence, are decreasingly relevant for an ever-increasing proportion of the population.

So why is it importance for us to understand more about ageing?

Well, during the current decade, let’s say from 1995 until 2005, those people reaching age 65 were born during the Depression era - a period, between the first and second World Wars, of very slow growth of the younger population - the fertility rate in 1934 was down to replacement level.

As a result, the growth rate of our population aged 65-plus has been relatively modest.

But post-World War II, when there was significant post-war immigration, a significantly increasing birth rate, we experienced the baby boom.

Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1965, will begin turning 65 in 2011. I know, I’m smack in the middle of this boom.

So we are going to witness a massive growth rate in the 65-plus age group.

And unlike most projections, there’s little uncertainty about it.

It’s inevitable, and given our birth rate is now under replacement value, the profile of our population has, and will continue to, change rapidly.

My point is that we have only a couple of years in which to plan, to prepare for the certain, rapid growth of the older age cohort, during the period 2011 to2031 as the baby boomers reach 65.

So, in the next 30 years, one in three people will be aged 65-plus, one in seven will be under 15.

And so this represents a demographic and social phenomenon without historical precedent.

What are the issues that we’ll face? After all, this is a road we’ve not travelled before.

What will our ageing society look like, how will it act? Certainly different to today’s - but in what ways, why?

We know there’ll be more elderly - but how long are we actually going to live?

Will life expectancy continue to increase - or is it going to depend upon a significant scientific breakthrough - stem cell research perhaps?

And even if we do live longer, (and some projections say a child born today will live well beyond 100) and in any event in 2030 we’re going to have some 40,000 centenarians, as opposed to the 2,000 we have today, what quality of life will we have?

Will society provide productive and purposeful roles for older Australians?

Will we choose - or will we need - to work way beyond 65?

Will the predicted labour force be able to sustain a dependant ageing population?

What will be the care needs of older Australians and how will they be met?

Will people be subjected to extended years of disability?

Or will the age of the onset of chronic conditions be extended or delayed or pushed back?

What do we need to do to educate the legislators, the government, the community the general public on all of these issues?

And what does it all mean in terms of the society in which we, our children and grandchildren, will be living - its values, its priorities?

As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Coming of Age:

“It is the meaning that men attribute to their life, it is their entire system of values that define the meaning and value of old age. The reverse applies: by the way in which a society behaves toward its old people, it uncovers the naked, and often carefully hidden, truth about its real principles and aims”.

There are so many assumptions and so many unknowns - and a pressing need for greater research on ageing issues.

When you think about it, so much of today’s medical research for example - on cardio vascular disease, or diabetes, or anti-immune disease, or whatever - it’s all about different aspects of gerontology.

Researchers in all areas across the social and economic and technical and scientific spectrum will need to look beyond their specialty and see their work as part of a national, indeed international, effort on gerontology - and I do pay credit to the Australian Association of Gerontology for its role in the development of ageing research in Australia - and the wealth of experience and expertise offered by your members.

I can assure you today of the Australian Government’s support for ageing research.

And it’s fair to say that there is a new national environment that is very supportive of research towards areas of national importance.

Ageing is now identified as an area of national importance within the National Research Priorities announced by the Prime Minister in December last year.

“Ageing well, ageing productively” is one of the priority goals under the National Research Priority of “Promoting and Maintaining Good Health”.

We are encouraging Australians - of all ages - to live healthier lives - to help prevent disease and certain disabilities.

We can help ensure today’s older persons, as well as future generations, not only live longer, but also better.

And specifically, the Office for an Ageing Australia and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, have collaborated on a project - Building Ageing Research Capacity - funded by the Australian Government.

And the aim of this project is to develop and to encourage maximum collaboration between Australian researchers looking at ageing in order to improve the quality and quantity of evidence available to support ageing policy, for the implications of our ageing population will affect every individual, every family, every community.

The project shares many of its objectives with those of the AAG, providing fertile ground for collaborative endeavour.

Now many of you will have attended, and in fact, probably spoken at, the recent National Symposium on Ageing Research in Canberra in late September.

The purpose of that Symposium was to explore the issues around building evidence on ageing and having it taken up in policy development and in practice.

The Symposium canvassed the perspectives of reseachers, emerging researchers, policy makers, practitioners, industry members and the community, in relation to developing an Australian Ageing Research Agenda.

The background paper to the Symposium, the Framework for an Australian Research Agenda, identified the policy issues in terms of building ageing research capacity and priority themes for ageing research.

These issues were drawn from the existing documented work on ageing research and recent consultations with Australian experts in policy and research fields.

The main outcomes of the conference were a review and discussion of the ageing research agenda in Australia, increasing awareness and understanding of the perspectives of the various stakeholders, and an evaluation of models for collaboration across disciplines and between researchers, policy makers, practitioners and providers.

For these issues to be incorporated as part of an Australian Ageing Research Agenda, one that will be endorsed by both the wider research community, and the full range of users of the research, I believe there needs to be an identified process for reaching consensus on the priority issues of interest - to researchers as well as to policy makers.

Ageing research needs a champion to articulate the consensus views of the majority of ageing researchers.

The Fiona Stanley example

The obvious example of a research champion is the Australian of the Year, Professor Fiona Stanley.

A fellow West Australian, Fiona is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, it’s a recently-formed government advisory body. She’s also the founding Director of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Perth.

She’s also a member of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council and the West Australian Premier’s Science Council.

The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth is a model well worth considering.

It is a national collaborative effort, whose purpose is to facilitate the generation and translation of knowledge to enhance the well-being and life chances of children and young people.

The Alliance aims to produce policy-relevant research by ensuring the participation of policy makers and practitioners at every level of decision making, from framing the research questions to communicating the findings.

The Alliance was actually born out of a concern that, despite Australia’s relative wealth, and talent, and commitment and resources, the future for some of our children was grim, and for others it was only getting worse.

The solution was considered to lie in building stronger links across sectors to better harness capacity to identify critical

areas for attention, frame the right questions and find answers to inform effectively the policy and practice in the area.

In an address to an Academy of Social Sciences workshop in May last year, Professor Stanley described the need for a “new research paradigm” based on “collaborative endeavour”.

The need for collaboration arises in the context of ‘causal pathways’ thinking - a research approach which acknowledges both that multiple outcomes can come from single pathways; and that multiple pathways can lead to single outcomes.

Specific features oof the approach include:

● investigating the social and ecological contexts in which causal pathways arise;

● developing better measures and analytical methodologies;

● creating cross-disciplinary research collaborations with geneticists, psycho-social researchers, economists,

sociologists and others; ● expanding and linking large population databases to better serve a causal pathways approach; and

● I think this is really important, planning longitudinal studies carefully to enable multiple and interacting

pathways to be studied.

Now I raise the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth in this context today as it has two primary goals which are consistent with those of the Building Ageing Research Capacity project which I mentioned earlier:

1. to promote collaborative research and agenda setting; and 2. to promote the application of research to policy and practice.

As with our Building Ageing Research Capacity project, the vision of the Alliance is to develop a research agenda which will form the blueprint for guiding the work of the Alliance, harnessing the energy of its members and influencing the allocation of research funds to priorities with the potential to achieve greater impact.

And in focussing on ageing research, thinking more broadly about causal pathways and points of intervention may help to provide answers.

Better data linkage and analysis of longitudinal data around particular research questions may also provide the guidance we’re looking for.

We need to build greater critical mass and larger, more accessible platforms to support ageing research through joint venture collaboration and other mechanisms to leverage the intellectual, financial and organisational resources at our disposal.

Ladies and gentlemen, the theme of the conference today is Expanding Knowledge on Ageing.

It is certainly reflective of the Australian Government’s interest in developing a sound evidence base for the development of policies for our ageing nation, and I certainly hope to continue the work of my predecessor, Kevin Andrews, in this regard. I think it’s a good thing that you’ve got two lawyers in a row, as Minister for Ageing if it means that we continue to support evidence-based research.

This expansion of knowledge needs to be strategic in terms of ensuring the maximum return on effort and investment for the researcher, the users of research and the community as a whole.

The Ageing Research Online website, which evolved recently from the Australian Directory of Ageing Research, which I understand Anna Howe had some original involvement with, provides another opportunity to facilitate greater networking and collaborative ventures.

The ARO website allows researchers to enter and update the details of their own research projects, thereby helping to ensure that users access up-to-date information.

It will only work, of course, if researchers view it as a tool for their own use:

● to keep them connected to others in their field and related fields;

● to help them keep abreast of new developments;

● to enable them to build on success;

● to thereby produce leading edge research.

Like any valuable tool, it will need to be maintained and updated regularly and to a standard necessary to meet the needs of both the user and other experts in the field, and I hope that we’ll be able to work with AAG in that regard.

I certainly encourage you to use this facility as part of your day-to-day work, to ensure that the ARO website achieves its potential as a vital part of Australia’s ageing research networks.

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your kind invitation here today, it is only five weeks since I was appointed the Minister for Ageing. I am absolutely thrilled to be in this portfolio. I cannot think of a more challenging, more exciting, more interesting area of policy development.

I am very keen to hear any outcomes from your conference.

Your work, your deliberations, are of vital national interest to us all.

I have pleasure in declaring open this 36th National Conference of the Australian Association of Gerontology.