The Social Justice Statement for 2016–17 urges us to challenge ‘ageism’ which stereotypes older people as being dependent, incapable or a burden on society and think about social justice and policies issues related to our ageing population, writes John Ferguson.
The Social Justice Statement for 2016–17, A Place at the Table, challenges Australians to think about the social justice issues related to the ageing of the population.
The demographic shifts in the population have been considered over decades. This is not an issue that has emerged overnight. With other advanced economies around the world, we share common experiences of falling birthrates, smaller families and a reduced number of people in the workforce compared to those reaching the traditional retirement age.
This demographic shift has significant implications across a whole range of policy areas and at all levels of government – from taxation and retirement savings to spending in health and aged care services, from labour market and industrial relations to town planning, transport and housing policies.
Our nation has had more than enough time to prepare for a significant increase in the number of older Australians. In this sense, we should not be shocked by the statistics of an ageing demographic. The cohort of ‘baby boomers’ approaching retirement age has been on the radar since the 80s and advances in medicine and technology have greatly increased the health and vitality of older generations.
Policies such as compulsory superannuation, the expansion of community and residential aged care, the promotion of ‘active ageing’ and work beyond retirement are just some indications of a society planning for the future. Of course, such initiatives need always to ensure that the more vulnerable members of the community are also beneficiaries and not allowed to fall through the system.
Older unemployed workers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experiencing the huge gap in wealth and longevity compared to non-Indigenous people, women with low-income and negligible retirement savings, older people who are homeless – these are just some of the groups who will carry the burden of poverty into retirement if the nation’s policies lack the essential ingredient of distributive justice.
There are some incidents and trends that remain truly shocking and cause us to question whether we as a society are yet prepared to value, respect and adequately care for those most in need.
At the end of July, the ABC’s 7.30 Report ran a story on the abuse of a resident of a retirement home who had end-stage dementia. Being unable to communicate, the man’s daughter noticed changes in her father’s demeanour and decided to hide a camera in her father’s room.
The footage is disturbing.
While this kind of treatment is not endemic, it does occur. And it gives cause for us to raise our awareness of the real threat of elder abuse both in institutional care and in our communities.
In their Social Justice Statement, the bishops call on us to challenge ‘ageism’ which stereotypes older people as being dependent, incapable or a burden on society. They say ‘the human dignity of older people is undermined when the wishes of a person are overlooked, their decision-making power is curtailed or their basic rights infringed’.
Ageism can be seen in older people being disregarded in family consultations about treatment, or described as ‘blocking’ hospital beds, being too demanding over standards of care in residential settings, or as just another task on an overloaded community care roster. These attitudes can so easily develop into situations of elder abuse.
The Statement notes a recent Senate Community Affairs Inquiry that found residential care and aged care residents are ‘particularly vulnerable to violence, abuse and neglect due to their age, frailty and specific disabilities such as dementia’. The report also noted that elder financial abuse is a growing problem in the community.
The bishops state, ‘Elder abuse typically occurs out of sight and is often perpetrated by family members. Frequently it involves emotional abuse and the improper use of the older person’s assets and finances. One study from Victoria found over one-third of clients of a seniors advisory service alleged they had been subject to financial abuse, including theft, coercion, misuse of power of attorney documents and receiving fraudulent bills. A similar proportion reported psychological abuse, including verbal abuse, bullying and threats of harm. Significantly, more than 70 per cent of victims were women’.
The bishops join with Pope Francis in challenging indifference and contempt for old age and the ‘throw-away’ culture that views people only in terms of their utility and casts them aside if they have no productive value or are regarded as a financial burden on families, communities or institutions. They emphasise how ‘each and every person is created in the image of God’. The say ‘this is the basis of our worth and dignity. Even in our weakness, our fragility and decline, the image of God still shines in our eyes and we remain his beloved daughters and sons’.
This fundamental truth underpins our defence of older people who are frail and vulnerable. We must ensure that no policy or public debate ever casts these citizens as a burden or as rivals to younger generations.
The 2016–17 Social Justice Statement, A Place at the Table, will be launched on 6 September during the annual meeting of the Australasian Catholic Press Association.
Social Justice Sunday falls on 25 September. The Statement will be accompanied by prayer cards, a ‘ten steps’ leaflet, and a PowerPoint presentation that can be downloaded from the ACSJC website.
Any assistance you can give in spreading the word about Social Justice Sunday and the Bishops’ Statement would be greatly appreciated.