Grumpy But More Than Capable Of Making Decisions

My father, a ‘grumpy’ (his description not mine) retired ex-farmer is almost 80 years old.  He regularly goes out bush accompanied only by his dog and his drone to pursue his passion of landscape photography.  This is something he took up in retirement (he took the above photo out at Hutt Lagoon in the Mid-West).

As adults we all make choices about how we want to live.  We readily accept that with such choice comes risk and, perhaps, the disapproval or concern of others.  If I told my father that he needed to slow down or live life a little more conservatively given his age, he’d be, well, ‘grumpy’…. and he’d make his views to the contrary very, very clear to me

And yet something happens when a person reaches a certain age.  The infantilisation starts and we cloak them in vulnerability and assume we need to protect them from themselves (and from others).  What we often fail to recognise is that growing old takes a very long time.  Most of our elders continue to live busy and productive lives and to be capable of making choices about how they want to live (and what risks they are willing to accept) even in complex situations.

This plays out at a macro level where the lens of ‘vulnerability’ is applied to older people carte-blanche resulting in paternalistic policy decisions and systems.  Take retirement villages as an example.  Retirement villages are a very different proposition to ‘residential aged care’ and yet the two are regularly conflated.  Retirement villages are for those who can live independently for the most part.  Conversely, residential aged care is for a very different bunch, the most frail of our elders being those who cannot stay home because they need a high level of care and support with their basic daily and clinical needs. 

Along with other seniors living solutions, retirement villages make enormous sense at a systems level for our elder Australians because they provide purpose-built homes and communities, preventative health care and community services.  This means that they ensure that we can keep people living independently in their own homes with high levels of safety, health and wellbeing.   In turn we lower the burden on the state public health system (in terms reduced health care costs and hospital admissions) and the burden on the federal health system (in terms of delaying or avoiding admission into residential aged care).  Even better, none of this occurs on the tax-payer’s dime because retirement villages are a user-pays solution.  Retirement villages also provide a cost effective and scalable opportunity for government to invest in social and affordable housing for seniors.

However, whilst we gallop towards a future where 1 in every 6 Western Australians will be over 65 by 2026, growth and the ability for the retirement village sector to innovate has been stifled by paternalistic reform and regulation which focuses solely on ‘consumer protection’ and poses older Australians as hapless victims ripe for exploitation.  The cripplingly complex retirement village legislation requires specialised lawyers to interpret it whilst drowning consumers in disclosure requirements running into hundreds of pages.  The legislation effectively sterilises valuable vacant land within villages creating ghettos at the expense of mixed-use integrated communities (a story for another time).  Proposed reforms requiring mandatory buy-backs of units threaten to send many operators to the wall.  In the meantime, with the exception of some much welcomed social and affordable housing planning by the Department of Communities, I can see no state strategy for the nurturing a seniors living solution in Western Australia?

We need a holistic, human-centred response to the opportunities presented by our rapidly ageing population that looks well beyond notions of vulnerability and consumer protection.  All of this starts with an understanding that people don’t lose their marbles just because they’re ‘old’ and that they are quite capable of continuing to make their own choices and decisions (even if they do start calling themselves ‘grumpy’).