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‘It’s like they lose who they are’: Australian elders, aged care and respect

Western attitudes to elderly people can be quite different.

Katya Numbers, the study co-ordinator of the Sydney Memory and Ageing Study at the University of NSW, says elders are often undervalued in modern Western societies.

“We embody this stereotype that older adults should move on, they should retire, that they are not as hard workers,” Dr Numbers says.

“It helps us [younger people], our egocentric selves, to say: ‘You know, I’m not pushing someone out, they are just not as good as me’.”

Dr Numbers says that when somebody from a non-Western community is asked to describe the elderly, they often say “wise, learned and respected”.

Dr Katya Numbers says modern society has devalued its elders.

Dr Katya Numbers says modern society has devalued its elders.Credit:

But when someone from a Western society is asked to do the same, they nominate “fragile, weak, senile and stooped”, even though older adults from communities where they are held in high regard often feel strong and valued.

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighted poor standards in Australian aged care and recommended additional funding for staffing.

Federal Aged Care and Senior Australians Minister Richard Colbeck says the nation needs to rethink how aged care is provided and to gain new perspectives of older adults.

“It is also about helping to build a national culture of respect for ageing and our senior Australians,” Senator Colbeck said.

Ray Minniecon, 71, an Aboriginal pastor who lives in Sydney, has dedicated his life to creating community and helping people who have lost their own.

He says the modern mindset may have under-rated the elderly, but in his community they are the most valued.

“From a cultural perspective, our people, we honour our old people. They’re the most honoured people in our community,” he says.

Pastor Minniecon thinks Western cultures rely so heavily on money that young people often pay someone else to look after their elders.

“We’ve always lived under this seven-generation rule where I would go to, not my father or grandfather, but my great-grandfather for the wisdom that they had.

“They’re our library, our university,” he said. “I needed their wisdom, not just for myself but for my community.”

Pastor Minniecon says this tradition is passed down the generations and becomes a part of who people are – who everyone is – as a community.

“The elders all have something different to offer to the younger generation,” he says.

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