Being old can mean being sick, poor, hungry and depressed, even in developed nations like Australia.
What are the issues?
In Australia, the ‘elderly’ is generally a reference to people over the age of 65. Lots of over 65ers lead healthy and empowered lives, and many are involved in community volunteering. But for the elderly, health can be a big concern. Their bodies are more susceptible to illness, they may be physically frail, and many are on medications which are costly and ongoing.
An elderly person who is able to fund their own retirement is called a retiree. This means they had a job that paid them enough superannuation. Someone who is unable to fund their own retirement, and is paid welfare money by the government is called a pensioner. Pensioners may have difficulty affording medications or groceries on their allowance, especially if they are very sick, or have to pay rent.
Care for the elderly can take place in their homes. Groups such as Meals on Wheels deliver nutritious food for a small fee and home care programs clean houses for those elderly people who are unable to do it themselves. These services may be non-existent in rural areas.
If elderly people cannot take care of themselves, and their families are unwilling or unable to care for them, they have to find nursing homes. The conditions can be rough, especially if you do not have a lot of money to spend. Availability is also a big problem, since we have an aging population and nursing homes do not receive enough government funding.
The Dietitians Association of Australia says that 85 per cent of elderly Australians are “at risk” of malnutrition. This may be because they cannot afford nutritious food on their budgets, or because limited transport prevents them from accessing shopping centres. Cooking every day may also be too much of a physical or mental strain.
There are common stories of elderly people living on cans of tinned spaghetti or spam because they cannot afford fresh food. Meals on Wheels provides one hot meal per day for $37.50 a week, but some pensioners cannot afford or access this service. Those who do make use of it still have two meals a day to make on their own.
Physical and Mental Health:
Physical health is an obvious a problem for the elderly, with the incidence of most diseases increasing with age. Heart disease is the most common problem for the elderly worldwide. Arthritis and osteoporosis are two conditions that affect physical structure and movement, while dementia and Alzheimer’s disease affect memory and personality. In addition, lower immune systems mean that the elderly have a higher risk of catching infectious diseases.
Mental health is another big issue for the elderly, especially depression. Family, friends and health care providers often assume that depression is ‘normal’ for the elderly, so it frequently goes untreated. Elderly people are more likely to be depressed if they are suffering from health problems or poverty. Residents in nursing homes or other institutions are even more likely to develop depression or consider suicide, says the Department of Health and Aging, especially those who are lonely or isolated.
For elderly people who need full-time care, nursing homes are sometimes the only answer since full time home care is extremely pricy. Nursing homes in Australia are expensive and have long waiting lists, often so long that needy residents end up as long-term hospital patients until a nursing home can be found.
While there are many great nursing homes in Australia, more often than nor they are under funded and under staffed. Poorly-run nursing homes can be responsible for instances of neglect or abuse. Over 270,000 elderly Australians suffer from bed-sores, a wound common when a patient is bed-bound and cannot move. Dehydration, unattended incontinence and frequent falls are common neglect issues in unsatisfactory nursing homes.
Abuse of elderly residents by staff is a sad reality in some nursing homes. Bullying or threatening residents is a common complaint. Using restraints or sedative medications on patients who don’t require them is another tactic used to keep residents bed-bound and out of the way. The appropriateness of using restraints in nursing homes at all has also been questioned. Physical assault and sexual abuse are the most serious, and are hard for residents to report when the perpetrators are also their supervisors.
What resources are available for the elderly?
People over the age of 65, whose finances are below a certain limit are entitled to an aged pension. The maximum payment is $280 per week, with a pharmacy payment of $2.90. However, prominent members of parliament including Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan claim they could not survive on a pensioner’s allowance, especially as the cost of living has risen.
Those elderly people who are poor may receive a low income health care card, which entitles them to cheaper medications, if the medication they need is on the government-approved list. Elderly people may also receive a pensioner’s card, which entitles them to half-price fares on public transport.
Both government programs and independently run organisations exist to improve elderly services. The National Aging Research Institute is an independent body which suggests strategies for healthy aged lifestyles. Senior Citizens is a program run by elderly people for elderly people. They travel, fundraise, and get involved in the community.
For elderly people suffering from service shortages, abuse and neglect, Aged Care Crisis is an organisation where the motto is: ‘little voices can be heard.’ These organisations and government programs are always looking for youth volunteers and support.
By Jim Villamor
How do I know this?
Elderly Suicide Depression Network, ‘Attitudes to aging, mental health, and suicide.’ http://www.auseinet.com/files/factsheets/espn_attitudes.doc viewed Oct 23 2008.
National Aging Research Institute website, http://www.mednwh.unimelb.edu.au, viewed Oct 23, 2008.
Journal of Age and Aging, ‘Prevalence of chronic disease in the elderly based on a national pharmacy claims database.’ http://ageing.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/35/6/633, viewed Oct 23, 2008.
Herald Sun news website, ‘Elderly starve while kids fatter’ http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,24006641-24331,00.html, viewed Oct 23, 2008.
Aged Care Crisis website, http://www.agedcarecrisis.com, viewed Oct 23, 2008.
News.com website, ‘Gillard couldn’t survive on aged pension’ http://www.news.com.au/business/money/story/0,25479,24311458-5013954,00.html, viewed Oct 23, 2008.
Centrelink website, http://www.centrelink.gov.au/internet/internet.nsf/filestores/co030_0809/$file/co030_0809en.pdf, viewed Oct 22, 2008.
Department of Health and Aging website, http://www.health.gov.a