Exploding the myth that a ageing population is bad news 

Sociologist, film and television producer, researcher, educator, and policy analyst Patricia Edgar has written a book, In Praise of Ageing, that argues an ageing population does not mean bad news for Australia's social and economic future. Patricia is pictured at Cleveland's Grand View Hotel, where she recently spoke to a full house about her book and about ageing well.Photo by Chris McCormack
Sociologist, film and television producer, researcher, educator, and policy analyst Patricia Edgar has written a book, In Praise of Ageing, that argues an ageing population does not mean bad news for Australia's social and economic future. Patricia is pictured at Cleveland's Grand View Hotel, where she recently spoke to a full house about her book and about ageing well.Photo by Chris McCormack
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AT a time when economists are predicting doom for Australia's economy due to an ageing population, sociologist, film and television producer, researcher, educator, and policy analyst Patricia Edgar has written a book refuting their argument.

Patricia, 76, visited Cleveland recently to promote her book, In Praise of Ageing, and, speaking to Senior Lifestyle Bayside, said she hadn't thought or worried much about ageing before turning 70.

"I think that was because I was busy, but what pulled me up with a jolt was that in the course of a few months I encountered three specialists who more or less gave me the same message, which was, 'We are going to cull you out of the more expensive reviews for testing because of your age'," she said.

"They didn't put it in those terms, but everybody gets notified every two years to have a pap smear, and when I went at 70, they said, 'We won't be notifying you anymore'.

"I asked why and they said they don't notify people over 70.

"They said I could still go, but they wouldn't be sending out any formal reminders."

Patricia said she was met with the same message shortly afterwards, when she had a routine colonoscopy and the doctor told her she didn't need to be tested again.

"I said, 'Ever?' and he said, 'Yes'," she said.

"I told him my father had had bowel cancer and I thought I needed to be checked, and only then he said 'Ok, you can come back'."

As a breast cancer survivor, Patricia then underwent a mammogram and, again, was told she would never need to return for screening. "I chaired the Breast Cancer Network Australia for 10 years, so I knew a lot about breast cancer, quite apart from the fact that I'd had it myself," she said.

"I know that if you've already had a cancer, your risk is increased as you get older.

"This didn't make sense to me, so I pressed the specialist and it turned out he was retiring. He wouldn't be around to take patients, but he hadn't told me that, and he was giving this other message, which was quite wrong."

Patricia said she then asked her GP why she had been told on three occasions that she wouldn't need further testing, and the answer she received was the spark that grew to become In Praise of Ageing.

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"He said, 'Look, because a cancer takes seven or eight years to kick in if it starts from scratch, then by that stage you're getting close to life expectancy anyway'," she said.

"They cull people!

"I asked around and, not all my friends, but certainly a few people had had the same sort of response."

Patricia said the practice of stopping medical review notifications for older people had created a health scenario that was "totally cock-eyed".

"People are living much, much longer," she said.

"The notion of pushing them out of the system as though they're going to die anyway, so therefore 'let's just do that and take some strain off the system' in fact adds loads to the system.

"If you are not picked up earlier and your have much more prolonged morbidity and it takes a long time to die and you're on preventive and expensive drugs and so on, that's much more expensive to the health system than keeping people fit.

"The emphasis should be on fitness, activity and keeping people well for as long as possible, because you are going to live longer.

"Our grandchildren will probably live to be 100 and at 70, we're kind of only half way through the second half of our life if we say at 50 we're entering the second half of our life, which is certainly the pattern."

Patricia said she was unhappy with the response and began researching ways in which costs could be contained within the health system, finding many ways it could be done without excluding people of any age.

"Old age is not the problem," she said.

"Old age is not a disease, but it is somehow being looked at as a collection of symptoms which add up to a disease.

"That's the wrong way of looking at it.

"Then I started looking at productivity and the way it is measured, and the fact that GDP does not measure any voluntary or caring or supportive roles, without which our society would not keep ticking over.

"There was a report done recently that showed there are just under a million children in Australia who are cared for regularly by their grandparents.

"That's not counted in any way as a contribution to GDP.

"All the voluntary work isn't counted; all the creative work is not counted, so economists are predicting this kind of slow motion train wreck where we old people are going to break the bank, but the assumptions underlying that are all wrong."

Pat said she also turned her sights to older people who had lived long and well as they aged, in an attempt to understand why some people age successfully while others "curl up and give up much earlier".

"The media call you elderly at 60, so the labelling and the naming don't inspire confidence," she said.

On the subject of older workers, Pat said Human Resource managers "have got to be totally re-educated".

"Their preference is always to sack the older worker and take on a younger worker, but there is evidence that younger workers are not as reliable, not as committed, and the chances of retaining them are not as strong as they are with older workers," she said.

"There are a lot of fallacies about older workers in the workforce, such as they don't understand technology, they won't move for a job, or that they're not committed to their work.

"This is simply not true and they're all false assumptions."

Patricia said she looked at the research being done in two long term studies on ageing; one being conducted at Harvard University and one at the University of New South Wales, and found ageing well was "not simply a matter of genetics".

"That's a factor, but a more important factor is the attitude of the person, she said.

"A good attitude will take you so much further.

"The people with a positive attitude who are active, engaged and remain interested in life, the people who reinvent themselves and stay socially active; these are the people who live the longest.

"That was certainly what I found with the case studies I did too."

Patricia's case studies are included in Part Two of her book, and tell the stories of people who lived and stayed active well into their nineties and beyond, including the world's oldest skydiver, James Brierly, who was still jumping out of planes at 89 and Muriel Crabtree, whose exhibition of pastels was opened by the governor general shortly after Crabtree died aged 102.

Patricia said her book was not "about how you romp around in retirement and have a good time", but was about "having purpose in life and the importance of that and about getting away from the stereotyping of old age".

In presenting her research, argument and case studies, Patricia does so with a passion that psychologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay said "has exploded the myth that an ageing population is unrelieved bad news for our social and economic future".

"This book is bursting with intellectual energy: if Edgar's rational arguments don't convince you, her human stories will," he said.

In Praise of Ageing, published by Text Publishing, is available now in bookstores.

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