Turning negative perceptions of old age on their head

Helen L'Orange at the Hub in Waverton, which promotes activities for seniors.
 Photo: Nick Moir
Helen L'Orange at the Hub in Waverton, which promotes activities for seniors. Photo: Nick Moir

Old age as Helen L'Orange imagined it when she was young – when even 50 seemed ancient to her – would be a succession of days spent in recline, reading books and waiting quietly by windows. But it's not yet 10am on Friday and already she has walked 4000 steps, each one counted on the Fitbit she wears round her wrist.

Her previous day's tally was 18,000 steps, the day before that 10,500. She was awake early this morning to attend an International Women's Day breakfast. We meet after that at 9am, in time for her stretch-and-tone exercise class in Waverton, on Sydney's lower north shore.

There are nine women with yoga mats in the community hall, aged in their 60s and 70s – the oldest turns 80 next year. L'Orange is 72 and hasn't had much time for recreational reading of late. "We want to age meaningfully," she says, looking around with bright brown eyes.

"We don't want to go into retirement villages and nursing homes. We're a generation which has had meaningful work and don't want to suddenly sit and have a meaningless life."

It's a different picture to that presented in the Intergenerational Report, released on Thursday, which focuses instead on the long-term costs of an ageing population – with fewer working-age people paying taxes to support a growing number of older Australians.

The report highlights the increasing burden of health costs and aged care costs – none of which are in evidence at this exercise class for older people. L'Orange says the report fails to recognise the contribution made by seniors to the economy and their community.

She's busy today, so after the class we talk while walking up the hill from the hall to her home nearby. Are you old? I ask. "Yes, I'm old," she says. How's life? "It's great. It's fulfilling, interesting, stimulating, fun."

Older Australians should be recognised as active contributors rather than drains on society, she says. "We're out there looking after ourselves and trying to be self-sufficient and also making contributions – helping to care for grandchildren, volunteering in our thousands. The Intergenerational Report is too grim a picture."

Kate O'Loughlin, an associate professor in the ageing work and health research unit at the University of Sydney, says seniors are often perceived as unproductive and frail, or as "lovely, cuddly old people who aren't very mobile".

"Once people leave paid work they are put into this basket of being has-beens, whereas they are consumers of goods and services, and providers of services – particularly caring and volunteer work," she says.

The Intergenerational Report reinforces the negative stereotype of older Australians as economic burdens, says Hal Kendig, professor of ageing and public policy at the Australian National University. "We have to change our expectations for later life. Old age is not a matter of waiting for a few years after retiring in the early to mid 60s until dying,"  says Kendig, who is also chief investigator of the Australian Research Council centre of excellence in population ageing research.

"The quite reasonable expectation for most people is for two, probably three, decades of life beyond your early 60s, nearly all of which are relatively healthy and active and capable. All individuals ought to be thinking about how we can continue to work longer if we can and the benefits of that for ourselves and our families, not just the taxpayer."

Treasurer Joe Hockey said on Friday that older Australians should be encouraged to remain in the workforce, in part by learning technical skills to remain useful to employers. But L'Orange says broader cultural change is also needed. "A lot of women and men, too, would like to re-enter the workforce in their 60s but it's very unreceptive – you go to head  hunters and they say 'Look, if you're over 45 we don't want you'."

She retired from paid work at the age of 70 after a long and lauded career, including roles as head of the Office of Status of Women and chief executive of the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission.

In 2013, she co-founded The Waverton Hub for older residents and helps organise various activities for the almost 300 members to keep them active and engaged, such as tai chi, trivia nights and zumba classes.

"We want to stay active contributors. I don't think there is a member of The Hub who would identify with the word 'burden'."

L'Orange is also the secretary and building manager for her apartment building, and helps care for her four grandchildren, whose photos are on the fridge in her home. "I can't do as much as I did and I can't do it as fast but I want to stay engaged," she says.

In her spare time she runs yoga classes and can stand on her head, which she demonstrates for me in her dining room over a cup of tea. What's the world look when you turn it on its head? I ask. "Interesting," she replies.

This story Turning negative perceptions of old age on their head first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.