Increasing retirement age will cost the budget


Older worker

Treasurer Joe Hockey is keen for us to work as long as possible. The government’s aim is to keep the hands of ageing workers and would be retirees out of its pension pot.

And many, including Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan, are keen to extoll the virtues of employers hiring older workers. At a recent Wheeler Centre panel, she listed some of the benefits of older people working.

These include employers gaining experienced workers, employees having a sense of worth and wellbeing, as well as making a positive contribution to an economy that has an ageing population.

However, there are aspects of employing older people which require strategic planning. These relate to the increasing number of Australians with dementia, especially Alzheimer’s. Generally workplaces do not have the policies and practices necessary to adequately deal with such realities.

This is a major concern because, as the number of people with dementia or cognitive issues increases, so too does the population of those with younger-onset dementia. And there are over 1500 cases of dementia diagnosed each week in Australia.

Like many aspects of dementia in general, and Alzheimer’s in particular, there are conversations, and education, that need to take place right across the community.

Dementia is not just an issue for the health sector. It’s a major community issue with widespread ramifications, and, as such, will require responses across the community, and that includes the workplace. Why?

Because all of us, including employers and workplaces, need to be dementia aware. We must be take dementia into account when we design buildings and jobs. This includes tasks, and how we do them as we age, as well as deciding when it’s time for someone to cease employment.

I wrote about my 88 year old mother working as a school crossing supervisor, through memory loss and the medical maze. As memory glitches became apparent, I organised medical appointments to ensure her reflexes and cognitive ability were adequate for her to do the job and ensure the safety of the school children she was responsible for. After all, many lives were in her hands.

As far as I am aware, at no point did any discussion take place between my mother and her employer about her memory or cognitive ability. I can understand why. My mother had highly developed social skills, and her interactions were usually brief, upbeat, simple conversations.

Such a willing worker could not be expected to initiate this discussion as she was not obviously aware of her decline. When she could not remember where something was, or became confused with days and dates, she thought it was a normal part of ageing.

Fortunately, she was assessed as fit to continue work. It was a process which took time. She was subject to ongoing assessment by one of the memory clinics while she was still working. Within a couple of months, other aspects of her health led to her retirement after 30 years in that employment. A rapid decline in her memory and cognitive ability soon followed.

Susan Ryan is correct. It’s important for people, as they age, to be continue to work where possible. But my question concerns what safeguards are in place if family members or close friends are not able to initiate such a process of investigation when memory or cognitive problems arise? How will a workplace deal with this issue?

What if the work being done puts others at risk? How many workplaces are dementia aware-dementia responsive?

If the government is keen to ensure workers stay in jobs for longer, and to increase the retirement age, they need to become actively involved in the conversations about these concerns, and the development of effective strategies. Otherwise, there is the possibility that older workers will miss out on work because of potential risk employers may encounter.

Michele GierkMichele Gierck, author of Fraying: Mum, memory loss, the medical maze and me, was recently part of a panel Question Time: Getting Older at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.

Older worker image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Michele Gierck, dementia, budget, employment, ageing, health



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Existing comments

Brilliant article, Michelle. The government seems to be focussing solely on the economic benefits of people working longer without considering the social and medical support this will need.

Edward Fido | 06 May 2015  

Michele Gierck and Morag Fraser will in 'In Conversation', discussing Fraying on Sat 9 May, 2.30 pm at Montsalvat, Eltham. $15 includes wine, nibbles and conversations. Book on (03)9439 7712

Michele Gierck | 06 May 2015  

To suggest that people with dementia can be responsibly employed and that society has to adjust to allow this to happen is really Alice in Wonderland stuff. People are employed to do a job responsibly, something impossible for the genuinely demented patient with pathological deposits in the brain. It would be gross irresponsibility on the part of any employer to delegate responsibility to a patient with dementia and I would suggest a reason for incurring litigation when something went wrong. Would you trust a demented surgeon aged 80 with your life?

john frawley | 06 May 2015  

Another thing is, where are the jobs going to come from? It is hard enough already to get employment if you are over 50; some commentators say even 45! And we are going through a revolution in jobs caused by emerging technologies that is simply going to disappear many jobs as we now know them. For reference, have a look at the recent address to the National Press Club by Catherine Livingstone (President of the Business Council of Australia) about the challenges facing us in this area. We need major thinking on this and serious, bipartisan discussions. But the overwhelming majority of our politicians of all ilks in every one of their representative haunts show no sign of wanting to do anything but continue to play silly buggers and tally up scorecards - and our esteemed Treasurer and PM and their Labor counterparts are the worst offenders. And also, how are the oldies going to remain (or get) up to date in their knowledge and skills in areas that almost certainly will be the domains of tech-savvy younger people? Treasurer Hockey's ideas warm the hearts of conservatives and sound reasonable if you don't think about the realities too much. But the key is in real job and new industry creation, not just in creating new job service providers, tougher penalties against "leaners", and making everyone who is unemployed join Green Armies or whatever this week's fad solution is.

PaulM | 06 May 2015  

Michelle is right. Extending the retirement age is not straightforward. Dementia is not the only health complication of ageing. For example those who work in the building industry often have bad backs and other joint problems by the time they are in their 50's and would be uninsurable even if they had the capacity to keep working after 65. It would be more the point to help those in their 40's and 50's who are currently unemployed or underemployed and eager to work who struggle to find employers willing to give them a go. The government also needs to recognise that retired people in their 60's and 70's make up the bulk of volunteers delivering meals on wheels, manning op shops, helping in schools, helping with St Vincent de Paul, the Red Cross and other organisations. Our communities will be lost without their contributions.

Sandra Houghton | 06 May 2015  

Instead of trying to get older people back to work, the Government should be concentrating on young people, training them and bringing them into the workforce.

Barbara Matthies | 06 May 2015  

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