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Adjournment Speech: Older Women and Housing

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 18 Oct 2017

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

As a society, we have made significant achievements in promoting the health and wellbeing of older Australians. There are, however, many areas where older people continue to face challenges. These include poverty for a growing number, age discrimination, ageism and social inclusion. The United Nations Principles for Older Persons have been developed and are supported by governments within Australia. These principles recognise rights of older persons to independence, participation, care, self-fulfilment and dignity. And there is also a growing global push for a binding international convention on the rights of older people that moves beyond a statement of desirable principles.

In Australia, poverty rates for people over 65 are relatively low. However—and it's a big 'however'—there are significant problems. Less than 12 per cent of people over 65 fall below the poverty line. However, there is evidence of cumulative economic advantage and disadvantage throughout the life course. Thirty-six per cent of elderly single women and 30 per cent of elderly single men had spent between six and 10 years living in poverty in the decade 2001 to 2010. Relatively few are able to escape the cycle of poverty once established. While home ownership is relatively high among older people, those in rental accommodation are particularly vulnerable to poverty, particularly older women living alone.

With poverty comes deprivation. For example, 40 per cent of the lower income group could not make electricity or gas payments. Most routinely do without even essential services and material, like food. The number of people aged over 65 living in lower income rental households is projected to increase from 190,000 in 2001 to 419,000 in 2026. The greatest projected change is in the group 85 years of age and over, where estimated numbers are increasing from 17,300 to 51,000.

Older women are much more likely than men to face poverty and homelessness as they age in Australia. They are more likely than men to experience discrimination during their lifetime of employment, they are very likely to spend much of their retirement years without a partner and they are very likely to experience severe poverty in their old age. One study found that 51 per cent of older women over 85 live in or near poverty. There are several reasons for this associated with income and living alone. Older women are increasingly likely to live alone as they age. According to a recent analysis by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, among women the rates of living alone increase as they grow older but much more sharply than for men in older age groups. From the age of 50 onwards the chance of women living alone increases sharply, and from the age of 60 onwards that chance is much higher than for men. By age 80 and over, 40 per cent of women live on their own.

Older women are more likely to have no or very limited superannuation, as superannuation only became compulsory only relatively recently. Attitudes to saving for retirement have changed for women but those over 50 are very likely to regard retirement savings as the husband's responsibility. The result is that many women accumulate substantially less superannuation than men, as contributions are usually linked to earnings. The male members of superannuation funds, for example, already enjoy assets almost three times greater than the female members.

Divorce has a very detrimental effect upon a woman's future retirement income. Many women who are at home raising children or working in low-paid part-time jobs assume that they will enjoy a comfortable retirement because of their husband's superannuation. Despite legal protection, many women lose access to a husband's superannuation after divorce. Consequently, given an interrupted career history due to caring responsibilities and given a lack of retirement planning, a great many older women, including highly educated professional women, remain very vulnerable to poverty in old age.

Ageism can be described as 'a process of systemic stereotyping or discrimination against people simply because they're older'. According to the Human Rights Commission, ageism is an entrenched feature of Australian society, with older individuals being lumped together or thought of as all being the same just because of their age. COTA, Australia's premier advocacy agency for older people, agrees with this view, describing ageism as 'endemic and pervasive in Australia'. Ageism can impact older Australians in many ways. For example, in the media and arts, images of older people are often negative, unattractive or stereotypical. The long-term impact can be serious in rendering older people invisible, useless and feeling like they're a burden on society.

In the health system, certain symptoms in older patients, such as balance problems, memory loss and depression, can be dismissed from the outset as 'old age' instead of being viewed as potentially treatable health conditions. Age discrimination has been detected in assessing suitability for medical rehabilitation services, specifically for stroke and cardiac patients.

And then there is access to employment. The attitudes of many employers to older workers is problematic. Access to training and professional development is often restricted or outright denied. The skills of our older people are frequently undervalued. The Australian Human Rights Commission has identified age discrimination as the foremost barrier to the workforce participation of mature-age workers. Women experience a double-whammy when it comes to employment discrimination, as they are regarded as less capable than older men.

In accessing affordable, safe and suitable housing, including public housing, the profile of older people experiencing homelessness is rapidly expanding, with an increasing number of old people, particularly women, becoming homeless after being evicted from what has been previously comparatively stable accommodation in the private rental market. Even those relatively affluent couples who have invested heavily in retirement village accommodation may find themselves severely impacted by unscrupulous developers, complex and inaccessible contracts and a variety of unregulated fees, including deferred fees. This is where you buy a unit at a retirement village at full price, but, when the time comes to sell, you have to pay the village owner a large percentage of what you get. There can also be ongoing maintenance fees that keep going when you die—and bonds. These various rorts may prevent people from moving, may destroy all financial resources of some older people and may lead their children to carry a huge financial burden after death. In the planning of public facilities, access to public transport, including safe bus stops and accessible vehicles, and location of services should take sufficient account of the needs of older people.

As well as discrimination, many older people suffer exclusion and social isolation. There are multiple factors that cause older people to become socially isolated, including the loss of a partner, family members moving away, living in rural and remote areas, and chronic illness. As mobility becomes affected, access to social events becomes more limited. Age discrimination can intensify social isolation in a psychological sense. Elder abuse is defined by the World Health Organization as:

… a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person.

Elder abuse can take various forms, such as physical, psychological or emotional, sexual and financial abuse. It can also be the result of intentional or unintentional neglect. That's the WHO definition. Clearly, it is a human rights issues and reflects that a comprehensive set of strategies is needed.

We need a paradigm shift in the development of aged-care policies and programs. We should view older Australians, not as a cost burden; we should view them instead as citizens who have the same human and citizenship rights as everyone else and as people who contribute greatly to family, to community and to broader society.

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