One of the hallmarks of a fair society is how individuals, communities and governments treat, value and support older people, including those who are most vulnerable.

Our country is built on the shoulders of our older people. Over the span of their lifetimes, they have contributed enormously to the fabric of our society. They’ve grown, learned, taught, participated, built, worked, cared for, nurtured and given back in so many ways.

International Day of Older Persons (1st October) is a great time to celebrate the many contributions and experiences of our older people and to learn from their collective wisdom.

It’s also a reminder to consider and think about how we can best support older people who are facing some of life’s most challenging situations.

This year has spiralled into a recession which has pushed many elderly people into poverty and homelessness – many for the first time in their life.

We know that one in six, or close to 19,000, of all of those experiencing homelessness are over 55 years (ABS 2016), an increase of 27.7% over five years. Older women continue to be particularly vulnerable to later-in-life homelessness, due to factors including low retirement savings and superannuation and the high costs of housing, which can leave them vulnerable to life shocks such as sudden illness, divorce, or job loss. This situation is likely to be exacerbated during the pandemic and economic downturn.

COVID-19 has reinforced the need for older members of our community to have stable accommodation where they can look after their mental and physical health and live with respect and dignity.

For older people who are facing a range of challenges as well as adjusting to COVID-19, ensuring they have a safe and secure place to call home, encouraging them to maintain support networks, and working with them to ensure they connect with social and health services is paramount and a key part of the work many of our staff do daily.

With the ageing population set to double between 2010 and 2050, and 2020’s challenges causing enormous financial and emotional stress, action must be taken now to reduce the numbers of older people being pushed into homelessness.

Appropriate housing that is affordable is a key part of the solution. We must provide more options that include wrap-around supports to age in place, social housing and more intensive supported accommodation models that allow people to age in their communities where they feel safe, connected and supported.

As a priority, Governments must invest in more social and affordable homes which are accessible and designed to accommodate older people’s needs. There also remains high demand for aged care facilities for older people with complex needs. Funding must be made available to build one new supported aged care facility in each state each year to address the shortfall.

This year, older people have been in the national pandemic spotlight. It is well known that people over 70, or over the age of 65 with chronic medical conditions, are particularly at risk of serious illness due to this insidious virus. We’ve also seen some terrible COVID-19 situations unfold at aged care facilities.

I have been continually impressed by the strength and dedication of our aged care and other residential facility staff who are working hard to keep the vulnerable older people we serve and our committed staff safe and well.

In NSW, Mission Australia runs three aged care facilities for those at risk of homelessness or who have experienced homelessness, with two in Sydney and one in Orange. While we have strong infection controls and other preventative and outbreak management measures in place, our aged care and other residential facilities aren’t funded or resourced to be able to operate like a hospital.

This is why we are continuing to talk to NSW Health about ensuring those who test positive for COVID-19 while living in these facilities are immediately moved to hospital.

There are also thousands of grandparents and great-grandparents across Australia who are raising a family all over again during this pandemic. Grandparents often take on the care of their grandchildren because their own children are unable to safely or effectively parent due to a range of issues such as substance misuse, mental health concerns and domestic and family violence. 

In the face of this year’s challenges, I commend the immense resilience, perseverance, adaptability and love demonstrated by the many grandparents involved in our Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program which we run on the South Coast of NSW and in North West Tasmania.

Many of the families accessing this program were affected by the bushfires, and have adapted during COVID-19 to embrace a range of technologies and platforms to remain connected and support each other, and assist their children to continue to learn and grow throughout the pandemic.

Given all the older people we work with, our Spring fundraising appeal is focussed on raising awareness of older Australians who are homeless to generate much needed funds during this time of increased need. The appeal features our iconic 40-year-old Missionbeat Sydney service, with a focus on raising funds so we can continue to support vulnerable older Australians at every step of their journey from homelessness, to receiving immediate support, critical care, ongoing case management and being safely housed.

Our appeal shows just how challenging being homeless later in life can be. It also pinpoints the importance of intervening as early as possible for people who are experiencing housing insecurity or have become homeless to give them the care and support they need to increase their wellbeing, overcome their challenges and help them to find and maintain their tenancy in a safe place to call home. I encourage you to give what you can to help support some of Australia’s most vulnerable older people.

All of us are ageing, every minute of every day. Ageing should be celebrated, and the older people in our lives, our communities and across Australia should be treasured for their wisdom and contributions to our society.

Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to thrive. With the right supports and adequate housing options in place, we can help older people to stay well, be safely housed and feel supported by and connected with their community.

 

Photo of James Toomey, CEO of Mission Australia

 

James Toomey
CEO Mission Australia
@jbc_toomey

 

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Purpose - 'Inspired by Jesus Christ, Mission Australia exists to meet human need and to spread the knowledge of the love of God'