WELL into last month’s Canberra Conversation lecture session that asked whether Canberra was age-friendly, someone asked – “Does Andrew Barr care?”
A murmur went through the audience. No one provided a response, so we were left wondering whether we already knew the answer.
The ACT government has a mixed record on caring for senior Canberrans. This was emphasised by the three speakers. They were clear that there are good programs and spoke positively about the government’s commitment to the elder abuse program, transport subsidies and other concessions. But they made it equally clear that there are gaps.
A concern is that programs are run within silos with little connection between them resulting in many seniors and carers having difficulty accessing timely assistance. There were stories about carers attempting to assist others, in one case an elderly father, through bureaucratic mazes and having to look out for decisions being made with little care as to whether they were appropriate.
Seniors are not an homogenous group – they are diverse in their activities, aspirations and their needs. Many elderly Canberrans have difficulties paying ever-increasing energy bills often resulting in them not having enough heating during the winter. Canberra has a serious homelessness problem – with many of these people being seniors. The stories told were a reminder that too often this happens in plain sight.
How we deal with our seniors is a planning issue. While Canberra is being swamped with apartment towers, most are not suitable for seniors. We have more than half our suburbs listed as not age friendly. One would imagine if the government was facing up to its responsibilities on ageing, that we would be seeing more parklands being established, not the current trend of reducing community spaces and reducing the precious urban forests. We would also not be seeing seniors being disadvantaged by the new bus arrangements.
There was a polite discussion around the culture within government towards the ageing population. While the statistics have been around for ages pointing to the increased number of seniors in our community, it seems that our ACT government has not prepared for this and has not adopted these issues as a whole-of-government priority.
The ACT government’s own statements on seniors, such as those in recent Budget papers, make it sound as though seniors are a different race that has to be dealt with reluctantly. Once upon a time these pesky seniors used to retire elsewhere (Gold Coast etcetera).
Now too many are very happy to stay where they are – in their homes in Canberra. The government states that it is working out how to connect these people into the Canberra community; this being strange, as most would have thought they were already a significant part of the local community.
The government’s attitude to seniors is already questioned given infamous statements by the Chief Minister. As one speaker said, he will have trouble continuing this attitude given he is approaching early retirement age (less than a decade to go). The newly appointed minister, Chris Steel, stated he was proudly representing the youth voice in a much older electorate. Not sure why he emphasised the age of his electorate especially as, according to statistics, the average age for that electorate is only a few years more than his own. Unfortunately, that consistent message from his boss on Canberra’s troublesome elders has been taken as an alternative truth – what a surprise.
In the end we departed the forum wondering whether the question was answered – Is Canberra an age-friendly city? I suspect if asked, people would have said sort-of, maybe sometimes and then again maybe not. Whereas we were left in no doubt that there are professionals and loads of volunteers working hard to make it very age-friendly despite the lack of a comprehensive approach by our elected government. Only two politicians attended this important session – Caroline Le Couteur and Nicole Lawder.