|Eileen Kramer, 102-year-old dancer and artist|
If she needs her cane, she will ask her dancing partner to use one too. “We can do a cane dance,” she says, miming the actions from her seat.
Kramer is one of a growing number of older Australians who have decided to do ageing differently, busting through the stereotypes that say that people retire, apply for a pension, downsize to an apartment, then move to a retirement village to play cards, and then shuffle off to a nursing home to quietly die.
Instead, we are seeing more older people switch to new careers in their 60s, become entrepreneurs, throw themselves into creative endeavours, chase adventure in travel and investigate new forms of communal living, where they remain in charge and avoid the humiliation of the institutional 5.30 pm dinners of soft foods and cordial.
Kramer is the ambassador for the non-profit Arts Health Institute and has a 75-year international career that, most recently, included a role in the Belvoir production of the Wizard of Oz; appearances in music videos and a collaboration on a fashion project. “Always make the opportunity for yourself or else grasp the opportunity,” Kramer said at a recent forum in Sydney on confronting ageism.
When asked if she believes herself to be old, Kramer replied: “I don’t use the word ‘old’. I say I have been on the planet a long time.
“If you are doing creative work, you are absolutely ageless. There is no such thing as age in creativity. It is always something new.”
Chief executive of the Arts Health Institute, Dr Maggie Haertsch, says creativity has beneficial effects on health and quality of life in older people.
“Arts play a really significant role in building a person’s quality of life. I think that ability to keep learning and learning something new should never be underestimated, no matter what your capability is,” she said at the ageing forum.
A study of 60,000 older people by National Taiwan University finds that those who took part in a creative (performance and art) program had lower rates of loneliness and depression, higher morale and improved hand dexterity.
There are now 3.57 million people aged 65 and over in Australia and, by 2056, they may comprise around a quarter of the Australian population.
While those numbers create a powerful bloc, that has not yet resulted in an opening up of the employment market for mature-aged workers or the retreat of ageism.
It takes an average of 68 weeks for someone aged over 55 to get a job. The lack of employment options could be one reason that 34% of young firms in Australia are led by senior entrepreneurs (55-64 years), which is a higher activity rate than average.
Co-founders of the profit-for-purpose consultancy The Ageing Revolution, Leonie Sanderson and Simon Lowe, have found that it is not only young people who hold unhelpful and untrue views about their elders.
The couple took a three-month fact-finding trip last year, interviewing “grey nomads” and mature-aged people around Australia and discovered that many people were discriminating against their own age group.
“We are all hopefully going to grow old so why are we prejudicing our future lives?” asks Sanderson.
“The negative beliefs about ageing are all around us. Even things like birthday cards have terms like ‘over the hill’, ‘one foot in the grave’ or ‘God’s waiting room’.
“There are even beauty regimens to combat ageing from when you are in your twenties, hair dye to cover up your grey hair. It is like we are trying to erase any talk or discussion of ageing in our society at all, instead of focusing on the opportunities that come with growing older.
“The discrepancy between these beliefs and how older people actually are is the most amazing thing.”
On their road trip, Sanderson and Lowe had no shortage of grey nomads to interview. There are around 80,000 on the roads in Australia at any one time.
Lowe says The Ageing Revolution aims to work with companies and startups to co-design and develop ideas and products, such as an app to help carers.
Haertsch says the process of internalising ageism starts before people even hit middle age. “There comes a point in your life where you are somewhat ashamed, or embarrassed, or insecure about talking about your age. I hazard a guess it might be around the age of 30.
“What happens is this internalised ageism is incredibly serious because it also plays out in areas where we do our work – which is in aged care and, particularly, residential aged care.
“We find that some of the self-limiting age beliefs actually stop people flourishing. People don’t realise that they keep learning. Even if you have some form of cognitive impairment such as dementia, you can keep learning.”
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'Always grasp the opportunity': confronting ageism creatively