Gerard Mansour wants to get one thing straight from the outset: He’s not the Commissioner for Older Victorians, he’s the Commissioner for Senior Victorians.
And there’s a very good reason for that distinction – people (you’re probably one of them) don’t like thinking of themselves as getting older or, worse, being elderly, but they’re comfortable with the concept of ‘senior’.
I met a man at Broadmeadows once who had a walking frame and I asked him how old he was. He told me he was 91 and said he often goes to the nursing homes to visit the ‘old people’ – as in he wasn’t one of the ‘old people’, Gerard laughs.
Another lady said, ‘I know my end’s closer than my beginning’ but she wasn’t going to say ‘I’m getting old’.
So I am definitely not the Commissioner for Older People, I’m the Commissioner for Seniors.
Gerard’s job is to make your life easier, safer and more fulfilling – and, when you meet him, it’s clear he’s committed to the task. He’s definitely got your back.
When asked what issues are important to seniors, Gerard lists many, including isolation, relevance, invisibility and security. And he believes a common factor in addressing these concerns and finding workable solutions lies in local communities.
One of the biggest challenges as a senior is how you move through those years still feeling like you are connected to your community and have a significant role to play in it, he says.
As you grow older you still have a purpose in life, but people around you don’t always see it that way, so many seniors feel like they’re invisible. People sometimes say, ‘I feel like I live in a closet now’.
Local community groups can play a key role in helping. In nearly every community there are a whole range of organisations that provide enormous opportunities for participation, but they don’t all do that as well as they could from a senior’s perspective.
Sometimes, as someone gets older, the organisation thinks their role is over. We are asking organisations to stop and think about the degree to which they’re providing opportunities for senior people.
Everyone likes their independence and seniors are no different
Some groups accidentally become exclusive in that, over time, they start to do things that only a declining number of people want. For example, some senior citizens centres are struggling because a small group of people are deciding to do activities the majority don’t want to do.
So suddenly they find they’re an organisation that, five years ago, was attracting 200 people every week, now they only have 15.
Gerard says seniors play a vital role at community level, one that is often overlooked.
If you look at any local community organisation you will find there are many seniors involved, whether it’s on the committee or as a volunteer, he says.
Maybe it’s because they have a bit more time, maybe it’s because the place they live is very important, but older people (there’s that term again) traditionally like to gather face-to-face so what happens in their local community is very important to them.
Seniors often also play a very protective role, even informally. They look out for people they know, people in the street, they notice if someone’s blind didn’t go up this morning, that sort of thing. Seniors are very much the backbone of our local communities.
Everyone likes their independence and seniors are no different. The problem for many seniors, however, is their sense of autonomy can be compromised or even undermined by their health or, sometimes, themselves. Gerard says many seniors are poor planners, particularly when it comes to matters regarding ageing.
Seniors often delay access to basic services because they really don’t want them. They just want to be independent and get on with life. They don’t want to feel like they need support, he says.
They need to swing that thinking around and understand accessing services in a timely manner is important. For example, many people wait three or four years longer than they should to get a walking frame. They know they need some assistance, but they struggle on because they want to be independent.
What I try to say to them is accessing some of these services actually maintains your independence. It keeps you at home.
The best thing seniors can do is plan ahead. Very rarely do we get up on a Saturday morning and say, ‘Let’s go and buy a new car’. We would have thought about it and looked at different options and the journey of ageing is no different, but what tends to happen is people often don’t want to think about it.
As you’re moving through your senior years there are some really fundamental shifts in relationships. Your children may have moved interstate or overseas, your community’s changed, some of your friends may have passed away, so having the ability and authority to control as much of your ‘life decisions’ is really important.
One of those important decisions is choosing a power of attorney. This also plays into the issue of security, safety and elder abuse.
Most people love their mum and dad and do everything they can to support them, but, like everything in life, not everyone behaves that way, Gerard says.
There are six types of elder abuse (financial, emotional and psychological, social, physical, sexual and neglect) and the most common ones are where a perpetrator sees an older person as an easy target financially.
They might start in a very genuine way by getting their parents’ Pin number to help them with their shopping, but, once you have access to someone’s finances, there’s a vulnerability. The vast majority of powers of attorney do a fantastic job, but if you’re a financial power of attorney you have the capacity to misuse the trust that has been invested in you.
If you have someone doing financial transactions on your behalf think about ensuring there is disclosure
There is also psychological abuse, where they blame the older person, you know, ‘you don’t remember telling me to do that’ and social abuse where they try to isolate the victim. So that’s quite a vicious combination.
Gerard says it’s important to take emotion and social norms out of your decision-making. For example, your eldest child should not be given the responsibility simply because they were born first.
You must think analytically about who in your family you can ultimately trust, he says.
Seniors also need to know what protections they can put around themselves.
There are some really simple things you can do. For example, if you have someone doing financial transactions on your behalf, think about ensuring there is disclosure, that bank statements, etc go to a trusted third party.
Another issue you may have encountered as you … er … age, is the issue of ‘ageism’. Gerard believes many people – even doctors – are guilty without even realising it.
I don’t think the average person is ‘ageist’ but where it really comes out to play is in some quite specific areas, such as work, he says.
Many people find if they lose their job, or if they need to become a carer in their late 50s and early 60s, the ability to re-enter the workforce is enormously difficult.
Another example of ageism is the assumption that just because someone is a bit older they don’t deserve a certain type of medical operation. I’m not saying a specialist would consciously do that, but they may not offer the range of options to an older person as a younger person would be asked to consider.
So, what as a society should we do? Respecting our elders would be start. Valuing them would help, as would empowering them.
It’s important we have building blocks. The best thing we can do from a public policy sense is to empower people to have as much control over their life’s decisions as possible, Gerard says.
The more we allow and resource that the better they’ll be at that and the less they’ll need support systems. So part of that is helping people get the right information at the right time so they can plan the different aspects of their lives.
The other thing is access to services. There comes a point for some people where there is a loss of mobility or they’re in an area where transport options are limited. So people’s loss of opportunity to be involved and have those social connections is directly related to their own health or circumstances.
Sounds like an age-old dilemma, doesn’t it.
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