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An ideal solution

Cultural shifts can address the problems of the aged by placing a higher value on the needs of all. 

After all these years, you’d think we would know better. But still we talk about social problems as if they were physical problems that could be solved once and for all by a clever solution.

Take a few of the current issues likely to be of interest to anyone reading this: the right of increasing numbers of older people to enjoy security, dignity and social engagement; the importance of recognition for (unpaid) carers, the problems of those suffering dementia and those caring for them; and the issues of exclusion and entrenched disadvantage that people with disabilities face in Australia. Can we ever solve problems like these?

When the real issue is a medical problem, sometimes there is a clever solution: a brilliant public health intervention or a new medication or vaccine that changes the fate of millions, eradicating the evils for future generations. The dreadful history of leprosy, for example, was long understood as a sort of moral challenge to humanity. But thanks to advances in public health and medical treatment, the disease has largely become a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, few of our social problems and conflicts are amenable to medical treatment. In fact, medical success just as often creates new problems, as conditions that once lead to death now lead to long-term pharmacological and medical dependence or chronic and debilitating illness.

Because social problems manifest the unequal power and access to resources of different groups, they are inherently political. And the political divide often drives one side of the aisle to seek to reverse course or penalise the beneficiaries of the other’s attempts at amelioration.

Even when there is an apparent consensus about a ‘deserving’ problem, an advance that at one point seems to have changed things forever, often serves to reveal more deep-seated problems over time or to create others. So, despite the achievements of this age of affluence and excess, old problems persist and new ones are created, whilst others long hidden, such as child sexual abuse and social isolation of seniors, are exposed.

Of course, we need programs and finance to help carers, the elderly, those with dementia and people with disabilities. But such programs on their own are vulnerable to underspending and financial cutback over time, often justified by attacks on the very disadvantaged populations the programs were set up to help. Worse, the approach often results in different needy groups competing, an issue that applies as much if not more in the field of charity as it does in public expenditure.

What can be done? Acknowledging the limitations of existing approaches, a different and complementary model has emerged. We might call it a cultural approach. It is based on nothing less than changing the social imagination, creating a population-wide shift in attitudes and behaviours. Broadly, it involves the promotion of new ideals that are identified and shared so they may be taken on board as part of the everyday way of life of all people. Rather than simply managing a problem, keeping it out of sight and out of mind, it draws on the principles of recognition and the capacity to inspire change.

So instead of focusing on the problems of the aged, the challenge becomes one of how we can promote the ideals of a world in which people of all ages are valued and their different contributions, past, present and future, are acknowledged. Rather than focusing purely on the burdens and disadvantages that carers face, can we find a way to acknowledge the importance of care for all people, inspiring men as well as women to give and take care when it is needed? Similar cultural strategies are also needed in other areas of disadvantage, such as dementia and disability.

If we are not careful, however, this can end up in all-out competition between disadvantaged groups. When we have competing calls for understanding – for age-friendly communities, for caring neighbourhoods, dementia-friendly cities and disability awareness, this is the well-known result.

The challenge is to find ways of making the ordinary disadvantage and neglect extraordinary and inspiring. And to do so in a way that will unite people in support, rather than divide us in conflict over scarce resources. What about a life for all? If we can’t identify and articulate the ideal, what hope have we of building a community, a state, a society, a nation, or a world for all?

Michael Fine is an adjunct professor in the department of sociology at Macquarie University.

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