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A celebration of continuing life: Wyatt on preparing for old age

I call Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Ken Wyatt but get his voicemail. He is in the middle of a radio interview I am told. He calls me back, wishes me a happy New Year and I comment that he is straight back at it – its not even 9am and he has a few interviews in the bank. “It’s important to keep in the front of people’s minds that old age is not a burden. In fact, it’s a celebration of continuing life, of living to 100,” he says, straight on topic; a man with little time to waste, it seems.

I have called him for a comment for a piece on the year ahead for aged care in Australia. “Do we need to increase our death and elder care literacy in this country?” I ask, expecting a stock answer. I get the unexpected instead.

“We don’t talk about this. See, I used to work for a funeral parlour. And I lived in a flat above a caretaker, as a caretaker for the funeral parlour. I learned at the age of 22 the need to talk about this: power of attorney, the issue of, ‘What do I do when I become old?’ Because, I saw human behaviour in a way that demonstrated guilt,” he says.

“The number of people who, when I was on duty for rosaries, would say to me, ‘I don’t know if this is what mum wanted or dad wanted or my auntie wanted. I had to guess what they wanted’. And I said, ‘Why do you have to guess, didn’t you have the discussion?’ And they’d all invariably say, ‘No, because we didn’t expect it to happen’.”

According to the Government, In 2014–15, 87 per cent of people aged 65 and over reported having a health condition from at least one of the eight chronic disease groups – arthritis, asthma, back pain, cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and mental health conditions – compared with 35 per cent of people aged under 44.

And this brings us to the Government’s latest attempt to improve the lives of the ever ageing Aussie population, the Life Checks website. Part of the More Choices For A Longer Life measures, its about planning for the future, Wyatt says: physical, mental and financial. The website includes a quiz that asks questions about different aspects of your life and emails recommendations for improvements if need be.

“This is where we get people at those two intervals to start going to a website that we’ll be launching, and check what their health is and what they need to plan for,” he says.

The financial aspect of the check comes as a result of analysis by the Actuaries Institute of Australia, which shows that only 43 per cent of Australians are adequately preparing for retirement and four in 10 people aged over 55 do not have a financial plan for the next five years, and five in ten do not have a plan for the next ten to 15 years.

“The other is about financially planning. When you hit 45 you should be asking yourself, ‘Do I have enough money that when I get to 60?’ and ‘I have to plan for another 40 years of life, have I got enough savings and money set aside for my 40 years of life beyond retirement?'”

Wyatt sees the Life Check as a continuation of his blue sky idea from 2017 – when he suggested that seniors take a gap year in order to prolong a healthy life and adjust to a changing workforce – and part of a new approach to ageing.

“There are people who at 45 want to change career pathways. And what we’re trying to do is get them to think about it and in that process we will also look at training programmes that allow people to retrain,” he says.

“I know people saying to me it’s not going to be a reality. At the age of 50, I took a redundancy, and for 12 months stayed out of the workforce. It was the best thing that I did, because I cleared out that tiredness that you had when you worked long hours…  I was rejuvenated,” he says. That rings true – he speaks with energy and conviction.

“I probably wouldn’t have gone into politics if I’d not had that gap year.”

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