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Nudging an ageing Australia away from retirement and aged care

It’s a while now since Dan Buettner introduced us to “blue zones" - places around the world where
people live longer than the rest of us. Longer lives that are also healthier and happier.

These blue zones turn out to be in very different places. Sardinia in Italy, Ikaria in Greece, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Loma Linda in California, Okinawa in Japan.

But have a look at what they have in common. Healthy diets that flow from the land and culture; lives that nudge us to be active; in places that make it hard not to hang out with friends; and where we flow into new roles as we grow older, never really retiring as the rest of us know it.

At a time when we seem to have such a gloomy view of ageing and aged care and seem to be quite unable to fix it, why wouldn’t we just become a blue zone?

Buettner’s latest book (The Blue Zones Challenge, National Geographic, 2021) shows us how.

It seems there are nine habits, that when practised together increase longevity, health and happiness: know why you wake up in the morning; move through what you do; have routines that shed stress; finish eating before you’re full; eat more plants; sip wine with your friends; belong to a spiritual-based community; stay close to your family, and choose social circles that support healthy behaviours.

The good news is that we don’t so much set goals (that rarely last) to lock in these habits, as to construct our surroundings so that they nudge us towards them. Which is actually what most of us do to land change in our lives. And what Buettner found blue zones do.

Buettner’s book is really a manual for how to build our own nudges. While also setting up governments, communities and enterprises to build community-based nudges that meet us halfway.

We asked some older people if they would give blue zones a go. What we found surprised us.

We reckoned about 20% of older Australians are already doing it. And the first thing they told us is that
they sorted out for themselves how to be useful and engaged in “so-called retirement” because nothing was on offer. It’s their networks who keep them at it. They have to be healthy to do it. And they love it.

So, Australia’s got the makings of a blue zone. But it’s completely hidden, doesn’t work as a role
model for others, never shapes the perception of society about living longer, or the policies that
might support it.

In fact, these “blue zoners” keep their distance from any of the retirement and aged care chatter because they think it’s for someone else.

So, we don’t have to start from scratch building a blue zone in Australia, just grow the one we’ve got. And a good start would be getting it out of the closet.

De-closeting a group trying hard not to be noticed by our ageist society might take some persuasion.

But just the data on this group’s habits would be a good start. We need to know what they’re doing,
how did they get these roles, where did they learn to do this, where did they find their new
networks, what are they spending their money on, how do they keep healthy, what do they prize,
and do they think they’re retired, at work, or something else?

Then this data-rich “blue zone story” becomes the new norm for Australia. Giving our leaders a way
to talk about an ageing Australia as something more than retirement and aged care.

Next, we’re going to need to get wise about the nudges. After showing some older people the nine
blue zone habits, we asked them to work with us in designing some.

They had no trouble designing uncomplicated, familiar, local and lovable nudges. We’ve never laughed so much. Couched in the right way, thinking up and slipping nudges into our lives and communities is not going to be a problem. And check Buettner’s book out for hundreds of other examples.

But what about when we get frail?

Given that residents of residential care aren’t happy, healthy or live long, we believed a
residential care blue zone will look very different to anything we’ve got now.

We examined for the presence of the nudges. None.

Residents told us that even if they lived in a blue zone before, they can’t bring their nudges with them. They thought you might get one or two over the line in residential care, but never enough to make it a blue zone.

Spontaneously they started designing alternatives to residential care that could house the nudges. Best residential care planning session we’ve ever been to.

It was a somewhat different story in home care.

We did find some nudges that clients already had, but none nurtured by home care. The big difference was that it wasn’t hard for us to co-design nudges in home care once the goal was to build a blue zone. In fact, we had great fun with older people dreaming up dozens of ways of doing this.

Underlining, yet again, the National Seniors survey finding that older people are keen to be drivers of
co-designing longevity and aged care, and the unique outcomes of them doing so.

It turns out that blue zones might also be our best and only bet for people with dementia, staring
down the barrel of failed cures and institutionalisation.

David Smith tells us that multiple research studies support a 20 to 50 per cent reduction in dementia if we follow a combination of evidence-based diets and behaviours. But Smith can’t get people to appreciate the changes needed, set goals and stick to them. Blue zones can.

And blue zones teach us that there’s way more financial upside to an ageing Australia than anything
we could find in the IGR.

They’re a good investment in getting those living longer to be healthier, happier and contributing. And blue zones could just spell the end to the high costs of ageism, it’s much harder to diminish the lives of people who have a firmly established place in in our society.

So, why not nudge an ageing Australia towards something more glorious?

Mike Rungie specialises in the intersection between good lives and aged care. He is a member of a number of boards and committees including ACFA, Every Age Counts, Global Centre for Modern Ageing and GAP Productive Ageing Committee.

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