La Trobe’s Dr Rachel Winterton relishes hearing the life stories of older Australians. She started researching at the John Richards Centre for Ageing Research in 2010, interviewing older people about their experiences of rural living – and eight years later, she’s still there.
Along the way, Dr Winterton has encountered many examples of how to age well. She shares the best lessons she’s learnt from older people in her community, and how careers in rural health and aged care can make a positive difference to the wellbeing of older Australians.
The thing I most love about working in the ageing field is hearing older people’s life histories and stories about their communities. So many people have had such interesting lives! I’m currently working on a project about improving access to dementia care in rural and regional settings, and developing a community information hub where older people can access information on ageing-related topics and activities. I also have an ongoing program of work looking at how rural older adults contribute to the sustainability of rural communities, and how they remain socially engaged.
We hear a lot about how our ageing population are a ‘burden’ on the economy, which is a myth. Older people make significant contributions to their communities and to the economy, through volunteering and civic engagement, undertaking childcare and acting as carers. The other myth is that all older people are frail and dependent on others – many of the older people I meet every day are fitter, more socially active and more independent than me!
Older adults play a critical role in keeping rural communities alive. They’re often the ones providing volunteer transport to frail older adults, delivering meals on wheels, running social groups and community activities, and supporting the Country Fire Authority. Without the contributions of older people many critical rural programs and services could not be sustained. In fact, the ageing rural volunteer cohort is having a significant impact on the capacity of rural communities to deliver crucial community supports.
Older people have taught me lots of things, but what’s resonated most with me is to make the most of what you have in life. Many of the older people I speak to have really complex health problems and limited mobility, yet still remain happy, positive and involved in their communities.
Older people are often really generous in sharing their skills – so, over the years I’ve also learned a lot of practical skills like how to grow runner beans, how to make excellent fruit cake and how to prune fruit trees!
Social and civic participation is very important to ageing without getting old. Recent research has identified that social isolation and loneliness can be as damaging to physical health as smoking, and also impacts negatively on mental health. But being involved in social and community activities gives older people a purpose, bolsters social support networks and provides a sense of achievement associated with contributing to a community. It also provides an opportunity to learn new things – which is critical in keeping us young!
To me, ageing without getting old means being as mobile as you can, staying socially involved, keeping your mind active – and maintaining a sense of humour!
Choosing to study healthcare or aged care is incredibly rewarding. One of the main challenges posed by high rates of ageing in rural populations is the ability to provide the aged care, health and medical support that older people require. La Trobe’s Albury-Wodonga campus has a dedicated ageing and aged care research centre, with a lot of expertise in the different aspects of ageing and aged care. The uni offers postgraduate qualifications in areas like Gerontology, Health Promoting Palliative Care and Health Sciences. And the region is also home to a great number of health and aged care organisations who are doing some really innovative things aimed at improving the lives of older people, which students can learn a lot from. There’s a real capacity to make a difference to people’s lives – and there’s never a boring day when you’re interacting with older people!
What does the future look like for you and your family in a community that’s getting older? Find out at La Trobe’s Bold Thinking public lecture, Forever young: how can we age without getting old?, held at The Cube in Wodonga on Thursday 24 May 2018.