Seen but not heard? Older women want to be consulted in the policy space


As the portion of Australia’s older population continues to grow, there is increasing focus in policy on issues pertaining to ageing, demonstrated most recently in the Liberal Budget papers. However, much of these policies appear to be designed with little input from those who are struggling most to age well – older women. In today’s election series piece, co-authors Susan Feldman and Harriet Radermacher provide a summary of their recently-published research in which they heard from older women in the greater Melbourne area on issues of importance to them.

In the run up to the 2018 Victorian State Election, as might be expected during a pre–election period, media focused on the potential big issues of concern or interest to voters. A range of newspapers featured pieces on the consequence of the uncapped population growth in Victoria, particularly suburban housing sprawl and unaffordability. Public transport systems and the growing economic divide between communities also attracted media attention.

It was against this background, and in light of previous research, that we wanted to engage with older women and hear more directly from them about their lives, their experiences and the challenges they face. Specifically, we asked what matters to older women as they grow older, given these extensive demographic changes and urban development across Greater Melbourne.

Vital conversations: Older women have their say.

This recently-published study - Vital Conversations with Older Women Living in Greater Melbourne - was funded by the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and initiated with the assumption that there are common and interconnected factors in the lives of all women which have the potential to impact their health and wellbeing. We also understood that these factors take on different dimensions when considering age cohorts, ethnic and cultural backgrounds coupled with the health, social and economic circumstances of individual women.

For all the attention given to the problems associated with growing older, including the so-called financial burden of aged care to the public purse, very little opportunity exists for older women to contribute their views or be taken seriously about those things that matter to them, and which are central to their health and wellbeing.

In all, 127 women participated in 18 facilitated group conversations. The groups were diverse, with women ranging in age between 50 and 91 years, living across 22 local government areas in the greater Melbourne area, and from many different multicultural backgrounds. Forty four percent of the women were born in a country other than Australia and 61% of the participants were living in their own home.

Nothing about us without us: While there is much debate on the impacts of an ageing population, the experience and creativity of older people is seldom sought when developing policy. This research indicates older women are eager to share their knowledge.  Photo Credit: Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation .

Nothing about us without us: While there is much debate on the impacts of an ageing population, the experience and creativity of older people is seldom sought when developing policy. This research indicates older women are eager to share their knowledge. Photo Credit: Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation.

The conversations were designed to provide a supportive and confidential environment, giving older women the opportunity to voice their opinions and share their knowledge, experience and expertise across a range of domains. The women were asked to talk not only about their own experiences, but their observations of the experiences of friends and acquaintances. 

What did the women tell us?

We identified seven key themes important to older women as they age. These included changes to their health; threats to their financial and housing security; continued economic participation, family and generational change; ageism and abuse; and access to information and technology (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Key themes from the research.

Figure 1: Key themes from the research.

Other challenges raised were the barriers they faced in maintaining their significant and reciprocal connections with family and community. Engagement, they said, was of central importance to their overall wellbeing. The emphasis on social inclusion and feelings of belonging was perhaps not surprising. Many women noted the huge shifts in the pace of social change, resulting in the perception that people have less time to devote to meaningful relationships.

But, as most agreed, maintaining their sense of social connectedness and engagement with the world around them, especially in light of the city’s exponential neighbourhood development and urban growth, was of central importance to them.

“They re-zoned the area to make it high density. So I had a modest weatherboard house and they were knocking the other weatherboards and brick houses around me… down, and putting up high rise units and flats, so it went from a small house like [mine] to this [high rises] up and down the street.”

The women described the detrimental impact of this development on their sense of community and street life.

Many also had strong concerns about access to public transport across Greater Melbourne, which led to a sense of social and community isolation for many. In the words of one woman, which reflected the observations of others:

“Really basic when it comes to transport…Infrastructure is terrible. Public transport is pretty ordinary…especially if you don’t have a car anymore. You see we’re all heading towards not driving a car in the future and that would be a major worry for all of us…[who are] housebound.”

There was also a sense of frustration about ongoing stereotypes about older women that leads to negative assumptions about their past experiences and current needs. In the words of one woman:

“How can we change the perception that we are frail and need guidance with managing our lives!”

Rather than being in need of help, the women expressed a desire for autonomy, choice and respect.

Access to and knowledge of digital tools which help combat isolation and enhance participation in many areas of life, including unpaid and paid work and recreation, were described as both enablers and barriers to participation in community life.

Older women want to have more voice in policy decisions

Despite the trajectory of the lives of many of the older women who participated, this research clearly demonstrated resilience and adaptation to changing life circumstances. Women described how they have integrated creative strategies in their everyday lives to deal with the transitions and challenges of growing older in Greater Melbourne. In having these conversations, the women revealed their vast reserves of personal resources and capacity to navigate these challenges. 

The wide-ranging conversations in this study indicated that many older women want to be taken seriously through engagement in public life and contribute their experiences and ideas to policy and planning. It was the view of some women that they have important experience and ideas to offer which, if addressed and acknowledged, can add much value to the experience of many people living in Melbourne. The following comment relates to the experience of a participant who is a community representative on a transport development committee, which mainly consists of younger people:

“Stamina and persistence. You have to keep at it and at it and at it… I think older women particularly need to get out there and get on to these things [committees], but they’ve got to be women who have got confidence to do it, even if you’re just there and listening, and not challenging them, but you’ve got to be seen. We will be ignored if we don’t get out there.”

That all the organisations we approached were keen to recruit older women, and that women were keen to talk, was evidence that older women want to and need to have a voice, and to be recognised as active and valued participants in our community.

Being included gives older women a sense of self-worth and belonging, and supports the sharing of relevant, innovative, and creative initiatives and ideas.

Inclusive research that listens to the perspectives of older women has the capacity to reveal the complexity behind the statistics, and in doing so provides a more comprehensive picture of what life is like for older women in a dynamic city setting such as Melbourne.

What does this mean for policy?

Overall, the women described a nuanced picture of their lives which added a depth to our understanding about what they may face as they grow older.

The study highlighted some key ways in which federal and state policies have let older women down, but the good news is that these can be addressed – and the women had some innovative and creative ideas for doing so – assuming the political will and intent is there.

The Age Discrimination Commissioner has identified three priorities for her work, namely the rights of older workers, elder abuse and older women at risk of homelessness. Evidence indicates that women are impacted significantly more than men by all three of these policy areas.

This study revealed the potential for exciting collaboration going forward. Perhaps most notably, a proactive approach that includes engaging with older women from all walks of life will promote the exchange of relevant, innovative community initiatives and ideas.

Stories of discrimination which have kept women out of the rental market call for cross-sector collaboration between older persons, peak bodies and the real estate industry to develop tailored strategies and education initiatives.

It is not just the lack of affordable housing that is the issue for older women, but the lack of appropriate housing. This means appropriate in relation to location, size, accessibility, environmental efficiency, and designed to promote social connectedness across generations within the neighbourhood. Such outcomes demand support for collaboration between the building industry, land and housing developers, and all levels of government. There need to be innovative incentives to encourage investors to build rental-only properties, including those suitable for single older women in a range of locations across Melbourne. 

Older women are often hidden victims of family abuse and exploitation, particularly around extensive child care responsibilities. The commonwealth government’s financial commitment to address elder abuse is certainly welcome – particularly the trials to explore the value of health-justice partnerships. Older women, particularly those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, are desperately in need of appropriate, sensitive and timely support and information about their legal rights, as well as financial and support services.

While some older women are actively advocating and demanding to have a voice, many others – and for many reasons – are not being heard. It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure older women are included in a diverse range of planning and policy forums.  

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens, and this piece is part of our Federal Election series 2019. Photo credit for the voter’s box in our logo: Flaticon. View our other policy analysis pieces here and follow us on Twitter @PolicyforWomen