Poverty, homelessness, exploitation - life today for many older women

Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation report exposes the tough lives of older Melbourne women.


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VITAL CONVERSATIONS: Older women are a missing powerhouse of wisdom and energy.

VITAL CONVERSATIONS: Older women are a missing powerhouse of wisdom and energy.

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Not the late life they expected: Why older women in Melbourne are doing it tough.

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OLDER women in Melbourne are doing it tough... in some cases, very tough.

Lack of affordable and secure housing, rising costs and the affordability of electricity, gas and water, increasing poor mental health, loneliness and social isolation, ageism and abuse and exploitative child care responsibilities have been identified as just some of the challenges they face in the otherwise thriving metropolis.

Recent research commissioned by the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation has revealed that while the state capital blooms with commerce, art and culture, restaurants, cafe, social life and sport, many of its older women are facing extreme disadvantage across diverse aspects of their lives. A situation few realised would be their lives in their senior years.

The resulting report Vital Conversations with Older Women Living in Greater Melbourne highlights seven key themes important to women as they age including social connectedness, neighbourhood development and infrastructure, financial security and housing, family and generational change, ageism and abuse, volunteering and advocacy, and information and technology. 

Researchers Dr Susan Feldman and Dr Harriet Radermacher held 18 group conversations involving 127 women aged 50 to 91 years (average 70 years) from 22 local government areas across Greater Melbourne. The women were born in 28 different countries (56 per cent in Australia) and 23 per cent spoke a language other than English at home.

"... between 2012 and 2017 the number of older women couch surfing increased by 83 per cent and a 75 per cent increase in older women sleeping in their cars and presenting at homelessness services. - Vital Conversations with Older Women Living in Greater Melbourne.

Speaking of the women involved in the study the report says: "Some are doing it very tough. Despite a lifetime working in paid and unpaid roles in the workplace, their families and local communities the life they experience today is not the later life they expected.

"For some a stable home is out of reach. Others face financial insecurity. Many of these women feel sidelined and disconnected from mainstream policy development and economic and social opportunities."

The report adds: "between 2012 and 2017 the number of older women couch-surfing increased by 83 per cent and a 75 per cent increase in older women sleeping in their cars and presenting at homelessness services.

"Financial security is now the most common factor influencing a person's decision to retire. On top of this at least one in ten people aged over 60 experience isolation and loneliness."

The overarching theme of what mattered to the women involved in the research was social connectedness and belonging but they also highlighted multiple older life challenges. 

Family breakdown and abuse, the importance of transport, the overdevelopment and changing face of neighbourhoods, lack of access to up-to-date  and relevant information and inexperience or difficulties with new technology were seen by women as impacting on health and well-being.

The report said social connectedness emerged as the enabler (or barrier) to positive outcomes in housing, financial security, health and wellbeing and technical literacy.

Writing in the final report,  Catherine Brown, chief executive of the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation said: "What this report also finds is an untapped resource of older women with a great deal to contribute." 

Older women are in fact a missing powerhouse of wisdom and energy. - Vital Conversations with Older Women Living in Great Melbourne.

She told The Senior that the issues facing older women in Melbourne were trends which would probably be across Australia.

"The fact that older women are the fastest growing group of people who are homeless or are couch-surfing is very confronting, and that's really a combination of factors."

Ms Brown said women may have done a lot of unpaid caring work, or they may have been in jobs that were casual or part time and they may not have accrued as much superannuation as men; "and then there's family break down or family violence or they're widowed or single and the cost of housing and electricity goes up... it's almost a series of unfortunate events.

"The idea of giving them (older women) the opportunity to have their voices heard is very important. They haven't been heard as much as they should, yet Australian women are the most educated in the world, and older women are a very rich source of information and knowledge, so I think it's something we need to take very seriously.

"We need to become better as a society at including and valuing the views of older women. Their expertise and knowledge is incredibly valuable for policy development and planning for a more inclusive and age-friendly city," said Ms Brown.

GIVING OLDER WOMEN A VOICE: Catherine Brown chief executive of the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation.

GIVING OLDER WOMEN A VOICE: Catherine Brown chief executive of the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation.

Affordable housing is a major focus of the LMCF which is a charitable community foundation established in 1923 with the role of connecting people, ideas and funding to create positive social change and address Melbourne’s future needs. 

The Vital Conversations project follows on from findings of the LMCF commissioned Greater Melbourne Vital Signs research in 2017 which originally  highlighted the problems women were facing. 

"We now have a deeper insight into the issues of older women ageing in Melbourne which will help the Foundation to inform our grantmaking in areas such as affordable housing, and to make better decisions for a growing and ageing population," said Ms Brown.

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