The elders' statesman

The home in North Melbourne was essentially a fortress for the woman in her 80s. The district nurse would have to knock a certain way before the woman would open the front door, and the windows that once brought the outside world in were now barred for protection.

The home in North Melbourne was essentially a fortress for the woman in her 80s. The district nurse would have to knock a certain way before the woman would open the front door, and the windows that once brought the outside world in were now barred for protection.

This had been a place of warmth and joy where the woman had raised six children. Now she was alone: her husband had died and the children were grown up and had their own lives, scattered around the globe. The community that once nourished her had also diminished as the city encroached.

"She was almost a prisoner in her own home," Gerard Mansour recalls. Mansour had just taken over as the head of the state's aged-care industry body, having come directly from the other end of the spectrum, Kindergarten Parents Victoria.

He rightly assessed that he needed to witness firsthand the people he would be representing, so he tagged along with the district nurse. "I just saw things that I didn't realise existed in the community today," he says.

Six years on, that knowledge and understanding has assumed a particular importance. Mansour has just been appointed the state's first Commissioner for Senior Victorians, essentially a champion for older people.

The logic behind creating the post would appear obvious. A constant theme of our public debate has been that we are an ageing, greying population. The baby boomer generation is getting older. The 2010 Intergenerational Report by the federal Treasury set out the nature of this dramatic change. In 1970, there were 7.5 people of working age to support every person aged 65 and over. By 2010, this had fallen to a ratio of 5 to 1. By 2050, it will be 2.7 to 1.

Of course, the nuts and bolts of the demographics are important. We look at the economic impact: the demands on government, the budget, and the health system. How will Australia cope? But if there is something often missing from this conversation, it is the human element - what it means to grow old in Australia today.

Gerard Mansour's appointment was the result of an inquiry by state MPs. Like many parliamentary reports, the inquiry into opportunities for senior Victorians was tabled and received relatively scant public attention. This is a shame because it's a powerful document that shines a light on how, collectively, we are struggling to relate to the older members of society.

As the report notes, Victorians are living longer than ever before. In the early 20th century, people only expected to live until their mid-50s. By the early 1970s, that had stretched to their mid-70s. Now, Victorians can generally expect to live into their mid-80s.

So those retiring in their early 60s can anticipate more than 20 years ahead of them. But here's the rub: what will those 20 years be like? Will they be a time of decline and irrelevance, or a new stage of engagement and fulfilment?

The report makes for compelling, and at times disturbing, reading. It deals with the barriers that older people face, among them age discrimination, elder abuse, and financial insecurity.

"Older people reported that their experiences include feeling invisible, being patronised or ignored, not being respected, feeling irrelevant, and being considered 'quaint'," the report says.

In this context, Mansour's new role is much more than just a token appointment. He has before him a serious and important task in what is shaping as one of the most significant social challenges we have faced.

He is taking on the job just shy of his 57th birthday and, in many ways, the beginning of a new career phase for this baby boomer is in itself a statement of the approach to getting older that he will seek to encourage.

His journey to this job has been a lifetime of walking different paths and, in many ways, gathering the skills for his current role.

Born in the northern suburb of Fawkner, he was one of five children. His father was a sewing machine mechanic who worked a six-day week in a factory. His mother worked at home rearing the children before taking on part-time work to bring in some extra money.

"We were very much a working-class family," he says. "Looking back, we had this fantastic culture. I'm not sure if my parents set out to do it, but you really got encouraged to make your own way in life and give yourself belief. I think that stayed with me all my life. It's just this sense that you can do it."

Like all working-class people of that time, Mansour says, his parents wanted their kids to have better life opportunities. He went to the local Catholic primary and secondary schools before ending up at Broadmeadows' Geoghegan College, which was known for what he says was a pretty laissez-faire approach to discipline. Students had their own smokers' courtyard.

About this time, he began what would be a continuing quest to decide what he should do with his life.

In year 11, he arrived home one day to tell his parents he wanted to go out to work. He left school and worked six or seven jobs in that first year, ending up in the superannuation office of the Victorian Railways.

He went back to school when new rules made promotion impossible without year 12 qualifications. But he was always hankering for more than a railway clerk's life. He ended up in Sydney living with some mates, before returning to Melbourne to study youth work.

Working with people ignited a passion. It also helped him understand that while you could assist people individually, you needed to be aware of working in the context of a wider system.

It led him to Kangaroo Flat, south of Bendigo, helping kids who had been identified as students who would struggle to make it through to year 12.

Later, he ended up in Hurstbridge, on Melbourne's northern fringe, helping year 6 students make the transition to secondary school. His search then took an unexpected turn. A good friend was working in the trade union movement, and Mansour found a job as an organiser with the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Union.

"Because I'd done a lot of work with people, I was beginning to get an early sense of justice and social justice, and the fact that in life, there's different groups," Mansour says. "There are some people who are fortunate enough to make their own way and do really well. There are others who need some assistance along the way."

Mansour enjoyed being part of the union movement in the era of the Accord, the partnership between the Hawke Labor government and the unions. But they were often intense days, which included being at the pointy end of disputes. He decided he would like a life with a little less conflict.

Mansour had moved in and out of education and became a stay-at-home dad to his two preschool children while finishing his master's degree. He then saw a job advertised at Kindergarten Parents Victoria, which would eventually lead to the chief executive officer's position and a decade-long association. But he had made a personal pact that when he turned 50, he would leave.

That opened the door to aged care and the visit with the district nurse to the isolated woman in North Melbourne.

Mansour is drawing on his own life experiences as he confronts the challenges of the new job. Foremost among them is bringing together the government's various efforts to support older Victorians into what's called a whole-of-government plan.

But he also has ideas about helping older people develop personal plans. A lot of people, he says, get part of that right - the financial side, or housing. But what of other aspects, such as work and volunteering? "This is 20 years. That's a huge gift many of our previous generations didn't get.

"Part of my job is to keep those people active and involved so we don't lose them, they don't just drift off into the never-never," he says.

"Their wealth of knowledge, expertise and skill we need for a retirement system that keeps them connected and involved with their family and their community groups.

"If that works at its maximum, we can have the time and resources to focus on the people who need help."

Mansour envisages a system that works for all, including those from different cultural backgrounds and marginalised groups, such as the homeless. Paid work is an important part of that plan for many older people. But it is often not that simple.

Age discrimination is entrenched. Victoria's Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, says it's widespread in the community, mainly affecting older people in many aspects of life, including employment.

"Age discrimination in the area of recruitment and employment is pervasive for older Victorians, and our research shows that it's largely systemic and accepted," she says. Jenkins sees this discrimination as the most significant barrier to individuals continuing productive lives beyond their 50s.

In 2012-13, the commission received 141 complaints related to age - 84 of which were connected to employment. "Older workers tell us they are being discriminated against when applying for jobs, are overlooked for training or promotion, and are pressured into taking redundancy packages or retirement," Jenkins says.

Gerard Mansour says there has to be a change in attitude. There are some encouraging developments, such as employers introducing a transition-to-retirement strategy, where older workers gradually reduce the number of days they work.

A lot of people think moving to retirement is the end of their working life. "We've got to change," says Mansour, "to thinking that this is the beginning of something else."

The parliamentary report into older Victorians can be found at: www.parliament.vic.gov.au/fcdc/inquiries/article/1475.

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