SYDNEY, NSW / The Sydney Morning Herald / National / Article / June 13, 2010
ANTONY LAWES AND JILL STARK
Medical research shows half of the Australians - particularly women - born this century could live to at least 100, while improved health and lifestyle will ensure we are able to work and stay active for longer.
John Beard from the World Health Organisation thinks Australian companies could have 100-year-old employees within 20 years as more workers are encouraged to postpone retirement.
96-year-old Eric Brown still delivers meals on wheels and says all of his customers are younger than he is. Photo: Anthony Johnson
''A woman in the United States just celebrated her 100th birthday at work. I don't think that will be unusual in 20 years' time,'' he said.
The ageing of the workforce will require a major change in thinking, however. He warned that the most rapid period of population ageing was still to come and pouring money into hospitals and pension plans was not the solution.
''We have retirement policies which provide incentives for early retirement, we have entrenched ageism in the system where older workers are viewed as untrainable in new technologies,'' Mr Beard said.
''We need to be rethinking those [policies] at the same time as putting in place some of the social services that may be required for the truly disabled older people.''
Experts warn that as the population ages rapidly and as we work longer and earn more, the cost of keeping us alive will also increase.
KPMG demographer Bernard Salt predicts that as the growth in the number of centenarians continues to outpace every other age group in Australia, governments will struggle to afford to keep them alive.
''These are very expensive years to maintain,'' he said.
''Do you believe a 90-year-old or 100-year-old should have access to a $1 million piece of equipment to keep them alive for another three months, or as a society should we be spending that $1 million on a piece of sporting or education equipment for a 23-year-old?
''We need to have that debate and decide the limits of what we're prepared to allocate to health and aged care because the demands will be infinite and the technology means we can keep people alive beyond 100, perhaps even 110 or 120 years.''
Mr Salt said there would come a time when rich people would be able to buy extra years of life.
''In other words, life and death and quality of life beyond 80 will be a matter of money in 20 years' time,'' he said.
Australia already has one of the highest proportions of centenarians in the world, behind the United States, Norway and Sardinia.
They number between 3000 and 4000 today and some suggest that figure will balloon to 12,000 centenarians in 10 years and to 50,000 by 2050.
Results from the University of NSW's Australian Centenarian Study, conducted by Professor Robyn Richmond, found that despite their frail image, many centenarians were independent and relatively healthy.
More than one in four men aged over 100 lived alone and only about half of those aged 100 or over lived in nursing homes. But more home-based services would allow a larger number of centenarians to remain in their homes, Professor Richmond said.
Heather Booth, from the Australian National University's Demographic and Social Research Institute, said there had been little planning for a larger and more active older population, who would demand things such as better transport and age-friendly shops and restaurants.
''We're going to need more public transport,'' she said.
''These people are not just going to stay at home, they'll be organising themselves to enjoy life as well, and demanding that society responds to their needs.''
One of these needs will be wanting to work well past the traditional retirement age of about 65.
John McCormack, director of the Australian Centenarian Study at La Trobe University, found most centenarians would like to continue working: ''We've got to be more age-integrated rather than age-segregated.''
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