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The other glass ceiling

03 September 2014

Hands Of Age

Sue Hendy has strong opinions about how we view ageing in our society. For more than 35 years, she has lived and breathed ageing and the issues that surround it. From her standpoint, Australia is up there with the worst of them when it comes to ageism and age discrimination.

For example, says Sue, take the language used by the government in its Intergenerational Report in which it refers to older people as the “tidal wave of ageing”.

Why, asks Sue, doesn’t it “celebrate the amazing work our society has done, which enables us to grow old, to survive, and how do we harness the opportunity.

“I want older Australians to be much more revolting, and stand up for their rights.”

It is why International Day of Older People on October 1 is so important: “Until we have the conversations around ageing and the rights of older people, we will continue to live in a world where age discrimination reduces the options for people and diminishes the ways in which we can pursue meaning and maintain independence as we get older.”

In fact, for Sue, the level of conversation around ageing, and what it means to get older, is so poor we’re not even sensitive to the fact that jokes about having a ‘seniors moment’ and ‘memory loss’ are not only reinforcing our negative attitudes, they are incorrect. Sue’s convinced if birthday cards about the loss of a leg or an eye were printed and sold as humorous digs at people as they grew older, there’d be an outcry. Memory loss, however, is fair game.

“Like depression, memory loss is not a normal part of ageing. It is a disease,” she succinctly points out… and a disease can happen to anyone at any time.

Deemed a straight talker by her peers, Sue has been COTA (Council of the Ageing) Victoria’s CEO for 12 years. COTA Victoria at 63 years old is the oldest of the state-based organisations. Sue joined COTA in 1997 as its manager of information and education. She provided retirement planning courses as well as courses for people about understanding ageing and age discrimination.

She describes being COTA’s CEO as “an honour” and characterises her leadership style as “enabling and creating the space for colleagues and staff to do their work within a framework that gives direction and achieves the organisation’s aims”.

“I get in amongst it with the team doing the work but I also have to be able to make the hard decisions when they need to be made. That can be a lonely time,” she says with a short laugh.

A Board member of the Australia National Ageing Research Institute, and Vice President of the International Federation on Ageing (IFA), Sue recently returned from New York where she attended an IFA meeting; took part in a six day intensive course at Harvard, called “Strategic objectives for management for Not For Profits”, and attended UN discussions on the rights of older people. Somewhere in there she managed to fit in a few days break, all of which she captured on her smartphone which she confesses she promptly left in a taxi on the Saturday she returned home to Melbourne.

Sue1 Medium

When Sue (pictured above) left school, she remembers not knowing what she wanted to do, and other than having had some strong influences in her life from older people, great aunts and uncles, she remained unsure of her path other than thinking I’ll get out there and get a job.

“Someone said to me what about working down at Willsmere [a now defunct psycho geriatric establishment in Kew in Melbourne] and you can start this Sunday. The rest as they say is history. I was a ward assistant, mopping floors, giving out medicine, bathing and dressing patients. I was constantly in trouble because when we were dressing people I wanted the dress to fit and stockings that matched. I didn’t think that was too much. But that was time consuming compared to what else I should be doing… I am still not sure what that else was?” Sue intones drily.

From there Sue went to work in various rehabilitation areas and to study recreation. She remembers being asked when she landed her first job in recreation where she saw herself being in 15 or 20 years: COTA was her answer, but she never thought as its CEO.  

“Certain skills and personality traits come with the desire to be in senior management,” Sue believes. “As for sacrifices, I guess I have worked hard. The important thing is you have to be interested in what you’re doing. You need passion to sustain you, especially when the hard decisions have to be made. You need to be able to analyse the data and the situation to create opportunities. You have to network, connect and communicate.

“Ageing is a very dynamic, competitive space. If COTA is not in amongst it learning, listening, changing, adapting, then we won’t survive as an organisation. The commercial opportunities are there but we also have to be there to say ‘hang on this is about older people and not about making money off older people’. It’s about advocating for older people and creating appropriate commercial opportunities,” Sue explains of the reality in which she and COTA find themselves working.

COTA also aims to provide the information – very often through peer teaching - that can assist in making good decisions and help with transitions. As people age they encounter transition points. Often they are around loss: retirement and loss of status; loss of partner; loss of capacity; finances, health, home. Transition points come with all sorts of difficulties. Good, easily accessible information is important to negotiate them successfully.

“Three percent of the population reached the age of 65 150 years ago. In other communities such as Australia’s Aboriginal community (and this is a sad indictment of Australia), people don’t necessarily have the opportunity to get old, and if you live somewhere like Sierra Leone, you’re old if you reach the age of 32,” says Sue, who believes age is a poor indicator of anything.

“The really important thing to remember is that capacity and age are not linked. Age is a workforce management tool, and a construct used by governments to keep people out of or in something – at 18 you can vote, at 60 you can get a seniors card,” points out Sue, who wonders when characteristics such as enthusiasm and creativity became pegged to age.

“Somehow we have to disaggregate capacity and age and see people for who they are. This is the challenge we face. It is not about being 60 or 85, but about living a life journey to the fullest, irrespective of age and the constraints societal structures place around things such as retirement.

“Remember when people believed women had smaller brains and couldn’t work. Well, the idea that we reach 40 and our capacity begins to diminish is just as much rubbish,” says Sue.

“In fact, I have a theory that we’ve become so age segregated we’ve actually lost the capacity to understand how to talk to different generations and that’s dangerous for everyone. It’s time to start the conversations again and communicate,” says Sue, who is anything but finished on the topic.

“We all get older. We’re all going to age. The issues should and must interest us all. Until we ask: how do we value people and enable them to contribute to society in as many ways as possible for the wealth of us all, we will remain in trouble.”



  • Maureen O'Neill

    Maureen O'Neill 6 years ago

    A very important topic. So many people at about 45 to 50 find it more and more difficult to secure contracts and roles, despite a wealth of experience and a more balanced approach to life. Apart from anything they could be invaluable in mentoring younger staff. I'm not sure how we change it, but allowing people to continue contributing really matters to both the economy and society.

  • Natasha Burns

    Natasha Burns 7 years ago

    I really enjoyed this article - I do feel that both sides of the generation gap lose by not being more connected. Its both valuing older people and older people valuing their contribution. Plus, I like old people.