Bridging the Gap Between the Elderly and Elders: How TACSI Seeks to Catalyse an Innovation Age

Joe and Beth are retired, and after saving for several years recently went on a “trip of a lifetime” cruise. But this is a rare treat. For the most part they struggle month-to-month, and have real fears about what the future may bring.

Janelle lived in Japan and China when she was younger, but left her job to take care of her elderly father. She hasn’t worked since then and has fallen on difficult times. Her house has just been repossessed and she’s losing her belongings and her identity.

Auntie Veronica is a member of the stolen generation. Most people she grew up with died early, so she doesn’t have a vision of aging. She has no aspirations; she just knows she needs her family nearby.

Aging is a unique issue. As Geoff Mulgan, CEO of NESTA, said at the launch of TACSI’s Innovation Age work last week, “it is the consequence of the best thing that’s ever happened in human history – our increasing human lifespans – and yet we talk of it as a crisis.”

The trend lines reveal the importance of this work. There are currently 5.3 million people aged between 51 and 69, and the number of people over 65 is set to double by 2040. Far from all older Australians chasing out on the housing boom, 20% of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1960) are in fact homeless.

The cost of supporting people during these increased later years will continue to mount. By 2050, we will only have 1.5 people of working age to support each person of non-working age, not even factoring for unemployment. This creates an enormous tax burden on those workers left to fund our retirement and health sectors. However, it is misleading to assume that ageing is about creating a burden on society – baby boomers are a social, cultural and economic force. We cannot underestimate their contribution to society historically, now or into the future – they are working longer, volunteering more, and juggling more care responsibilities (of their parents and their grandchildren) than previous or current generations.

The traditional concern about the costs associated with aging misses another huge dimension, the incredible asset older people represent, and our failure to effectively utilise this asset. In many societies they have Elders, but in Australia we only have The Elderly. Lost in the gap between those concepts is the incredible wisdom and insights of older people, the lack of respect for which leaves us the poorer. To pick just one dimension, 1 in 5 baby boomers currently volunteer and there is great potential to grow this number.

A focus on dollars and cents and worker ratios also misses another key point, which is older people are not a simply a statistic, and “aging” isn’t about macro-economic data, but real people getting on with their lives. What is the lived experience of aging in contemporary Australia, and the kind of future people aspire to as they age?

It was with this human dimension that TACSI began their work, with the belief that, as TACSI CEO Carolyn Curtin said on the night,

“We believe that as a society we need to ensure that people have the opportunity and the means to live a good life – for the whole of their lives. Unfortunately the image we often see of older Australians is skewed – it is either about retirees enjoying a great life cruising around the world, or it is about the burden older Australians are placing on younger generations. The opportunity here is to innovate how we can tap into the space between these extremes to make sure that all Australians have the opportunity to reach their potential across their lifetimes”.

Over the last few months TACSI has spoken to dozens of people about their lives and what they hope for as they age. In their homes, in their caravans and on street corners.

The idea that most retirees are cashing out their houses and superannuation for a life of comfort where they spend their time taking cruises and adventuring is a myth. Many Australians are struggling.

We need to re-think aging for so many reasons and from so many angles. For the future of our economy, to prepare the infrastructure and services this growing sector will demand. For young people growing up now, to alleviate the impossible burden that will otherwise be left to them. For all of us, that we can benefit from the assets every community member has to offer. And most importantly for retirees, so they can enjoy lives of meaning and connection.

With support from The Wicking Trust TACSI is doing the hard work of re-thinking aging, and doing so in a way that starts with peoples lived experiences and insights. Over the next three years TACSI is going to ask big questions and identify opportunities for experiments and innovation.

TACSI Associate Director and Innovation Age Lead Ingrid Burkett explained the way TACSI thinks about creating change through four steps:
• Co-design with people;
• Learn from existing models and experts;
• Explore how we create systems change;
• Form alliances of partners committed to creating change.

Initially this exploration will focus on Housing. Home and housing is a doorway into lots of other systems in aging (and beyond). Health factors are often related to where you live, and what ability you have to cook, to exercise, to participate. Housing is strongly related to and predictive of socio-economic factors.

A home is more than a house though. Home is related to connectedness, and whether you are part of a community. And for too many people this community connection frays as they age, leading to what Geoff Mulgan described as the single most important factor about aging in our society: isolation.

This theme of houses and home has become the starting point to exploring how we can innovate around aging explained TACSI’s Ingrid Burkett, after coming out through many of the stories they have heard so far.

“What we’d like to do is explore the layers in this challenge of home and housing to start with. Not to come up with a silver bullet or more programs but to join together with others about how we can join up the layers, which might be about new forms of housing or new capabilities or new funding and financing options, how we can join all of those together to create impact and better outcomes for people who are waging.”

She finished with an invitation: “What we’re asking for is for you to join with us as we explore this. We don’t have a silver bullet. We are starting at the level of questions, and to ask some of the hard questions in this space.”

I’m excited to see where this work leads. We are all aging, and we will all eventually be aged. This affects everyone one of us and everyone we know. And it will take all of us to bring a better system into being, one were we all feel connected, able to contribute and with access the support and services we need as we age.

So watch this space, as we’re just at the beginning.

Here’s what’s next for TACSI’s Innovation Age work:
• “Dying for Change”, an event with Charles Leadbeater in Adelaide on March 16
• March, release of an initial Insights Report
• April, release of Home and Housing Opportunities Report
• June 2, Design for Social Innovation event in Sydney with CSI
Follow all of TACSI’s Innovation Age work via this blog and on social media.

Tom Dawkins
Tom is the co-founder of StartSomeGood and GoodMob and previously worked with TACSI on launching the Australian Changemakers Festival.
Follow him on twitter.