Don’t believe there’s ageism? Well, read this

A multinational’s dumping of its mandatory age retirement policy and ongoing abuse in aged care exposes how ingrained ageism is in our community.

Key Points

  • KPMG have dumped their ageist retirement policy
  • Neglect and abuse in aged care linked to systemic ageism
  • Reform of aged care will require attention to underlying ageism and sexism in society

16 years after laws outlawing age discrimination, it’s extraordinary that multinational professional services firm and accounting network, KPMG, could tell partners to ‘bugger off’ at age 58.

Having been exposed by the media, warned by its own legal counsel and questioned by former federal Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, KPMG only reviewed and dumped the requirement in early April.

The Australian Financial Review reported the firm spent almost 2½ years defending the rules after the details were revealed in The Australian Financial Review in mid-2018. The justifications for the clause included that partners voluntarily entered into the arrangement.

Advocates for older Australians, including the former age discrimination commissioner, the late Susan Ryan, who said KPMG’s use of the rule was “very disappointing”, while National Seniors’ Chief Advocate Ian Henschke called out the firm’s “breathtaking hypocrisy” as its own mission statement declares “we never stop learning and improving”.

In this case, it seems systemic ageism bows only to money. It’s highly probable the reason KPMG finally dumped its policy was because the then Finance Minister flagged the government would likely dump contracts with the company if it didn’t change.

The age ‘don’t-care’ sector

The one sector charged absolutely with caring for and supporting older Australians, the age care sector, has proven to not only fail in that mission but leave a litany of abuse and horrible treatment of older Australians.

Kathy Eagar and Anita Westera writing in the public policy newsletter Pearls and Irritations have looked closely at the Age Care Royal Commission report findings on ageism and age abuse in the sector, especially age care homes.

They found that the commissioners estimated the prevalence of elder abuse in residential care was 39%. This estimate only includes people reporting emotional abuse, physical abuse and/or neglect. The commissioners were unable to estimate the prevalence of financial, social or sexual abuse. The prevalence of neglect, which could be argued to be abuse, was estimated to be 31%. And then there’s the matter of questionable use of medications for age care clients.

The most at-risk of abuse in aged care homes are women. They make up 64% of all people receiving age care. The older the residents, the more women there are. There are more than 30,000 people aged between 95 and 106 years in aged care homes this year, and 78% are women.

“The community is now standing in judgement waiting for the government to seriously address the systemic issues underpinning sexual assault and abuse in parliament house and in the broader community.

"In the same way, the community must now also stand in judgement waiting for the government to seriously address the systemic issues underpinning the abuse and neglect of women in the aged care system.”

Eagar and Westera suggest other systemic failures of the system described by the Royal Commission report, i.e. lack of staff skills and poor training and low pay, were linked to unsatisfactory treatment of the predominantly female staff. Women make up 87% of all workers in the residential aged care and 89% of workers in the home care sector. Men represent just 12% of registered nurses in aged care and 14% of personal care workers. The writers assert that the situation would be vastly different if it were a male dominated sector.

The writers support the Royal Commission’s recommendations for additional funding to make residential aged care safer and kinder, to ensure there are adequate staff ratios, a better mix of skills, improved staff continuity and more effective clinical governance.

They also support the urgent need to address the home care waiting list, a call we have echoed must be addressed in the upcoming federal budget.

But they say it’s more than just money that’s needed. They also call for systemic culture change to end what they described as “decades of neglect due in large part to a culture underpinned by sexism and ageism.”

With your ongoing support, National Seniors will fight ageism at every opportunity, including reform to aged care in the budget and beyond.

Sources: Australian Financial Review and John Menadue's Public Policy Journal