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Happy, healthy and retired – let’s rethink ageing

Dr Mike Rungie shares his perspectives on why we should be using the ‘blue zone’ model to rethink ageing in Australia.

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A ‘blue zone’ is a place where people live longer, healthier and happier. Most of us would love to live in one. So how can we make it happen?

Blue zones turn out to be in very different places. Sardinia in Italy, Ikaria in Greece, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Loma Linda in California, Okinawa in Japan. Let’s look at what they have in common.

Healthy diets that flow from the land and culture; lives which nudge us into being active; in places that make it hard not to hang out with friends; and where we flow into new roles as we grow older, never really retiring as the rest of us know it.

The most outstanding and important feature of these places where people live longer and better is connection. Meanwhile in Australia, we have a gloomy view of ageing and aged care and seem quite unable to fix it. There’s an epidemic of isolation and loneliness. We have to shake off the old age blues and build a new blue zone.

The New York Times bestseller from last year The Blue Zones Challenge by Dan Buettner says there are nine habits, when practised together increase longevity, health and happiness:

  • know why you wake up in the morning 
  • move through what you do
  • have routines that shed stress
  • finish eating before you’re full
  • eat more plants
  • sip wine with your friends
  • belong to a spiritual- based community
  • stay close to your family, and
  • choose social circles that support healthy behaviours.

The good news is, we don’t have to set goals to lock in these habits, but rather construct our society and surroundings so they gently encourage us towards these behaviours. Buettner’s book is a manual showing how we can do it. We also need governments, communities and enterprises to build society-based nudges that meet us half-way.

When I was doing my Churchill Fellowship, I asked some older Australians if they would give blue zones a go. What I found was surprising.

Around 20% are already unknowingly living a blue zone lifestyle. And the first thing they told me was they had sorted for themselves was how to be useful and engaged in “so-called retirement.”

It’s their social networks that keep them at it. They had to be healthy too. And they love their lives.

So, Australia’s got all the makings of a blue zone. But the ‘blue zoners’ are so hidden they don’t work as role models. They live in a society that never shapes policies that support them. In fact, the hidden ‘blue zoners’ keep their distance from any retirement and aged care chatter because they think it’s for someone else.

We don’t have to start from scratch building a blue zone in Australia, just grow the one we’ve got.

We need our healthy happy seniors to be noticed by an ageist society. That could take some persuasion. We need to know how they moved into the Blue Zone:

  • their habits
  • what they’re doing
  • how they got these roles
  • where and how they found their new networks
  • how they spend their money
  • how they keep healthy
  • what they value, and
  • hether they think they’re retired, at work, or something else.

Then this ‘blue zone story’ becomes the new norm for Australia, giving our leaders a way to talk about an ageing Australia as something more than retirement and aged care. Older Australians would then become viewed by them as an asset not a liability.

That’s another reason why we must reform the pension system and take away the penalties for those who work more than one day a week. This is a priority for National Seniors Australia, which is terrific.

Only 2.9% of pensioners do any paid work. We have a system nudging them out of work. Just a 5% increase in the older workforce would add tens of billions of dollars to the nation’s GDP and give those working more money, more meaning in life and more social connection.

Seniors design and build the blue zone

Residents of aged care told me they were not happy, healthy, or living longer, so a residential care blue zone would look very different to anything we have today. They told me even if they lived a blue zone life before, they couldn’t now.

Spontaneously they started designing alternatives to residential care. It was the best care planning session I’d ever been to.

It was a different story in home care. We had great fun dreaming up dozens of ways of doing transitioning into a blue zone.

All this supports the National Seniors survey finding that older people are keen to drive co-design longevity and aged care, and the unique outcomes of them doing so.

It turns out blue zones might be our best hope for people with dementia, staring down the barrel of failed cures and institutionalisation. Multiple studies support a 20% to 50% reduction if we follow a combination of evidence-based diets and behaviours.

Finally, blue zones teach us there’s way more financial upside to an ageing Australia. It is a positive national investment for seniors to be living longer, healthier, happier and contributing.

That could mean the end to ageism. It’s much more difficult to diminish the lives of people who have a firmly established and valued place in our society. So, let’s nudge an ageing Australia towards something more glorious.

This article is by Dr Mike Rungie, Director of the Global Centre for Modern Ageing and on the Every Age Counts co-ordinating committee.

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