Guiding light

Age Discrimination Commissioner Kay Patterson says a decades-long involvement with Girl Guides has been her enduring moral compass. Lynda Schekoske reports. As a young girl growing up in suburban Sydney in the 1950s, Kay Patterson remembers well the role Girl Guides played in her life: it was her life.   “My mother’s greatest way to discipline me, if I’d done something wrong, was to say ‘if it happens again, you won’t go to Guides’,” Kay recalls. “It only ever happened once or twice, because I lived to go to Guides on a Friday night.”   Guides commit to a set of laws that provide a framework and philosophy for living, striving to respect themselves and others; making choices for a better world; and living with courage and strength.   Kay’s biography on the Australian Human Rights website shows she followed the laws to the letter.    Having left school at the age of 14 for a secretarial course and office job, Kay went on to a distinguished career as a health academic, Federal Minister, and as a champion of families of people with severe disabilities, women, and older Australians. The catalyst: an invitation to attend the Guides World Centre in Mexico when she was 17. One of four centres world-wide to encourage leadership and life skills, Kay relished the opportunity to meet young women from 10 countries, including the United States.    “It was a big thing at the time – it changed my life – but I didn’t realise just how big until much later,” Kay said. “I was one of two Australians selected to go. The American leaders at the event were all studying at major universities. They were such an inspiration. They told me I should return to Australia, finish high school and go to university, so I did.”   Kay enrolled at East Sydney Tech and completed the last two years of high school in one year.   

“We were a fairly highly motivated group of young students who wanted their matriculation,” Kay said. “I sat next to David Hill (English-born Australian business leader and author) and our teachers were fabulous – they were mature people who had all worked in industry.”

From there, Kay won a scholarship to complete a BA (Hons) at the University of Sydney and another to undertake her PhD in Psychology and Diploma of Education at Monash University.

She studied gerontology at two universities in the USA and used the knowledge gained to co-develop the first Victorian postgraduate diploma in gerontology and introduce the subject to undergraduate behavioural science courses. Her passion for issues concerning older Australians was born.

“I was teaching bright allied health professionals – physiotherapists, speech and occupational therapists, nurses etc.,” Kay said.

“Their views were quite ageist. They thought anyone who was 30 was really old; anyone who was 40 was very old; and anyone over that was ‘had it’.

“I didn’t think that if a 50-year-old had a stroke, getting them to where they could lift a spoon to their mouth was good enough in terms of rehabilitation.

“Geriatrics is about sick older people but I believed that we needed to look at gerontology, which is about older people who are well.”

Not surprisingly, it was her interest in older people that triggered her move to politics in 1987, when she was elected Senator for Victoria. A friend who was on the Guide Executive had encouraged her to join the Liberal Party, because it needed a retirement policy and aged care “was appalling”.

“She told me ‘the baby boomers think they will be forever young, but they are going to get old one day. You need to join up or shut up’,” Kay said.

Kay did, and became the eighth female cabinet minister since Federation when she was appointed Minister for Health and Ageing in 2001, after serving as Parliamentary Secretary and Shadow Minister in health, women, aged care and social policy portfolios.

She retired in 2008, after 21 years as a Senator, during which her work on behalf of people with disabilities and older Australians were her “biggest achievements”.

Kay secured then Prime Minister John Howard’s support for a $200 million package allowing the families of people with severe disabilities to establish private trusts to provide for their care, without affecting entitlements to benefits. She was also successful in having the compulsory retirement age for public servants abolished.

Last July, she took up her position as Age Discrimination Commissioner, setting herself three focus areas: the rights of older workers; elder abuse; and homelessness among older women.

Her overarching goal is to ensure that existing reports relating to these issues are actioned.

“I have an anathema about reports that get written and never implemented,” Kay said.

“Just as I started at the Commission, the Attorney General announced the Law Reform Commission into Elder Abuse.

So, I’ve told the Attorney and the Shadow Attorney that I will be pushing those recommendations.

“I’ve seen some dreadful cases of elder abuse – I don’t think enough people have Wills, Powers of Attorney (POA) and Enduring POAs. As individuals, we need to be more attentive when we are well to protect ourselves by understanding what is required.”

Kay said discrimination against older workers had been around for a long time.

“Last November I looked at some of the research and reports going back to 1954. Even then, older people were saying they wanted to be contributors, and they wanted to work where they were able and willing to do so.

“That’s exactly what they are saying now. Previous Commissioner Susan Ryan put so much work into the Willing to Work report (National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination against Older Australians and Australians with Disability), I am determined to have as many of those recommendations implemented as possible.”

Kay said homelessness among women concerned her greatly as there were many who had minimal or no superannuation and relied on their jobs to pay rent.

“If, for some reason, they can’t work they can quickly end up homeless, living in their cars or worse. It’s a growing issue and one that extends across all socio-economic status groups.”

With so much on her plate, does she still have time for Guides? Kay admitted she hadn’t been as active as she might have liked in recent years, but she remains close friends with the 20+ women she met in Mexico five-plus decades ago – and she is also a life member of Guides Victoria. 

This article by Lynda Schekoske originally appeared in the June/July/August 2017 edition of 50 something magazine.

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