Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Australia grapples with the cost of aging

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MACKAY -- You're on the front line of Australia's greatest demographic dilemmas when you're helping your mum move out of the family residence and into an old people's home.

"It's not an old people's home,'' mum chides me as we wrap the artifacts of her 80 years in newspaper and place them in cardboard boxes.

"It's a retirement village.''

Semantics aside, a tiny one-bedroom residence 20 kilometres away will be the cramped home for both mum and those little curios she won't give up, even as the furniture is hauled off to the St. Vincent de Paul charity shop.

There's Royal Dalton China dolls, Waterford Crystal glasses, little plates etched with lines from Ecclesiastes and the ceramic seal pup.

She picked it up during a trip to Vancouver in the '80s. Made out of the ashes of the 1980 Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption in Washington, the pup still has a tiny golden label hanging around his neck testifying to his spectacular genesis in some ancient, bubbling Magma chamber deep below the Earth's crust.

"You really, seriously, want to keep this?'' I say, gazing at the gormless creature who has sat mute in a dining room cabinet for a quarter of a century.

"Yes,'' says mum, firmly wrapping up the pup protectively, and I don't argue the point.

After losing her husband and one of her five children to cancer in the past two years, the family motto is pretty much "what mum wants, mum gets.''

And it's the same across the nation each day as hundreds of Australian families help their parents enter the last phase of their lives as sensitively as they can.

The ripples of a far more powerful explosion than the one that brought the seal pup to my mum's modest house in Mackay in north Queensland are making their impact on Australian demographics with increasing regularity.

This week the nation began the week with the news they may have to wait until they're 70 before eligibility for the aged pension kicks in.

Just over four years after then federal Treasurer Wayne Swan startled Australians with a change to pensionable age from 65 to 67, the goal posts look likely to be moved another three years forward.

The Grattan Institute, an independent and highly influential think tank, has made the latest proposal along with a raft of tough recommendations designed to keep Australia working into their eighth decade.

With "aged welfare" in its sights, the Grattan is also proposing to put the previously exempt family home into the means test for the aged pension.

It's not as mean-spirited as it sounds. An estimated half of all pension payments -- about $20 billion -- are believed to be going to households with net assets of more than $500,000.

But the prospect of a tougher financial regime at the end of life's road doesn't make life easy for the millions of Australians who have passed the mark.

For Mum there's no chance of a return to the legal secretarial work in which she started her working life 65 years ago.

But while it's permissible for me to make sly fun of her choice in mantle-piece adornments, it's not right that we as a nation make someone who played her part building a successful, wealthy country feel she's become a national burden.

Australia will need to have a grown-up debate about how to handle the aging population.

But we should start it by using more sensitive language. We can't afford to offend those who allowed us to have this debate in the first place.


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 29, 2013 A13

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