Women live longer and healthier lives than men but face lower rates of pay, are less likely to participate in paid work and accumulate less superannuation to retire on, which leads to disadvantage later in life.
These are the findings of the Council of Australian Government (COAG) Reform Council’s report, Tracking equity: Comparing outcomes for women and girls across Australia, released today, which charts Australia’s gender disparities over a lifetime.
The report notes that women over the age of 60 are more likely than men to need assistance with day-to-day activities such as transport, household chores and property maintenance. But almost one-third of older women report an unmet need for assistance.
As Australian women age, they become increasingly invisible. We don’t hear much about the lives of older women, nor do we see many representations of older women in the media. Many people are blissfully unaware of issues faced by older women until they, their mothers, or other women in their lives enter this age bracket.
The number of people aged 65 and over in Australia will nearly double by 2050, and those aged over 84 will quadruple. These will mainly be women; a phenomenon termed the feminisation of ageing.
Older women don’t necessarily have it harder than older men, or vice-versa, but their experiences and circumstances are distinct. And these unique challenges require tailored solutions.
Ageing and widowhood
For women, increased longevity often brings with it multiple chronic conditions and disability. Many older women outlive their male partners, often following a period of care-giving. Older women have reported neglecting their own health needs while care-giving until they reach crisis point.
Upon widowhood, many older women live alone, some for the first time in their lives. In 2011, 32% of women aged 65 and older lived alone in Australia and 69% of these women were widowed.
Many need help with home maintenance previously done by their husbands, yet these needs often go unmet. Although older women may inherit the family home, some face rapid declines in financial stability, putting their living situations into jeopardy.
Reasons for women’s worse financial positions in older age reflect social, economic, and cultural factors including the gender pay gap and gendered care-giving roles. Many older women may never have been in paid employment, potentially having stayed home to raise families.
Those who did work outside the home likely earned less than men. They acquired very little, if any, superannuation, and rely solely on the aged pension in their later years. These circumstances put older women at risk of poverty and housing insecurity upon widowhood.
The latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey shows older single women have particularly high rates of social exclusion and income poverty. The assessment of social inclusion is based on the belief that material resources, employment, education and skills, health and disability, social support and interactions, community engagement, and personal safety are important to a person’s ability to fully participate in society.
These factors add to older women’s physical, social, psychological, and economic challenges upon widowhood, particularly during the early transition period – within two years of her husband’s death.
Challenging false assumptions
Our recent in-depth look at older women’s transitions to widowhood debunked some long-held assumptions. Many people assume that women fare better than men in widowhood because they have more social ties to friends, family, and the community. This is not necessarily the case.
Another false assumption is that adult children and other family members will be around to assist and console. But increasing geographic distances between family or fractured relationships mean that family support may be short-term, via distance, or entirely unavailable.
Social and demographic changes challenge traditional perceptions of family. These are often more pronounced in Australia where social and cultural diversity is abundant. A lack of understanding and expectations of grief can also contribute to women’s isolation.
Further, it should not be assumed that women talk about emotional difficulties to family or health professionals. Keeping feelings in and “not airing dirty laundry” can be related to values and beliefs developed over a lifetime.
Time for innovative approaches
It is unacceptable that older Australian women find themselves isolated, poor, and ill-equipped to meet the challenges of living alone with multiple chronic conditions. We need innovative strategies to identify women at higher risk of poor outcomes and deliver cross-sector strategies involving local government, NGOs, health services, and community organisations to build support within communities.
Providing practical support should also be part of this approach. A recent Johns Hopkins University research project – which brings handymen, occupational therapists and nurses into the homes of low-income seniors – is just one example of how a small investment can make a huge difference and keep people out of nursing homes.
We also need to develop a bereavement support model to address vulnerabilities and risks associated with older women’s transition to widowhood, while facilitating their empowerment for health management and societal engagement.
The COAG Reform Council has recommended that COAG agree to annual performance reporting on gender outcomes against an agreed set of gender core indicators. This is an important long-term goal to address the factors that contribute to older Australian women’s well-being across her lifetime.
Increasing awareness and appreciation that ageing and widowhood are gendered experiences is an important first step.