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Australian census: big Australia or small, we’re getting older – and the elderly need help

The intensity of individual requirements for assistance will increase in the future. Emiliano/Flickr

AUSTRALIA BY NUMBERS: The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the first batch of its 2011 census data yesterday. We’ve asked some of the country’s top demographers and statisticians to crunch the numbers on Australia’s population: how we live, where we work, who our families are and how we spend our time.

Today, Michael Taylor looks at what the data show about ageing and people who care for the aged.

The first release of the 2011 census data gave the Australian public a detailed insight into ourselves — or, at least, as we were on August 9, 2011. Initial reports focused on the apparent absence of large numbers of people from Australia that evening: the nation’s population was 300,000 down on the previous estimate for 2011. Given current preoccupation with “Big Australia”, it’s unsurprising that this was the first part of the census to be discussed.

Another element of the data that attracted initial attention related to population ageing. The median age of Australia’s population in 2011 was 37.3 years, a substantial increase from 32.4 years in 1991. Approximately 14% of the Australian population was aged over 65 years in 2011, compared to 12% in 1996.

As well as these abstract indicators at the population level, the census also contains a far more personal picture of what this means for Australia’s population: the number of Australians who, for reasons of old age, disability or long-term illness, require assistance with everyday activities. In 2011, almost one million Australians stated they needed assistance with basic activities.

The census also provides us with information on the number of Australians providing unpaid assistance to family members. Approximately 1.9 million Australians stated that, in the two weeks prior to census night, they had provided assistance to a family member due to a disability, long-term illness or problems relating to old age.

These figures equate to 4.6% of the Australian population requiring assistance, and 8.8% of Australians providing assistance. This is a slight increase on the 4.1% requiring and 8% providing assistance in 2006.

These figures can be cast in even more abstract economic terms if we re-imagine “providing” and “requiring” assistance as simple supply and demand. When expressed in these terms (subject to many assumptions), the change over time gives cause for concern. In 2011, there were 1.9 providers for every recipient, an ever-so-slight decrease from the 1.95 providers per recipient in 2006.

While a number of explanations are possible, this may indicate the beginning of a slow drift away from an “average” two-to-one ratio (e.g. two adult children looking after an elderly parent) to a one-to-one ratio (e.g. two adult children looking after two elderly parents). Unfortunately, this decrease may also reflect that more people now require assistance and have no family members available to provide it.

It’s with such scenarios in mind that this census information is best understood. People caring (or those who have cared) for elderly parents will recognise the significance of the graph below showing the age distribution of assistance providers and recipients.

“Requiring assistance” is, naturally, skewed towards older age brackets. In 2011, almost half of all Australians aged 85 and above reported that they required assistance with their everyday activities. People who provided assistance were far more evenly distributed throughout the population, peaking in the 55- to 64-year-old age bracket, where almost one person in five provides assistance to a family member.

Assistance providers and recipients: percentages of population in age bracket (2011). ABS 2011 Census

Subject to many assumptions about future population growth and change, the ABS predicts that by 2030, between 19.5% and 20.8% of the Australian population will be older than 65 years. While it’s not clear yet whether we will be a big or small Australia in 2030, we will certainly be an older Australia, and more changes in the provider-recipient balance are almost definite.

Another important aspect of this social change to keep in mind is that part of the pressure in the future will not just be the number of people requiring or providing assistance – it will also involve the amount of assistance they need or give.

The census information tells us only that someone spent time providing assistance to a family member in the past fortnight; someone who spent one hour a fortnight providing such assistance will answer yes to this question, just as a person who spent one hour a day would.

Similarly, the intensity of an individual’s requirement for assistance will also increase in the future, given current trends towards people having multiple long-term illnesses as they age, and increasing rates of dementia in our community.

The simple supply-and-demand balance discussed above is perhaps better understood as a rubber band stretched between individual providers and recipients. According to the Productivity Commission, the availability of formal assistance services for older people and people with disabilities are similarly stretched rubber bands, with Treasury this week warning of future difficulties in financing public programs.

Our ability to keep these rubber bands from breaking, and how we deal with what happens if they do, will be a substantial test for Australian society in the future.

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