Age inclusiveness: lessons from a gerontologist

by Catherine Rickwood


Have you heard of a geriatrician?

Don’t be surprised if you haven’t. They are specialists that we discover when we’re older or when we have elderly parents or grandparents with a range of physical and/or cognitive health challenges. Geriatricians focus on the health of older people – they are like a specialist GP for the elderly. They often work collaboratively with other specialists and allied health workers for their patients’ wellbeing.

Introducing Glenda Powell OAM…

Glenda Powell was the first female geriatrician in Queensland, the first female president of the Australian Association of Gerontology (AAG), and in 2002 was recognised for her substantial contributions to work around ageing by being selected as a member of the Order of Australia.

I had the honour and privilege of interviewing Glenda Powell. Glenda is inspiring – as a woman and as an older person. She has been unafraid to break new ground and continues to make contributions in her field by doing medical legal work and sitting on tribunals.

Key takeaways

Key takeaways from my interview with Glenda that are relevant for us all are:

  1. Embrace age diversity. An equality attitude (i.e. no ageism) occurs in an interactive, intergenerational work environment.
  2. Collaborate. The unapologetically collaborative approach that spans all specialisations and allied health services in gerontology is what enables the effective total care of each elderly person.
  3. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Respect for older people and treating them as a person – regardless of how they look on the outside helps to create positive patient outcomes.
  4. Be open and seek new information. Discoveries are being made all the time that provide information for us all to have a better, healthier future. For example the role of exercise in keeping our brain healthy – unknown at the time Glenda started her gerontology career.
  5. Develop healthy ageing habits. People are becoming more aware of the lifestyle choices they can make to ensure an active and healthy ageing.

Interview Highlights

Some of the highlights of the interview* are below. Glenda’s insights are helpful for anyone interested in building more age-inclusive workplaces, business and marketing strategies.

CR: What have you noticed about the ageing population in the time that you’ve been involved?

GP: They’re almost becoming younger because I am in the ageing population myself…I think people are taking more notice, perhaps not soon enough, about the things that they can do themselves to ensure an active ageing. And if we’re blessed with no disease we can live happily for a long time and stay active.

And one of the greatest things that I have discovered through the Queensland Brain Institute is that exercise helps those little neurones in our brains sprout. I was always taught that neurones died and that was it. We had so many million in our brain and once they went, they went. Not so. So those of us who are interested in keeping our neurones going can think that as we’re exercising, those neurones are sprouting and we’re doing something towards our own active ageing.

CR: Eternal youth.

GP: Well, not quite, but almost…the most important thing is not to live long, but to live while we’re alive. And I think we must try and stay active both in mind and in body. And as I say if we’re blessed with no disease we can do that for much longer now.

CR: And do you think there’s been a change in philosophy and approach by geriatricians and how they work with older people?

GP: I think, to be quite honest I still have the same philosophy that I had 50 years ago. I think the philosophy has always been respect, and to not strive officiously to keep alive, but to keep comfortable and to keep active. I think we have always worked in the team, and I think that’s our benefit as geriatricians. We’re not a one man band. I couldn’t do what I did in geriatric medicine without the nurse, the physio, the social worker, all those other people.

So we are intergenerational, we’re interactive. For some of my young co-workers I could have been their grandmother, but we’re still equal.

CR: It just sounds like as a profession geriatrics has always been inclusive, and respectful, and holistic.

GP: I think we’ve always had that respect for the older person and treating them as a person. Just because we’re old doesn’t mean we stop being who we were when we were 20 years old. We’re the same person inside just with an older face with a lot more wrinkles.

CR: And what do you see for the future with regards to geriatric care?

GP: I think we will go from strength to strength. I think we will be the last bastion of the general physician. We’ll be the last profession that looks after the total person because there’s a lot of sub specialisation in medicine now. I mean one person can go to the kidney clinic, and to this clinic, and the heart clinic, and the lunch clinic. We look after the whole, but we do bring in consultants in special areas when we feel we need to.

*Note: The above interview was conducted at the Australian Association of Gerontology (AAG) Conference in 2017. This was one of numerous interviews undertaken that encompassed everything from housing to rural communities and employment. Catherine Rickwood would like to thank Glenda Powell OAM for participating and the AAG for their support.

About the Author

Catherine Rickwood

An experienced researcher and business executive, Catherine's work is informed by academic knowledge and evidence to deliver practical actions with measurable outcomes. These combined skills create a powerful and useful ability to delve deep on issues, ask incisive questions, think laterally, and bring knowledge and insights to individuals, a team, and an organisation keen to engage with, and include the over 50's as a valuable part of their business strategy.

Catherine Rickwood is solutions-focussed, working with innovative organisations keen to improve customer and employee insights and empathy to increase their success in new markets, build loyalty, and increase innovation. She does this using a co-design process that engages employees and key stakeholders to create collaborative solutions. Contact Catherine to discover how her services can support your organisation to harness the changing demographic reality.

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