Ita Buttrose: “How would we wish to be treated if we had dementia?”

Ita Buttrose: “How would we wish to be treated if we had dementia?”

Ita Buttrose: “How would we wish to be treated if we had dementia?”

When media icon Ita Buttrose was named 2013 Australian of the Year, she set off on a mission to raise awareness on important issues close to her heart – immigration, ageing and disability. In particular, she worked tirelessly to tackle what she perceives to be our society’s ageist attitudes, champion Alzheimer’s Australia’s campaign to fight dementia and to shine the spotlight on medical research.

Here are some of the highlights during her valedictory speech at the 2014 Australian of the Year Awards.

On immigration:

[box type=”shadow” ] When I completed my secondary studies at Dover Heights Home Science High School in Sydney in the late 1950s, many of my fellow students were of European origin and their families (in particular those of my Jewish classmates) had been dramatically affected by the second world war and in some instances communism.

Some, I remember learning, had tragically been rendered homeless.

Over the years increasingly more and more people from other countries have made the journey to our shores and blended their traditions and opinions into the rich tapestry of our culture and helped shape our identity. I can’t think of one aspect of Australian life that hasn’t benefited from the contribution migrants have made to our nation. In this regard, we are indeed a lucky country.[/box]

On promoting a positive attitude towards ageing and people with disabilities.

[box type=”shadow” ]”I was overwhelmed by the deluge of text messages, emails and letters that followed as many older Australians shared their personal experiences with ageing and disabilities.

Some admitted to being lonely; others to feeling unwanted; a common theme was being invisible. “I was waiting to be served at a major retailer,” wrote one 70 plus woman – “a younger woman came up to the counter and was served immediately it wasn’t the first time I had felt invisible in such a situation.” Another common complaint – the raised, overtly slow and clearly enunciated voice! “why do people feel they have to shout at me?” Asked one 80-year-old. I am not deaf. Neither am I stupid!”

This is not an isolated case. Older Australians say it happens to them a lot.

The prevailing thinking seems to be that if a person looks over 65 and has grey hair, the only way to communicate with them is by shouting and articulating every syllable in an infuriatingly patronising way.

It isn’t.

There have been pleas from older workers asking me to help them get a job.

I helped launch a Human Rights Commission Report last year which included a survey showing that one in 10 respondents admitted to having an age above which they will not recruit.

That average is 50.

Can anyone here imagine being written off at 50?

Many older workers told me they have been denied employment opportunities because they are “over qualified” or won’t fit in with the company culture.” Some don’t even get a response when they apply for a job. Given our ageing population and declining welfare purse we should be encouraging mature age workers to stay in the workforce, not precluding them, and valuing them for the knowledge, wisdom and experience they can bring to the workplace.

It’s a message I frequently delivered in 2013. And over the past year I have been working hard to spark a cultural shift in how we conceptualise older age. It’s time we stopped thinking that life stops at 65 and recognise that older people make an important contribution to our society. Whether through work, volunteering, helping with grandchildren or contributing as a valued “elder consultant”.

Let’s coin a new title and create a new position for our distinguished elders who possess a wealth of knowledge in their specialised fields. Our older people have the potential to make a huge impact on both our economy and our communities. It will take education and strong insightful leadership to change the mindset that exists in so much of the workplace and society about employing older workers; to remove the barriers to workforce participation for older people in the private sector as well as the public service and to fully embrace the multitude of benefits they can and will bring to the table.[/box]

On Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia and medical research:

[box type=”shadow” ] Many Australians are unaware that dementia is the single greatest cause of disability in older Australians aged 65 and over, and the third leading cause of disability burden overall.

Once again, strong, courageous and forward-thinking leadership is required if Australia is to meet the enormous challenge that dementia represents.

There are currently more than 330,000 Australians with dementia, and without new approaches to treatment or intervention, there will be almost 900,000 of us with dementia by 2050.  What’s more, in the 36 years between now and 2050, just over three million of us can expect to develop dementia, and live anywhere from three to fifteen years with this terminal condition.

That’s why – along with my Alzheimer’s Australia colleagues – I have been so passionate about the need for more funding for dementia research.

We have to – we must – find a way to delay the progression of dementia, to come up with treatments and hopefully a cure and discover why it attacks the brain the way that it does.[/box]

Her final words:

[box type=”shadow” ] I believe the question we need to ask ourselves is: how would we wish to be treated if we had dementia?

We all know the answer…. With respect and dignity.

It’s our birthright to be treated as valued members of the community and to have access to the support and services we need, and this doesn’t end when we are older.[/box]

Get up close and personal at an exclusive dinner gala with Ita Buttorse courtesy of  the European Women in Business in Melbourne on 21 Feb. 


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