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Can SA still 'age well' after Oakden?

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A week in which a Senate inquiry has been told of a “toxic” culture of cover-up and secrecy at the now-defunct Oakden nursing home seems a breathtakingly odd time for Jay Weatherill to launch his latest gambit – the creation of a new state-sponsored industry that would see South Australia become an “international hub for ‘ageing well’”.

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But it’s a gambit that follows a long line of political liabilities the Premier has sought to turn into opportunities – the closure of Holden and a statewide blackout among them.

Aptly though, the newest industry on Weatherill’s radar is born of the desire to spin gold from the silver economy – and it’s an economy that’s booming.

“This is a slow burn [but] it could be profound,” Weatherill tells InDaily.

“This group of people, the baby boomers, have changed every era that they moved through – politically, socially and economically… they’re going to change ageing in the same way.

“It’s about anticipating the future – and being on the ground floor.”

The number of South Australians 65 or over is forecast to rise from 300,000 currently to 530,000 by 2050 – while the state’s entire population is set to rise by a mere 545,000 over roughly the same period.

In other words, not only will there be many more elderly South Australians, there will be many more elderly South Australians per capita.

“It’s a question of whether you see it as a problem or an opportunity,” Weatherill says.

“It just is what it is – it’s a fact. Everyone’s facing it… it’s just we’re facing it sooner and more deeply than others.”

And it’s a fact Weatherill addressed in the February 2015 speech by Governor Hieu Van Le that outlined the Premier’s blueprint for the parliamentary term – much of which has since come and gone with little to show for it.

“As a community, we should also reconsider our attitude to this growing demographic,” the Governor’s speech read.

“My Government believes that SA can be known as the place where you age but you do not grow old – a place where people in their 70s, 80s and 90s maintain meaningful roles working, caring, and volunteering.

“This will only be possible if our businesses seize the opportunity to develop assistive technologies, medical devices, smarter housing and retirement living options, and innovative products. This would also constitute a significant economic opportunity.”

Weatherill now laments that the relevant passage of the “much-maligned” speech “was ridiculed as the ‘Peter Pan clause’, that people can grow old but never age”.

But, he insists, the state is “incredibly well-placed to take advantage of this”.

And, coinciding with this week’s Ageing Well International Revolution conference in Adelaide, Weatherill is keen to stamp his Government’s credentials as leaders in the field.

It is, he says, “moving to create a new industry that capitalises on the ageing economy”, buoyed by local “expertise” in advanced manufacturing, food, health, research and a nascent transition to advanced manufacturing.

A Tonsley-based ‘Living Well Laboratory’ will open next year, ostensibly giving companies the chance to trial new technologies and products – although the Government confirms it has yet to have any private tenants sign on to use it “as it’s still being built as hasn’t yet been marketed”.

It is, in effect, an extension of Weatherill’s self-professed vision of SA as a sort of lab-rat state – inspired, oddly, by an apocryphal tale that fast-food giant KFC once trialled its now-famous Zinger burger here.

“Why did they do that? Because it’s small enough and probably a bit out of the way to say ‘let’s trial this here and if it doesn’t work, well, nobody will notice’,” Weatherill told InDaily last year.

While not exactly confirming the urban legend, KFC did say at the time that: “Our customers in SA love KFC, and that is why we often use South Australia to trial new products before determining if we launch nationally.”

In a statement to be released today, Weatherill says his Government “is spearheading what will become our newest industry – the Ageing Well industry”.

“We will strive to become international leaders in this space, with companies from around the world coming to us to test new technologies and ideas… the potential of this industry is so large that it is yet to even be defined.”

While it may be a blueprint, Weatherill insists his plan to foster a local ‘Ageing Well’ industry hub – championed by the Economic Development Board – is a “really sophisticated, high-quality piece of work”, with a focus on jobs.

“We basically get a reputation of being a centre of activity… you can make a product that can be designed, trialled and manufactured here in SA,” he tells InDaily.

“It might throw up different ideas about what retirement looks like… the idea is that people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, they’re going to demand a quality of life that their parents never aspired to.

“The way accommodation responds to them, restaurants respond to them, mobility systems respond to them, the world of work responds to them – they’re going to require all that to change.”

The baby boomer generation, he argues, is “cashed up” with “more money and higher expectations about the sort of lifestyle they want to live”.

But this idealised image of a “cashed-up” generation of affluent market-leaders is somewhat crushed by the elephant in the room – the spectre of the Oakden Older Persons Mental Health Service, which surfaced again this week in a Senate inquiry.

There’s no doubt it’s a stain… it was shocking

It hardly needs noting that a push to create a wistful world where South Australians age without getting old seems monumentally incongruous with an administration that oversaw such a failure.

“There’s no doubt it’s a stain,” Weatherill concedes.

“There’s no getting away from it – it was shocking.”

But, he insists, it related to “a group of elderly citizens with profound mental illness in one facility [where] a culture had grown up over a period of time”.

“You can’t sweep that under the carpet [and] it’s going to be responded to assertively,” he says.

He says he wants to oversee a shift “from having one of the worst to the best way of treating” old and infirm patients.

“There will always be a role for government in trying to meet the needs of those who can’t access those services with their own resources,” he says.

“At the moment, some of these services don’t exist.”

COTA [Council of the Ageing] SA CEO Jane Mussared agrees “the Premier’s take on this is a really important one”.

“There is an opportunity, instead of thinking about our ageing as a drain on our community and resources, as something we can do really well at,” she says.

“Modern ageing is very, very different from the way our parents and grandparents aged, and we need an industry that can get its head around that.”

She insists “there’s a place for older people in that process”, with a “’plug-in’ community of older people desperately keen to be part of that innovation process”.

But she too concedes it is a tough sell for a state whose legacy is tarnished by Oakden.

“Absolutely – Oakden was a disgrace,” she says.

“It was a disgrace that it went on for as long as it did and was incredibly abusive and damaging for older people who needed help.

“We’re watching very, very hard at the government’s work now to turn that around, looking at new models of care… getting that right will be a very, very important backdrop.

“There’s absolutely no doubt it’s not the best platform to come from, but I guess having owned up to a problem… there are likely to be learnings from Oakden that at the end of the day will help us understand Ageing Well, and particularly [dealing with] dementia and mental health conditions.

“Is it ideal? Absolutely not. Is it acceptable? Absolutely not. But it should never stop us trying to do better and be aspirational.”

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