Challenging age-old assumptions
All images used with permission.
Early on in life, Laurie Buys was what you might call ‘age-blind’. As she went about her childhood and adolescence in Lewisburg, a historic town in the American mountain state of West Virginia, she was never acutely aware of people’s age.
It was a close-knit community where farmers rubbed shoulders with ‘town people’, where youngsters mixed with ‘old-timers’, and where everyone had a job or a purpose.
“If you needed to know certain things, you would go to the local expert,” Laurie recalls. “If your tomatoes weren’t growing so well, you’d get advice from Aunt Barbara, and if the house needed certain repairs, you’d call in to see Cousin John, and even as a kid you had jobs, so everybody pitched in and shared knowledge and expertise and resources.”
In this small rural town environment, a person’s age matters little.
“I really don’t think I was ever conscious of people’s age, because when everyone has occupation, you don’t pay attention to age – you pay attention to what that person knows.”
As the years passed, Laurie went to study at university, where she met an Australian man. They were married in West Virginia and moved to Adelaide in the mid-1980s, where they settled into their new life.
Laurie enjoyed living in Australia, but there was one thing she kept hearing people say that struck her as strange.
“There was this phrase that really surprised me, and I heard it from a lot of people, this notion of ‘I don’t want to be a burden on my family’,” she says.
“My in-laws would it say it, and I kept asking them, ‘What are you talking about?’ I really had no idea. I couldn’t understand the reason so many people saw themselves and other older people as a burden.”
At the time, Laurie worked as a vocational rehabilitation counsellor. Her job was to get people back to work after injury. She soon became aware that she was receiving referrals for the same person from their employer, doctor and union.
“I didn’t realise older workers were commonly considered to be ‘over the hill’, so I supported and encouraged them to return to work and to their lives, which was the best outcome, as they remained active and engaged in their communities,” she says.
“It took me a long time, probably five or six years, to understand that in Australia at a certain age you become ‘old’ and, from then onwards, you’re essentially expected to retire, sit down and relax.
“I came across quite a few people who had drunk the Kool-Aid that they were old – ‘I’m 50. I can’t go back to work’ – and that was so bizarre to me, this idea of being ‘over the hill’, because where I came from everyone had occupation until the day they died, and that meant they had fulfilling lives right to the end.”
Now, some decades later, Laurie Buys finds herself at ACU as the institution’s first-ever Professor of Healthy Ageing.
As one of the country’s leading experts in gerontology, boasting a hefty list of publications in various branches of social science, Professor Buys will lead the university’s commitment to healthy ageing through research and industry engagement.
Her overarching goal is to challenge traditional assumptions about older people (or, as she likes to call them, “people who’ve had many birthdays”) as unproductive or a burden.
“Let’s stop looking at age first, and instead, let’s look at what people can do as opposed to what they can’t do,” says Professor Buys, whose recent research has focused on ways to deliver better outcomes for older people.
“Older people might have differing needs, but they’ve also got many valuable strengths, and if we push them into the background just because of the number of candles on their birthday cake, we’re missing out on what they’ve got to offer our society.”
When Laurie first began studying gerontology, she came across the work of a woman named Dr Hilda des Arts, who lived the first five years of her life in London, completed a PhD in Germany, and owned a publishing company employing some 300 people.
After losing her daughter to cancer, Hilda spent time running a pub in Ireland. When she retired in the late-1970s and moved to Australia, she very quickly decided to return to university to study social work.
Laurie (l), her mother Dr Lucie Refsland (r), and their Lewisburg neighbour, Mildred Jones, who is now 105.
“And so at the age of 60, Hilda started a new job as a social worker, throwing herself energetically into working in the community, and she had a very productive 25-year career in social work,” says Professor Buys, who credits the late Dr des Arts for shaping her outlook on ageing.
“She heavily influenced my thinking about the relationship between learning, living and growing throughout your life. Birthdays happen and we all age – that’s a fact of life – but we don’t all become ‘old’. Most of us have the opportunity to continue growing, developing and engaging until our last breath.”
Throughout her own academic career, Professor Buys has taken a multi-discipline approach to her research, studying social gerontology with an eye on community engagement, smart cities, sustainable buildings and active ageing.
In recent times, she has explored the concept of the “longevity bonus”, and the idea that society is yet to fully make use of the 30 extra years of life expectancy that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have over their grandparents’ generation.
Professor Buys believes that one of the keys to unlocking a future of healthy ageing is to move from an ‘ageing mindset’ to a ‘longevity mindset’.
Rather than portraying older people as dependent non-contributors who are unable to care for themselves, we should see them as a group of Australians with a valuable cache of knowledge and skills, who are not only living longer, but are also staying healthier for longer.
“We often talk about young people being ‘Australia’s future’, but in reality, a 70-year-old could and likely will live for another 20 years, so why aren’t they seen as being part of Australia’s future?” says Professor Buys, who adds that many older people are engaged in jobs, leadership roles, volunteer-based work, or learning new skills and furthering their education.
“Australia needs to change expectations. We should assume that everyone, including older people, want and need to be physically, socially and economically active. By identifying strategies to best leverage the extra 30 years of life, we can unleash the social and economic potential of older people to contribute to Australia’s prosperity.”
A changed approach
So, if there is a better way to approach the so-called challenges of an ageing population, what do we need to do?
One of the most important steps, says Professor Buys, is to reconsider the factors – physical, regulatory and financial – that determine how our buildings, suburbs and other community infrastructure is organised.
“We need to plan and design our communities to embrace, not exclude, older people,” she says. “Communities that embrace intergenerational partnerships and support people of all ages are more resilient and cohesive.”
But what about the story told by the human body as the birthdays pile up, and we’re less able to move freely and do the things we used to do?
“Sure, if you ask people, ‘Why is 70 considered old?’, they might say, ‘Well, that’s when the body starts changing’,” says Professor Buys, who describes turning 60 as “fabulous”.
“Yes, our body changes over the life course, and the question is: What are you going to do with what you’ve got? Are you going to make an effort to remain physically and socially active? Are you going to keep well by staying engaged and connected? Many of us have choices and opportunities.”
Professor Buys acknowledges, however, that not everyone has the same opportunities and choices over the life course and in later life.
Once again, she draws on Dr Hilda des Arts as a positive example of healthy ageing.
“How cool was Hilda’s mindset. She decided she wanted a new career at 60 and went out and made it happen. In the last few years of her life, she was in a wheelchair, but she was still highly active. So your body changes and there are more things to contend with, but it’s about maximising what you have, and remaining engaged with life and all its possibilities.”
Laurie also harks back to her childhood in Lewisburg, when older people were expected to engage with their community, and were valued for their contributions.
“It’s around how a community functions as a cohesive whole, where we all pitch in, whether it’s through a paid job or through occupation, and we all have opportunities and a reason to live, learn, work and play,” she says.
“We must change our mindset from one that is fixed to one that encourages growth. We must change our approach from health and care to participation and support. After all, we are all Australia’s future.”
Laurie Buys joined ACU as Professor of Healthy Ageing in May 2022, and will work across the university’s faculties and portfolios and directly with the Executive Dean Health of Sciences. Professor Buys is an experienced social science researcher and research manager who frequently collaborates with scientists from various disciplinary backgrounds on complex research initiatives. She is also a former National President of the Australian Association of Gerontology.
Learn more about ACU.