Kathryn Greiner says life will never return to the way it was before COVID-19.
Kathryn Greiner says life will never return to the way it was before COVID-19.

Kathryn Greiner: The New Normal – what will it be like?

MEMO to ScoMo: 70 is not "elderly", bristles Kathryn Greiner (AO) as she stares down the barrel of the "new normal''.

The chair of the NSW Government's Ministerial Advisory Council on Ageing and the CRC Longevity Project recognises nothing is the same right now, and nor will it be in the future when Australia, and in fact the world, gets to the other side of COVID-19.

"Social change is a pendulum that swings out," she says. "This time it has swung way out, causing great disruption to our lives.

"When that pendulum comes back and things come back to what we now call the 'new normal', it will never be in the same place that it was again. We are going to be further down the technological track.

"We will have to manage our spending because things will cost a lot more because we won't have the income we used to have."

Seniors will need to adapt to this new normal. Every aspect of their lives, and those of younger generations, are being impacted by this health crisis and its consequent financial crisis.

While rigorous debates will ensue as the state and federal governments confront the challenges of retaining old social and economic policies, and implementing the introduction of new ones, Kathryn sees some key issues ahead that seniors need to get across.

Inviting seniors to supermarkets at an allocated time, Kathryn says, was a positive move and one she hoped would continue well into the future. However, supermarkets have announced they have stopped the initiative as stock levels have returned to normal.

"The concept that our older people deserve a bit more space and time to shop, I think, is a classic one," Kathryn says.

However, asking seniors to do this at 8am is a tough call for many of them, who struggle to be mobile at that early hour. She has also noticed a surge in the conversation around the lack of fit-for-purpose housing, particularly public housing, which has been highlighted to younger neighbours who are assisting seniors to cope with their everyday tasks.


Work changes

The call is for the doubling of the JobSeeker (formerly Newstart) allowance to stay even though the Government has said it will reduce it in late September.

It is vital for those who are unemployed and are not old enough to qualify for the age pension.

"I think the community won't allow the Government to go back," Kathryn says.

"We are going back to post-Great Depression thinking by government, which is why there has to be a platform to support people who cannot work and who cannot find jobs."

For several years now, there has been a big push to keep older workers in the workplace longer. That will change. Kathryn sees those over 50 struggling even more to find a job or keep an existing one.

"I fear we are going to go back to an era where it will be even harder for somebody who is over 55 to be maintained in employment."

The challenge will come from younger people's attitude to working. The favoured gig economy will slow down as young people seek to move from casual work towards permanent employment.


Former Socceroo Craig Foster led the Play for Lives campaign.
Former Socceroo Craig Foster led the Play for Lives campaign.


Staying home

It's highly unlikely many Baby Boomers who have saved to travel overseas every two or more years will have the cash to spend on their dream adventures. Many will find the value of their investments will have decreased significantly. So too their dividend income.

"Where the travel industry has picked up the last four or five years with this ready market, that market has gone. And they will have reputational issues to address," Kathryn says.


Family stress

"The numbers will go up," Kathryn says about psychological elder abuse, which is happening behind closed doors.

"We are hearing older people being confined to their bedrooms in a generational share house.

"I heard of one independent-living resident who went to the shops and was then told he had to leave his accommodation. In the regional areas, there are tremendous problems with older people even being able to get to the shops."

It is also expected that many Baby Boomers will be asked to provide financial assistance to their children, who will struggle to meet their financial commitments.


Cash to card

Cash, for the most part, has disappeared.

We're online in almost every way. Health, social connections, banking - we're there now.

That's OK for those seniors who can afford an NBN connection, Kathryn says, but what about those who can't afford it or haven't become accustomed to technology?

"We know the Commonwealth Bank is a hair's breadth away, if not already, from not accepting cheques anymore; everyone will have to do internet banking.

"For a lot of older people, that's a struggle."

She says the Government needs to provide financial assistance to seniors, much as it does with things like electricity, so they can all be digitally connected via the NBN.


Telehealth nod

Another change that has every likelihood of staying is telehealth, if Federal Health Minister Health Greg Hunt has his way.

It's not intended to replace in-person medical consultations, but for those health issues that can easily be managed via phone or video-link conversations, telehealth could well help to improve the accessibility of medical personnel. Kathryn uses the example of visiting her physiotherapist.

While she had five face-to-face sessions, she believes that after the initial assessment, she could have had the subsequent recovery sessions conducted through online consultations.


Ageism arises

While the EveryAGE Counts campaign is working overtime to quell the resurgence of ageist attitudes among the younger generations, the idea posed as a question to Prime Minister Scott Morrison by Leigh Sales on the ABC's 7.30 show on April 16, about locking down older Australians until the coronavirus crisis passes, receives an aghast response from Kathryn.

"That is absolutely outrageous," the 73-year-old says.

Older Australians can be active, not so active, needing help or infirm - we are not all the same.

"The Government needs to avoid the ageist attitude digging deep into our society," Kathryn says.

"They need to do a report that shows that the virus did kill people from across the age ranges.

"It's often the ones that have a complicated or an immune-challenged system that causes the death."


Good neighbours

Community connections have been rife. They are bringing out the best in many people, who are supporting their neighbours in many ways.

But is it sustainable? Seniors will probably see these community outpourings dissipate as the younger generations return to work, their social connections spread out from their homes and local streets, and the children return to normal school attendance.

"I think it will be hard to maintain," Kathryn says.

Creating an in-building intranet is one suggestion she makes for those living in close communities to stay connected well after this pandemic. Another suggestion is using local libraries as social hubs.

"Hopefully for those that have been isolated but somehow found their way into engaging in a group, let's keep our fingers crossed they feel motivated to keep engaged in that group," Kathryn says.


Taking action

The five years ahead will be interesting, Kathryn surmises. The trillion dollars the Government has committed to getting Australia to other side has to be paid back, somehow.

Where will that money come from?

"I fear it will come out of the older people," Kathryn says. "Will that mean the GST will rise? Will that mean there will be a wealth tax?

"Will that mean that a land tax will come on to the family home? Negative gearing will go out the window.

"These are areas that we as a nation have been dancing around. This kind of a crisis may bring them back to the fore.

"Certainly, in the short term, if not in the long term."

Not all that she sees coming out of COVID-19 is bad. Look at the #PlayForLives campaign. Former Socceroo Craig Foster is driving the campaign, which is encouraging professional athletes to take on essential volunteer positions left vacant due to COVID-19.

Kathryn cites this as a good example, as well as the recruitment of volunteer Meals on Wheels drivers through sports clubs with footballers who've suddenly found time on their hands.

The "innovation and agility in organisations and their capacity to pivot" is impressing Kathryn.

Take, for example, the restaurant trade with its move to takeaway meals.

"The second one is the recognition that older members of our society are due a certain degree of respect, which has been missing in our very forward-looking, young-thinking country,'' she said.

"I think we have to bring more care back into the community and we have to look after those who may not be able to look after themselves.

"The Government is (also) far more aware of older people."

NSW's minister responsible for ageing, Dr Geoff Lee, is already virtually meeting weekly with the state's peak agencies to identify ageing issues that need to be highlighted to his State Government colleagues.

Kathryn is also putting her mind to the idea of a phone app that provides immediate senior-specific information and the possibility of keeping engaged the younger generations who have stepped up to assist Meals on Wheels as volunteer delivery drivers.


Local governments

Seniors need to push their local councils to be the "dynamic driver" of community connections, Kathryn enthuses.

While many councils struggle to be innovative, Kathryn sees opportunities for them if they can pivot as a result of what they observe during the pandemic and reinvent themselves as key delivery agents for positive community change.

"The further away from the ground you get, the harder it is for the granularity of it to be seen as so important; you think far more in the macro," Kathryn says.

"I think the issues of people and their everyday lives are very much micro; they are on the ground with state and local governments."

When it becomes appropriate to meet, Kathryn expects various local and state government entities to discuss the lessons learnt and the changes that need to be made.