Fragile. Disabled. Lost their minds. Past their prime.
These are all words that Valmai ‘Val’ Dempsey has heard about older people in Australia. As a senior Australian herself at 72 (and 2022 Senior Australian of the Year to boot), she says this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In 2021, the Australian Human Rights Commission reported that ageism (stereotypes, prejudice or discrimination based on age) remains the most accepted form of prejudice in Australia, with 63% of Australians having experienced ageism in the last few years. For Val, ageism is something that has become more and more evident as she’s aged.
‘As a culture, we generally don’t idealise ageing very well. When we grow older, we aren’t prepared to cope with the discrimination, prejudice and biases against us when we try to remain active members of the community and workforce,’ Val said.
‘I’ve discovered that it’s a wonderful thing to be an older person and engage in the community. There is so much for us to do, but trying to get into that role you certainly do experience ageism and the absolute prejudice that comes with it.’
A registered nurse and dedicated volunteer with St John Ambulance for more than 50 years, age has never stopped Val from achieving her goals – although this has become increasingly difficult when faced with society’s expectations around the retirement age.
‘While ageism is not attached to any one role, I look at people who are employed in nursing and they are not in their 70s. Turning 65 isn’t a use by date! I'm in my 70s, but really I’m 21 at heart with 50 odd years of experience.’
‘As part of St John Ambulance, I’ve been actively involved in the bush fires, the Lismore floods and supporting people through COVID-19 – the most dreadful time this nation has faced in recent years. I can say that I’ve done that as someone over the age of 65!’
She says although overcoming ageism is a daunting task, it is made easier when Australians of every age work together with kindness and respect to achieve equity.
‘If somebody puts a barrier up in front of me, I’ll work out a thousand ways to get around it without shooting down the people who’ve put those barriers up. When people are standing as a hurdle in front of you, it might be reasonable to knock them down and push them aside. But I like to think you can gather them in your embrace and work together to let them know your worth and value.’
‘Everyone should have the ability to age gracefully, which involves connection to community, good health and mental wellbeing, financial freedom, housing, access to healthcare and food, and the ability to give back. Most of all, everyone deserves love and respect, both given and received.’
Ageing well is something you can begin planning for from a young age. Val recommends you consider how to achieve your short-term and long-term goals while also setting up your older self for success.
‘You need to look at where your life is going long-term and begin planning for the future. If I was to go back to when I was 21, I would start saving early and consider my health and mental wellbeing as a chart to greatness.’
‘Believe in yourself and your dreams. When you get to the age I am now, you’re going to hold your head up high and say I worked hard for this. I would be so proud to tell my 21-year-old self that they set this up for me and thank them for looking after me in my old age."
Reflecting on her own experiences, Val says having a positive mindset and continual learning is the key to ageing well and dispelling the myths and barriers of ageism.
‘There is a mindset that learning is only about academic achievement. Learning life experience is a whole different kettle of fish altogether. You need to build resilience in your own heart and develop skills within yourself about how to persevere, how to be resilient, how to take challenges on board and how to fail. You don’t always win, and how you accept that is part of life.’
‘It really matters that you see ageing as moving into a new phase of your life, not looking at the end of it. It’s your next chapter – the gold at the end of the rainbow where you can say ‘I’ve joined the club and boy, isn’t it wonderful!’.’
Since being named the 2022 Senior Australian of the Year, Val continues to achieve her dreams and is using her platform to advocate for every learner driver in Australia to undertake compulsory first aid training.
In November 2022, thanks to Val’s calls for change, it was announced that learner drivers in the ACT will be offered a free 30-minute online first-aid course in exchange for a reduction in the mandatory 100 hours of supervised driving.
‘My rainbow is glowing and I'm not looking at the end of it yet. The gratitude I feel for having this life has never been so wondrous as in the last few years, where I’ve been able to step up and be heavily involved with my community and the work that I love to do. I still pinch myself every day.’
Val is one of many older people in Australia achieving incredible things as they age. She is sharing her story with us as part of our sponsorship of the Senior Australian of the Year category of the Australian of the Year Awards.
For more inspiring stories, hear from past and present Senior Australian of the Year winners.
We are committed to ensuring every Australian has the opportunity to live well, stay healthy and maintain their connection to community as they age. To learn more about how we are supporting Australians to age well, visit our positive ageing page.