The Catch Up: securing the future of older women

By Jo Cavanagh OAM

It’s a worrying fact that the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness are women aged 55 plus. Crystal ball gazing won’t protect educated older women in Australia from the unexpected and often life-changing events that are thrown their way. But targeted not-for-profit research to deliver a national response strategy can, writes Jo Cavanagh OAM CEO of Family Life and 100 Women of Influence Awards alumna.

Family Life is an innovative Australian community service organisation as well as a centre of research and knowledge where we aim to deliver measurable social change and impact. Our current Catch-Up project reflects this by looking at what women need to know, and be prepared for, in order to age and be in control of their circumstances.

And so far our initial findings are cause for concern. From our discovery and co-design phase (stage one) we are learning that even well-educated women are not prepared for life events which may change their circumstances dramatically. For example, a loss of a partner who looks after the finances, failing health and the loss of wealth.

With the aging of the population, data has emerged about problems for, and discrimination against, older women wanting to remain in or enter the workforce, and needing to create financial and housing security as they age:

  • Later life divorces, increasing rents and the gender pay gap have combined to create a new homeless epidemic in which women aged 55+ finding themselves homeless has risen 44 per cent since 2011/12 (AIHW), the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness. The predicted population growth aged over 65, domestic violence, a lack of super and increased casual jobs have also been blamed.
  • Time out from the workforce to have and raise children and gender inequality in wages see women coming to the end of their careers with less superannuation than men. In 2013/14 the average amount of super accrued by women was just 60 per cent of that accrued on average by men (ABS, 2016). Older women finding themselves single due to death or separation often do not have the financial means or financial capability to remain in the family home.
  • Health is positively associated with engagement in paid work (Schofield et al. 2013)

Older people are increasingly remaining in the workforce beyond 65. To remain confident and maintain employability it is important older women are supported to adapt to technological advances impacting the workplace and life.

Recent research published in The Conversation (April 20,2018) provides added weight to our own early findings. Nick Haslam, a Professor of Psychology at University of Melbourne, wrote about “losing wealth, health and life – how financial loss can have catastrophic effects”, in the wake of the Banking Royal Commission .

He said: “Firstly women, ethnic minorities, and people who were divorced, widowed or never married at the start of the study period were especially vulnerable to negative wealth shocks.

“Second, the risk of death due to negative wealth shocks was especially bad if it involved the loss of a primary residence.

“Third, the risk was equally severe regardless of people’s initial net wealth: being richer before the shock was not protective.”

Our Catch-Up project is looking to securing futures for these vulnerable older women.

Our early observations suggest we are headed towards broad national prevention and early intervention initiatives to raise awareness and educate women about what they need to know in the event of these life changing circumstances.

But we need additional resources to move forward.

We began the Catch-Up project with a small grant from the Victorian Women’s Trust for work being done between January and June 2018. This supports the discovery and co-design research stage along with matched funding provided by Family Life, as well as our in-kind contributions.

Our objective is to collate these stage one findings into a 12 month prototype pilot to test our response strategy. We are yet to secure full funding for stage two. Our service partner, Life Without Barriers, have committed to be part of the national strategy.

In my role as project sponsor I am convening an advisory group to build the expertise we need and support for this initiative, including with policy makers and potential funders.

The Victorian Government has also recognised Family Life’s track record for innovation and entrepreneurial community embedded programs, which help solve social problems, promote wellbeing and deliver both social and economic outcomes, by delivering new streams of funding.

To this we add partnerships for joined-up ways of working better to meet community needs and help with service system redesigns, effectiveness and efficiencies. We look forward to collaborating with new partners as we progress our Catch-Up project into stage two.

If you’d like to find out more about the Catch Up project contact

The Australian Financial Review’s Women of Influence is proud to support the Catch Up project as part of our new initiative, the Women of Influence Alumni Projects.

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