Is this the best we can do?

This morning, an article from ABC came across my Facebook feed. The title was, “David Goodall, 102yo scientist, told to leave Edith Cowan University post”. Having a strong interest in active, positive ageing,this piqued my interest.

Goodall, with 70 years of experience under his belt, commutes 90 minutes each way to his office on the ECU campus. In order to do this, he takes two buses and a train at least four days a week. The article states that he has been told to pack up his office, with the university declaring him unfit to be there. According to the Dean of the School of Sciences, Andrew Woodward, this decision was taken after some student and staff concerns about Dr Goodall’s safety and well being. You can read the full article here.

I don’t know Dr Goodall, his daughter Karen Goodall-Smith, or Andrew Woodward. I don’t know the detail of the concerns expressed by staff or some students, but surely there was a better outcome than offering Dr Goodall a computer and printer to use at home and banishing him from his office, valued role and social connection. Dr Goodall says that his social connection comes from being at the school. At 102 years of age, I imagine most, if not all of his contemporaries would no longer be living. His daughter was consulted by the school earlier this year and she said that this course of action was the worst thing that could possibly be done and she thought her father may not survive it. She is right, of course, in that social isolation is an enormous issue for older people and causes significant mental and physical health issues.

I’m concerned about two aspects of this situation primarily. First, who was consulted in this process and were any other alternatives considered? Secondly, given the comments on Facebook regarding the article, I wonder where we are headed now and in the future around recognising the value, wisdom, self authority and reciprocity of older citizens.

The article doesn’t mention the process by which the university came to its decision. It says that the daughter was consulted. Was Dr Goodall consulted? Were his colleagues consulted? How about the older colleagues? If Dr Goodall’s wellbeing was an issue, what other alternatives were explored? Was it possible that Dr Goodall be a mentor? Could he have had set office hours where his expertise was available to students not only of ecology (his field), but others who might be interested in the wisdom, insight and story of this man? Offering Dr Goodall another contract of honorary professor, sending him home with a computer, printer and transport will not contribute to his sense of wellbeing. A wellness approach involves recognising a person’s strengths and enhances their independence. Dr Goodall’s commute was contributing to his independence, his office to his valued role and his workplace to his social connection. The chosen solution takes these things away in the best interest of the school and Dr Goodall’s ‘wellbeing’.

The comments regarding the article generally fell into three camps:

Asking Dr Goodall to leave was not a good thing
Older people should consider themselves lucky to have had such a good innings and go quietly into the sunset and;
There are a lot of older people out of work who would love to be able to do so, but face age discrimination
The comments further cemented my belief that we continue to live in a society where older people may be recognised for their contribution, but once they reach their ‘use by’ date, have nothing to offer. Reciprocity of older adults is not recognised. This makes me uneasy as our world becomes more complex and we could use the benefit of an intergenerational approach. We should harness the knowledge, wisdom and social capital of older people which is available. I suspect that once a CEO, CIO, Nurse, GP or University Professor retire, they still retain skills and thinking that got them there. I do appreciate that organisations who support older adults would be happy to support Dr Goodall, but by suggesting that’s the best thing for him we take away his authority to decide that for himself.

Working together in thinking and planning for the future, recognising strengths is central to the framework of Planning for the Next Season (www.thenextseason.com.au). Coproduction of solutions between older employees and employers would yield great benefit as well (www.communitywest.com.au).

I hope that ECU considers alternatives for Dr Goodall which are truly in his best interest and I hope that the positive ageing movement which is gathering steam reaches an apex by which we can recognise the authority, contribution and reciprocity of older adults. Otherwise, all of us who are lucky enough to have lived many years will continue to be considered a burden rather than an asset.

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