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Old Age

In contrast to Koorie society where elders are respected as repositories of wisdom, among the immigrant founders of Melbourne the end of employment, which marked the onset of old age, was often accompanied by fears of poverty, chronic illness and disability. In the gold-rush era, less than 1% of the city's population was over 60 and only 0.03% over 80, but by the 1870s the increasing proportion of poverty-stricken older people in the population led to calls to government to legislate to force children to take care of their aged relatives. The ageing of the city's first European generation brought this concern to crisis point during the 1890s depression. Although, by this time, the Benevolent Asylum and the Immigrants' Aid Society were increasingly focused on providing aged care, the spectre of 'pioneers' dying in poverty was instrumental in persuading the Victorian Government to introduce Australia's first aged pensions in 1900. With a lower age limit of 65 for men and 60 for women, this means-tested benefit provided a definition of old age and created an expectation of retirement for all.

Such minimal provision was important as more people survived into old age. Although the fear of poverty was exacerbated by recurring cycles of inflation and depression, Melbourne's traditional high rates of home ownership and an increasing spread of superannuation meant that by the second half of the 20th century many people were more secure in retirement than they had been at any other time in their lives. With the home as their major investment, Melburnians have tended to stay in their own suburbs as they age. Although retirement villages in hillside or bayside suburbs developed slowly in the postwar period, retirees provide much of the market for units in every suburb. Aged persons' accommodation was also included in most estates developed by the Housing Commission of Victoria. With the time of retirement increasingly set by age rather than incapacity, many men gained a new freedom to travel or to participate in family, sporting or community activities. For women the transition was more gradual but, increasingly freed from domestic responsibilities, they too were able to embrace a wider range of social activities either with their partners or through gender-specific support groups like the Civilian Widows Association, the War Widows Guild and the Legacy Laurel Clubs. While the aged are most visible in Elderly Citizens' or lawn bowls clubs, they participate across a much wider range of organisations, volunteering their services to educational, cultural and welfare institutions in their local communities. The non-means tested Seniors Card, entitling the holder to concessions on public transport and discounts at restaurants, theatres and retail outlets, is as much a recognition of this contribution as it is of their reduced income-earning potential.

Although Melbourne's population is not ageing as quickly as those in surrounding rural areas, increased survival rates, combined with a falling birthrate, saw the proportion of people over 65 rise to more than 10% of the city's population by the end of the 20th century. The greatest percentage increase occurred among the oldest age groups, with the proportion of people 85 or older doubling in the last 20 years of the century. While this is the group most likely to need extra support, Melbourne maintains the lowest rate of nursing home usage in the nation. Despite concerns about the breakdown of family life, most Melburnians can look to family to help them maintain their independence into their old age, but the old fears of poverty and dependence can blight the later years of those without ready access to such support.

Melbourne's ageing population, 1854=2001
YearTotal Population65-7980+
1854101,086268 (0.3%)24 (0.02%)
1901483,54821,539 (4.4%)2,139 (0.4%)
20013,366,542301,017 (8.9%)102,671 (3.0%)
Source: based on Australian census data

Shurlee Swain