Retirement was the last thing on Heather Garreffa’s mind when she realised her employment contract was not going to be renewed.
For more than 20 years, the registered nurse had worked within the public hospital system in Adelaide.
“Initially, the research department was told all contracts were going to end. I thought this happens when funding ceases,” she adds.
“Later on, I found out that everyone’s contract was renewed, except mine and I was completely devastated.”
Intuitively, Garreffa believed it had to do with her age. “At 64, I was close to retirement age, and they assumed that I was ready to retire.”
Ageism the most accepted form of prejudice
Sadly, Garreffa is not alone. New research released in September 2021 found ageism is the most accepted form of prejudice in Australia.
A report released by the Australian Human Rights Commission found most
Australians 90 per cent agree ageism exists in Australia, with 83 per cent agreeing ageism is a problem and 65 per cent saying it affects people of all ages.
The findings led by Age Discrimination Commissioner Dr Kay Patterson AO, What’s age got to do with it? A snapshot of ageism across the Australian lifespan, found 63 per cent having experienced ageism in the last five years.
“Ageism is arguably the least understood form of discriminatory prejudice, with evidence suggesting it is more pervasive and socially accepted than sexism or racism,” said Dr Patterson.
“I call on everyone to think about ageism and how it affects you and those close to you,”
Dr Patterson said it was incumbent on all to discuss ageism issues and do our bit to bring ageism into mainstream conversations in our workplaces, living rooms, and with our friends.
“Every Australian must do what they can to challenge ageist attitudes in themselves and others, so together we can reduce ageism for all ages. Age is not the problem. Ageism is.”
Job hunting at 64
With little choice, Garreffa left the hospital and began looking for work.
“I felt there was some guilt on their part, the professor, who I worked with, was very kind in providing me with references; she wanted me to get another position as soon as possible.”
Garreffa applied for dozens of jobs, without getting close to an interview.
“Even, within the nursing industry and the current demand for staff in areas of infection control and vaccination, nobody wanted a bar of me.”
A friend suggested she trial a part-time volunteer role at a local doctor’s surgery. She volunteered and worked unpaid to learn new skills with the understanding that the job was hers.
“Unfortunately, ownership changed and I was told, I was no longer required. Again they employed younger workers.”
Then, serendipity dealt her break after she sparked up a conversation with a carer who was visiting a neighbour.
The conversation would change her life.
“The carer was knocking on my neighbour’s door; without any response. I happen to be outside, and she asked me if I’d seen my neighbour. She was deeply concerned for my neighbour who needed care.”
While the woman rang her colleagues at the office to inform them of the situation, Garreffa struck up a conversation.
“I asked her about her job and I thought, 'I could do that,'” says Garreffa.
“She was so kind and spent an hour telling me about her company and how to apply; she encouraged me to drop my resume in.”
Garreffa took her advice, and the rest, as they say, is history.
A happy ending and important lesson
“This story still surprises me,” she adds. “My colleagues treat me with dignity and respect and they want to hear my opinions about things. It’s good for my ego. We work as a team to give the best possible care to our clients. Perhaps it’s because many of us are mature workers and we realise we could be in their place soon.”
Garreffa’s boss, Mark McBriarty, Executive Director, My Care Solution says his company specifically targets older workers and values their contribution.
“We have a deliberate strategy of hiring mature caregivers and target our advertising towards 50 plus demographic.”
He believes many employers do not see the value in mature age employment. “This means we can concentrate on this demographic. We’ve just finished a mature age traineeship, where we selected ten trainees with an average age of 52 years, all who started have completed.”
Older workers bring a range of life experiences which McBriarty believes is good preparation for being a caregiver.
“Many of our caregivers have personal experiences in assisting their parents. That 'lived experience' is invaluable in providing, empathetic and compassionate care.”
The last word goes back to Garreffa. Today, at 68 years old, she feels fortunate to be part of the nursing fraternity.
“Nurses have been thrust into the spotlight recently. People thank us for the work and it’s a nurturing environment. I don’t feel old, and I love what I do. It’s wonderful to feel like I’ve made a difference and perhaps made someone more comfortable than they were before my visit.”
The extra income helps. “The increase in my superannuation is a bonus, but, it’s the improvement in self esteem that is healthy for me as well as the mental stimulation and community engagement.”
If you’re experiencing any ageism, complaints can be dealt with by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Fair Work Ombudsman, and various state Equal Opportunity Commissions.
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