Valuing our migrants and aged

The Forrest Research Foundation was established in 2014 to create a world-leading collaborative centre of research and scholarship. The foundation was made possible through one of the largest-ever philanthropic donations in Australian history, by Andrew and Nicola Forrest through the Minderoo Foundation. It aims to attract outstanding doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows to Western Australia and develop their potential to address the world’s most pressing challenges through research at one of Western Australia’s five universities. Forrest Scholars aim to make a difference to people’s lives by eradicating hunger, conquering disease, protecting the planet, developing new technologies and extending the boundaries of human knowledge. Here we profile some of these trailblazers.

Valuing our migrants and the aged

Dr Catriona Stevens, a Forrest Prospect Fellow in UWA’s School of Social Sciences, is the newest recipient of The Australian Sociological Association’s biennial Jean Martin Award for the best PhD thesis in Social Science disciplines from an Australian tertiary institution.

Dr Stevens is also the Manager of Research Engagement in the Social Care and Ageing (SAGE) Living Lab; working on projects, consultancies and evaluations with government, service providers and community groups.

Originally a student of the sociology of migration, she arrived in Perth from her former home in England via Beijing and Sydney; and has taught Chinese language and translation at UWA and at Murdoch.

With the help of the Forrest Research Foundation, Dr Stevens is now addressing the challenges faced by the Australian aged-care sector: where migration and care issues intersect, and the deeply personal is also intensely political.

Many of those employed in caring for the aged are migrants on low wages – very often temporary visa holders with loved ones living overseas. Working on the frontline of the pandemic in Australia, they also bear a disproportionate burden from the wider global impacts.

Dr Stevens believes a well-trained, well-supported workforce is much more likely to provide the kind of care we would hope for and should expect – for ourselves, for our family members and friends, and for the aged generally.

Cat Stevens

The way “skilled migration” is managed in Australia is an issue of concern. Although aged-care registered nurses are regarded as “skilled”, aged-care workers and personal care assistants are not.

She suggests that we should redefine our concept of “skilled” and change the way that “caring” is valued. If we are to ensure that the aged are treated with dignity and respect, we need to understand the perspectives of aged-care workers. Improved staffing ratios would allow time to listen, “really listen”, to those who have had rich and complex life experiences.

In wealthy countries such as Australia, “Ageism is the new frontier,” says Dr Stevens. How do we ensure that to be old is not to be devalued, cast aside and confined? Even well-intentioned family members can engage in behaviour that would be regarded as bullying in any other context than that of relationships with the aged.

She believes that we are at a critical juncture in policy-making with regard to the aged. Where notions of “productivity” are understood in the most narrow economic sense of earning money, are the aged regarded as in some sense being surplus to requirements?

Dr Stevens points out that aged care cannot easily be categorised as investment in a nation’s future – in the sense of creating productive citizens. “We can’t make an economic rationalist agenda for aged care. But is that the only rationale we should use for policy decisions?”

She asks if we are privileging the quantitative, simply because it is easier to count than to understand human beings and their lives and needs: “How can we ensure that people are valued as they age, and that being old and needing help is not something we learn to dread?”

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