Who are older Australians?

2.3        The idea of someone being an ‘older’ person is a relative concept—chronologically, medically and culturally. It does not have a precise definition and specific ages may be used for particular purposes. For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) groups people into population age cohorts, and differentiates between ‘15–64’, ‘65 years and over’ and ‘85 years and over’. People over 65 are generally classified as ‘older’ for ABS purposes.[1]

2.4        Australia’s population is ageing as a result of the combination of increasing life expectancy and lower fertility levels.[2] The proportion of Australians aged 65 or over is increasing. By 2054–55, it is projected that 22.6% of the population will be aged 65 or over. This compares to 15% of the population in 2014–15.[3]

2.5        The life expectancy for Australians has increased significantly since the early 20th century. In 2013–2015, life expectancy at birth for males was 80.4 years and females 84.5 years.[4] Residual life expectancy (the average number of additional years that a person at a certain age can expect to live) for males aged 65 years was 19.5 years and females 22.3 years.[5] By comparison, in 1901–10, the life expectancy at birth for males was 55.2 years and for females 58.8 years. Residual life expectancy for males aged 65 years was 11.3 years and females 12.9 years.[6]

2.6        ‘Healthy life expectancy’—that is, the extent to which additional years are lived in good health—is also increasing.[7] According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW):

Men aged 65 in 2012 could expect to live 8.7 additional years disability-free and 6.7 further years with a disability, but without severe or profound core activity limitation. Women aged 65 in 2012 could expect 9.5 additional years disability-free and 6.7 years with a disability, but without severe or profound core activity limitation.[8]

2.7        However, there are significant variations in life expectancy among different groups in the population. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons have a significantly lower life expectancy than other Australians:

For the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population born in 2010–2012, life expectancy was estimated to be 10.6 years lower than that of the non-Indigenous population for males (69.1 years compared with 79.7) and 9.5 years for females (73.7 compared with 83.1).[9]

2.8        Older people aged 85 years and over need significantly more assistance and care than those aged 65–84. The AIHW summarises:

  • the need for assistance with cognitive and emotional tasks was four times greater for Australians aged 85 and over (28%) than Australians aged 65–84 (7%)
  • over one-half (59%) of Australians aged 85 years and over reported a need for assistance with health-care compared with one-fifth (20%) of Australians aged 65–84
  • a higher proportion of women aged 85 and over (69%) reported the need for assistance with personal activities than men in the same age group (56%); these figures compare with 38% and 41% of women and men aged 65–84 needing assistance, respectively
  • in terms of personal activities, the most common type of assistance required for both men and women in this age group was mobility assistance (39% and 54% respectively) followed by self-care (33% and 44%) and communication (14% and 19%). This was a similar pattern to that for Australians aged 65–84, although this younger group had less need for assistance overall.[10]

Diversity among older people

2.9        There is significant diversity among older people including in relation to gender, culture and language and disability.


2.10     Gender significantly affects experiences of ageing. Women have a longer life expectancy than men, but older women have relatively lower incomes and fewer assets than men.[11] Contributing factors to this include lower average weekly ordinary time earnings for women (a 17.3% ‘gender pay gap’ at November 2015), as well as career breaks to undertake unpaid care work.[12] Women tend to have lower superannuation balances and retirement payouts than men.[13] Approximately 60% of women aged 65–69 in 2009–10 had no superannuation.[14] Women also make up a greater proportion of Age Pension recipients. At June 2013, women comprised 55.6% of recipients. Of these, 60.8% received the full rate of Age Pension.[15]

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

2.11     In 2011, there were an estimated 76,300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 50 years and over, making up 12% of the total population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[16] Older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people occupy an important place in their communities, maintaining traditions and links to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and acting as ‘role models, supporters and educators for the young’.[17]

2.12     However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 50 years and older tend to have poorer health, higher levels of socioeconomic disadvantage and lower life expectancy than the broader Australian population.[18]

Culturally and linguistically diverse Australians

2.13     In 2011, over 1.34 million people aged 50 years and older in Australia were born in non-English speaking or culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) countries, almost 20% of the total Australian population in this age group.[19] Of those aged 80 years and over, 18.5% were born in non-English speaking background countries.[20]

2.14     Some CALD groups in Australia have very high proportions of older people:

For example, 88.4% of all Australians born in Italy and 87.9% of Australians born in Greece are now aged 50 years and over. Those aged 80 years and over account for more than 15% of all Australians born in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Hungary compared to 3.9% aged 80+ years for the total Australian population.[21]

2.15     While there are differences among CALD populations, in general older people from CALD backgrounds have poorer socioeconomic status compared to the older Anglo-Australian population.[22]


2.16     Older people with disability include both people who acquired their disability at an early age, as well as those who acquire disability with age. Rates of disability increase with age. The AIHW stated in 2011 that:

After around 50 years of age the prevalence of disability rose considerably, from 20% in the 50–54 years age group to more than 80% among people aged 85 years or over. Rates of severe or profound core activity limitations were even more strongly associated with ageing. This degree of disability was reported for fewer than one in 20 Australians up to the age of 55 years (excluding the peak in boys aged 10–14 years), but almost one-third of people aged 75 years or over.[23]

2.17     The proportion of people with a disability who are over 65 is likely to increase, as the broader population ages:

In addition to an increase in disability overall, population ageing changes the composition of the population with disability. In 1981, 10% of all Australians with disability were aged under 15 years and 31% were 65 years or older; in 2009, 7% of the population with disability were aged 0–14 years and 39% were 65 years or over. If this continues, the mix of services and support required by older people with disability will need to increase, relative to those required by younger people.[24]


2.18     Dementia is a term that describes a number of different diseases characterised by ‘impairment of brain functions, including language, memory, perception, personality and cognitive skills’.[25] The prevalence of dementia increases with age, and from age 65 prevalence doubles every 5 or 6 years.[26]

2.19     It is estimated that, in 2016, there were 400,833 adults living with dementia in Australia.[27] The rate of dementia in people aged 65 years and over was 10% and for those aged 85 and over, 30%.[28] The majority—approximately 75%—of people with dementia live in the community.[29] Approximately half of all residents in residential aged care have a diagnosis of dementia, and their level of dementia is more severe than those living in the community.[30] The number of people with dementia is projected to rise to approximately 1.1 million people by 2056.[31]

Where do older people live?

2.20     In 2015, most older people lived in households, and only 5.2% lived in care accommodation. Most older people lived with others; 26.8% lived alone.[32]

2.21     Within Australia, Tasmania and South Australia have relatively older populations. In 2015, Tasmania had the highest proportion of people aged 65 years and over (17.8%), followed by South Australia (16.7%). The Northern Territory had the lowest proportion of persons in this age group (7.6%).[33]

2.22     Most older people (69%) live in major urban areas. Approximately one quarter live in smaller cities and towns, and the remainder in areas where there are populations of fewer than 1,000 people.[34] The age profile of those living in regions outside capital cities is projected to become increasingly older. According to the ABS:

In the non-capital city areas of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, it is projected that by 2056 there will be less than two people of working age for every person aged 65 years and over. In contrast, capital cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth are projected to have considerably younger populations with around three people of working age for every one aged 65 years and over.[35]

Who takes care of older people?

2.23     Some older people require additional care and support. The majority of this care and support is provided in the community by informal carers. Formal aged care is also provided in the home and in residential aged care facilities for those with higher care needs.[36] The Productivity Commission noted in 2011 that around 350,000 primary carers provided assistance to an older person aged 65 or over. The majority of primary carers for older people were their spouse or partner, and about one quarter of primary carers were the older person’s son or daughter.[37]

2.24     People with dementia are one group who generally require additional care and support. The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) has estimated that ‘46% of those living in the community receive informal assistance only, 29% receive both informal and formal care, 16% receive formal assistance only and 9% no assistance at all’.[38] Those people with dementia living in residential aged care facilities tend to have much higher care needs than residents who do not have dementia.[39]