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Exercise or face rapid health decline in old age, expert warns gerontology conference by Gary Rivett

Older people must exercise regularly or face the prospect of an often rapid decline in their health, a national conference on ageing has heard.

The chief exercise physiologist with SA Health, Bob Barnard, cited how elderly people could see their functioning plummet if an illness forced them to get bed rest for even a couple of weeks.

He told the Australian Association of Gerontology conference in Adelaide that exercise was the key to good health for older Australians.

“It’s essential, it’s really not the time to slow down, it’s a time to think about looking for new options,” he said.

He said someone in their late 70s or early 80s, for example, might find a couple of weeks of enforced bed rest could see them lose 50 per cent of their functioning in that short time.

“You might struggle to get up out of bed and stand straight,” he warned.

“It’s not unusual, in fact it could be even quicker than that if the person was at a lower level of functioning at the time they started their bed rest.”

The health expert also spoke with 891 ABC Adelaide and said exercise was being encouraged by the design of many new retirement villages.

“Every movement should be viewed as an opportunity to improve quality of life and maintain function,” he said.

Mr Barnard said an exercise intervention program which had run in Adelaide now for a decade had achieved “phenomenal results” and helped people keep living independently in their later years.

He said the program taught ways to achieve active ageing and had trained instructors who then worked at dozens of centres across SA.

He sounded a note of caution for the future, saying many young people were now opting out of physical activity as part of modern lifestyles.

‘Speak first with doctor’ about exercise

The conference was told older people should first speak with their GP about their current physical and mental abilities, then doctors could direct them to the services of a range of health professionals who could encourage healthier living and exercises appropriate to one’s age and current abilities.

Mr Barnard said community perceptions were often wrong about what people could expect of their health at certain ages, and deserved to be challenged.

He said too that good nutrition and remembering to take medication were vital to healthy ageing.

Another of the conference speakers, human rights lawyer Professor Wendy Lacey, who is Dean of Law at the University of South Australia, urged more be done to protect older Australians from being abused.

She said it was mandatory under federal law to report any suspected sexual and physical abuse in residential care facilities, but not so elsewhere.

“For every other person who lives at home independently on their own, they have to live with the protection afforded to them under state or territory law – that’s where things like criminal law, guardianship law, mental health laws come into play,” she explained.

But she said a lack of state legal frameworks for early intervention or investigation of suspected abuse left plenty of room for improvements.

If we suspect that our neighbour may be the victim of abuse then we need to be able to do something about it.

Professor Lacey said experts considered elder abuse to be an under-reported problem.

“The stats that we do have indicate that between 2 and 5 per cent of Australians over the age of 65 are actually victims of elder abuse, but we know that like domestic violence and sexual assault that we expect these numbers to be very low in comparison with the reality,” she said.

She said keeping older people safe from abuse was an issue for everyone in the community rather than just for those working or living in formal care facilities.

“If we suspect that our neighbour may be the victim of abuse then we need to be able to do something about it,” she said.

“Australia is way behind a number of jurisdictions, places such as Scotland or British Columbia in Canada … have dedicated laws to facilitate early intervention and education and awareness-raising around elder abuse.

“But in Australia we don’t have any of those types of laws.”

A number of states, including SA, are currently reviewing their policies which cover elder abuse.

Professor Lacey said SA had already taken a positive step by creating a charter of rights for older people as the basis for a wider policy framework.

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