Around the world, populations are ageing due to declining fertility rates and increasing life expectancy. The growing numbers of older people have raised concerns regarding the societal, economic, and health consequences of ageing. Of particular concern is the anticipated increase in costs associated with the care and support of a growing aged population. As people age, they become more vulnerable to ill-health and become more dependent on government benefits . As the population aged 65 years and over increases in size and proportion, associated social expenditures on income support, care and health services can be expected to increase .
Like many other countries in the western world, Australia's total population is ageing, and older people represent a growing number and percentage of the society . The proportion of the Australian population aged 65 years and over has risen steadily over the past two decades and is projected to rise further over the next 50 years. The major contributors to population ageing in Australia are: large numbers of ageing 'baby boomers', increased life expectancy, and declining fertility rates.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has reported marked increases in life expectancy. In 1998, the average life expectancy for Australian men was 75.9 years; for Australian women it was 81.5. years. In comparison, figures calculated for the period 1901-1910 are 55.2 years and 58 years respectively . Increased life expectancy for both men and women has led to growing numbers of people surviving well into old age, and a shift in the age structure of the total population, commensurate with gradual population ageing . In 1901, there were 151,000 people aged 65 years and over living in Australia (4% of the total Australian population). By 1999, this number had increased to 2.3 million (12% of the total population) .
Projections show that the observed ageing of the Australian population is set to continue . The proportion of the population aged 65 years and over is projected to rise from around 12% today to 18% by the year 2021, to 25% by the year 2051 . Record rates of increase in the population aged 65 years and over are likely between 2011 and 2021 as the peak of the baby-boom generation (post World War 2) reaches retirement age . During this period, the population aged 65 years and over is projected to grow from 3 to 5 million.
Ageing populations are due, at least in part, to increasing life expectancy, due to declining death rates (frequently related to behavioural changes, such as dietary improvements, reduced smoking and increased physical activity). However, reductions in mortality do not translate into similar reductions in morbidity and ageing is generally accompanied by ill-health. Ageing is associated with a higher prevalence of certain health conditions including: arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, dementia, and renal disease. Chronic conditions become more common with increasing age and older people often require ongoing support and assistance in daily living.
In 1995, 90% of older people had experienced a recent illness, and virtually all (99%) reported at least one long-term condition (most commonly sight and hearing loss) . The most common recent illnesses were 'fluid problems' (11%), headaches (9%), insomnia (9%), dental problems (7%), hypertension (5%) and nerves, tension and nervousness (5%) . The four most common long-term conditions reported by older people were eye problems (including problems corrected by glasses) (96%), arthritis (49%), hypertension (38%) and ear or hearing problems (32%) . In 1998, just over half (54%) of all older people had a disability . About 25% of older women and 16% of older men had a disability associated with profound or severe restriction in mobility, communication or self-care , causing difficulties with daily tasks such as bathing, dressing, eating, getting out of a chair or bed, walking, using public transport or communicating with others.