Successful ageing of women with intellectual disability

What we know:

The proportion of older people in many industrialized countries, including Australia, is growing at a faster rate than the rest of the population. This is due to a reduction in birth rates, improvements in health care and the ageing of the population bulge attributed to the war and immediate post-war years. Our ageing society is an issue of debate among policy makers, health care professionals, politicians and the general community in Australia. The immediate concern is how to plan effectively for a population where by 2050 older people will outnumber younger people for the first time. The ageing of the population is particularly pertinent to disability not only because the incidence of disability increases with the passing years but also because the number of people with lifelong disability is also increasing relative to population growth.

Women with intellectual disability represent a growing group of older Australians. The most recent census figures of 1998 suggest there were 79,000 plus women over the age of 65 years with intellectual disability in Australia. These women are typically described in the literature as being doubly disadvantaged, as a woman and with a disability. In short, they experience disablist attitudes, and as they get older the adversity to which all women are exposed: the death of parents or other close family members, ill health and poverty. Many in the current generation of older women with intellectual disability had little schooling, were institutionalized often at an early age, and marginalized from mainstream society. These experiences may result in people experiencing lonely, disadvantaged older age. However, this is not necessarily the case and we discovered considerable resilience and a positive outlook on ageing amongst a small group of women with intellectual disability who we interviewed in Sydney, NSW.

What we can do:

Practitioners need to be aware of how they can best support older women with intellectual disability to age successfully in the community. Issues which we identified to be of particular importance are:

  • Paying attention to good physical health care, both generic and disability specific;
  • Facilitating social support mechanisms such as family, friends and paid support workers;
  • Developing social connectedness in local communities with membership in organisations and clubs and use of local amenities;
  • Ensuring active engagement in life including purposeful activity;
  • Providing adequate economic support;
  • Developing self-esteem and self-efficacy which in turn promotes resilience.