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Energy consumption crucial for helping older Australians manage their health and wellbeing

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High energy costs are making it harder for people to age comfortably and healthily in their own homes, a QUT researcher says.

Professor Ross Gordon from QUT’s School of Advertising, Marketing and PR, and a member of the WHO Technical Advisory Group on Behavioural Sciences for Health, is calling for the introduction of housing policies and programs to provide for energy-efficiency interventions that support the health and well-being of older Australians.

Gordon has published a new paper, The body politics of successful ageing in the nexus of health, well-being and energy consumption practices in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

Reviewing how older Australians use energy in the home, its findings illustrate the urgent need for researchers, policymakers, and health practitioners to pay greater attention to the links between health, wellbeing, and energy consumption as people age.

there are older people in Australia going without either heating or cooling, or not using certain important appliances to conserve energy and reduce their bill. And in many cases, it is harmful to their health and well-being as a result.

QUT researcher, Professor Ross Gordon

“There is increasing focus in Australia and elsewhere on ‘living longer, living better’, with people encouraged to stay in their own homes as long as possible,” Gordon says.

“For this to work though, energy needs to be affordable and sustainable to support their physical and mental health.

“What we found, is that there are older people in Australia going without either heating or cooling, or not using certain important appliances to conserve energy and reduce their bill.

“And in many cases, it is harmful to their health and well-being as a result.”

Co-authored by QUT research fellow Dr Theresa Harada, and Dr Fiona Spotswood from the UK’s University of Bristol, the paper was completed as a project under QUT’s Social Marketing Research Group.

They carried out in-home ethnographies with 39 people aged over 60 living in the NSW Illawarra region, from varying cultural backgrounds and housing arrangements.

“Government policies aim to support older people to age well, be more satisfied with their lives, feel happier and healthier, and to live longer,” Gordon says.

Professor Ross Gordon says both health and energy stakeholders need to recognise that energy consumption is crucial for helping older Australians to manage their health but to also enable their wellbeing through performance of various social and leisure activities.

“Such policies also identify social connectedness, sense of purpose, a good supportive social environment, and an active lifestyle as helping people to age successfully.

“However, less attention is paid to how bodily differences that are shaped by age, ethnicity, ability, gender, socio-economic class, politics, and market structures affect how successfully older people can manage their energy, health and wellbeing needs.

Gordon says there has been little consideration of the role that domestic energy consumption plays in ageing successfully.

“Yet energy consumption is important for preventing ill health and mortality, to help manage physical illness or disease, support positive mental health, live in comfort, pursue personal interests and sustain social relations,” he explains.

“Energy-efficiency interventions such as the installation of solar power or insulation, as well as subsidies for people experiencing chronic health conditions have been shown to decrease billing anxiety and improve comfort and health outcomes for older people.”

… there has been little consideration of the role that domestic energy consumption plays in ageing successfully, yet energy consumption is important for preventing ill health and mortality, to help manage physical illness or disease, support positive mental health, live in comfort, pursue personal interests and sustain social relations.

Professor Gordon

The project findings are presented via the experiences of three of the participants, including 97-year-old Carl who lives alone in a 120-year-old home that is difficult to heat during winter or cool during summer.

Due to the expense of power, he lives with a temperature range in his home well below the WHO recommendations.

“Aware of the implications for his already fragile health, Carl has to negotiate a balancing act between caring for self through bodily warmth, and avoiding billing anxieties,” Gordon says.

“He still does his own laundry, but no longer hangs his washing up outside after a bad fall.

“So instead of paying for an energy guzzling clothes dryer, he has an elaborate pulley system set up to dry his clothes in the kitchen.

“The success of this does give him pleasure and by saving power this way and being spartan with his use of the reverse cycle air conditioner, Carl can afford to run his television most of the day, which is his main form of social contact and entertainment.

“It also means he can power up his hearing aids and headphones.”

Another participant, 72-year-old Georgie, is a retired professional living in her own unit within a complex.

energy, health, and well-being are inexorably linked, and policy and programs should take a holistic perspective acknowledging these associations.

Professor Gordon

“Georgie’s home is cold in winter and hot in summer.

“She has not installed air-conditioning because of her worries about the cost of energy and very rarely turns on her electric space heater,” Gordon says.

“As a result, she doesn’t feel she can invite friends over because her home is not cosy and welcoming.

“So, she is going without bodily comforts and is constrained in her ability to socialise.

“She instead seeks social connectiveness and cognitive stimulation through her use of appliances like a laptop to study at university as a mature student. 

“Yet, despite her billing anxiety, Georgie does use energy to care for her cat and dog.”

The researchers concluded that energy, health, and well-being are inexorably linked, and that policy and programs should take a holistic perspective acknowledging these associations.

“Both health and energy stakeholders should recognise that energy consumption is crucial for helping older Australians to manage their health but to also enable their wellbeing through performance of various social and leisure activities,” Gordon says.

“So, policy, programs and advocacy should support an energy wellbeing agenda.”

To read the paper online, click here.

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