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Be rights savvy!

If you’re not feeling in control of your life, understanding your rights and how they apply could make all the difference.

Last updated: 15 February 2024

As an older person, do you feel like you’re in charge of your life? Do you see yourself as being in control—or do you feel like things happen around you and you don’t have much say in what’s going on?

Taking action to make things happen in our lives, rather than passively waiting for them to happen, gives us what’s called a ‘sense of agency’—a feeling of ‘being in the driver’s seat’ of our own lives. This sense of agency makes a vast difference as we age in how we feel about our quality of living and how much we enjoy our later years.

To feel agency requires an active mindset—a way of thinking, or a state of mind, that motivates us to be proactive. And having an active mindset can come from being ‘rights savvy’: knowing and understanding your rights (and what you can do) as they relate to circumstances and events you might encounter.

Active mindset: an example

Let’s look at health and wellbeing in older age as an example. People with an active mindset work out the ways of exercising and types of foods that are best for them and follow through with those options. They choose to have regular health checks, and they do whatever they can to maintain their health as they age.

However, people with a passive mindset wait to see what happens, as though poor health was unavoidable in older age. They don’t exercise or think about healthy food choices because they assume it ‘doesn’t matter now’ or ‘won’t make a difference’.

Which approach is more likely to lead to better health and wellbeing and, as a result, more wellbeing and comfort in older age?

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What does being rights savvy mean?

Being rights savvy is about taking greater control of your life, rather than opting for a ‘set and forget’ way of doing things. It means actively deciding your own choices based on sound information you have gathered from trusted sources, and not doing things the same way as other people just because that’s easier.

It’s about being active, curious and aware of laws and policies (and any changes) that might allow you to have a greater say in your own life. This active mindset needs to continue with regular reviews every few years as laws and government policies change, as does your own individual circumstances. Having trusted sources of information (see links at the end of this article for some ideas) and key professionals who are up to date with any changes are key to you remaining savvy about your rights.

Being rights savvy is also a way of minimising the likelihood of elder abuse. Recent national studies indicate that about 15% of people over 65 have experienced abuse in some form. When you are rights savvy, you know you have rights, you understand how your rights apply in your day-to-day life, and you’ll be more likely to take action against any abuse that might occur.

Rights are based on law

People’s rights aren’t ideals or principles—they are enshrined in law, and they don’t diminish as we grow older. Our rights can come from:

  • international laws, such as United Nations Conventions

  • national laws, such as the Aged Care Act 1997, which regulates aged care services

  • state and territory laws, such as those relating to enduring powers of attorney, guardianships and consumer protection.

With so many laws, it can be difficult to know all your rights—and from time to time the laws change, too. That’s why it is important to be curious about your own choices, your options and how you can put your rights into practice.

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The right to receive care your way

The Interim Report from the recent Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety noted that older people often found themselves in urgent need of extra care because of an unexpected health crisis that led them to be in hospital and unable to return home.

When you’re in the middle of such a crisis, it’s very difficult to learn about new and complex systems of care and to work out who you want to help you with these decisions. A much better plan is to be rights savvy and proactively prepare now for the possibility of a change in your needs, so that you maximise the control you have over unexpected circumstances.

Rights savvy means future planning

Being rights savvy means knowing your options, choosing your support team and formalising your wishes and preferences long before any decisions need to be made. This is often called ‘future planning’, and it goes a long way towards protecting your right to receive care in the way you’d like.

You can complete an Enduring Power of Attorney and/or an Enduring Guardian and advance medical care documents (each state and territory has its own type of documents for these) to tell people what your wishes for future care are. Putting your instructions down in writing is an active way to put yourself in charge of your life. You can record things like:

  • ‘I would like to remain living in my home town.’

  • ‘If I ever need care services, I would like them to be delivered by people from my faith or culture.’

  • ‘I want to move closer to my country.’

  • ‘I need to keep in contact with my treating doctors.’

Being rights savvy also means that you regularly review your future planning documents every few years. Relationships and circumstances change, and the adult children or friends you appointed as attorney or guardian a few years ago may not be suitable now.

  • They may have re-partnered or moved overseas and are less available to you.

  • They may have become more, or less, involved in your life since then.

  • For various reasons, you may no longer trust them to follow your wishes and preference, should you become unable to make your own decisions.

Remember, you are generally able to amend your future planning documents while you still have decision-making capacity.

You can read more about future planning in your state or territory on Compass.

Rights savvy means choosing the best helpers

Making decisions for other people can be a stressful and difficult task, and if making your decisions becomes too hard or not important for your chosen helpers, they may not respect your rights to live the way you want.

Picking the best people for the job can help make sure your decisions are made the way you want them to be. You do not have to choose the obvious family members or friends if you believe they aren’t suited to the role. Think about things like:

  • Is the person honest and reliable?

  • Do they get jobs done on time?

  • Do they listen to you and others in making decisions?

  • Will they put your interests ahead of their own?

  • Will they advocate for you if required?

Depending on what matters your decision-maker will look after, they may also need to have more specific skills, such as the ability to manage money and investments, look after property, balance a budget or cooperate with health or care professionals.

If you are choosing someone for health or personal decisions, consider too whether they are likely to follow the preferences that you have written down. If they strongly disagree with your life choices, they may find it hard to uphold them on your behalf.

It can take time to choose the best decision-makers for your needs, but the effort is worth it. This video gives you some tips.

Rights savvy means exploring your options

We may face some important decisions as we age. Where will we live, and who with? If we have any health problems now, what impact could they have down the track? What preferences do we have for any aged care services, if we should need them?

Being rights savvy means being aware of these personal and health decisions and actively deciding how you want to deal with them. That way, you can act to make sure your rights are respected and your later life is lived the way you want.

  • Maybe booking time with your doctor will allow you to understand the possible longer-term effects of your current conditions and what extra support or assistance could be required in the future.

  • Perhaps you can work out your aged care preferences by doing research now to discover what the options are in your local area.

When you are faced with a situation that requires decisions to be made, ask lots of questions to be fully informed. ‘What are my options or choices? Which ones would you recommend, and why?’

Ask people who are relevant to the decision—for example, if you need to decide about medications, ask your doctor which ones they would suggest. Then make the choice that best suits you.

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Being rights savvy puts you in the driver’s seat

Knowing our rights and understanding how they apply to situations in our lives is empowering. No matter our circumstances, we can still be in charge of our decisions and our lifestyles, once we know what we can ask for and expect from others.

Find out more about being rights savvy through Compass:

‘Rights and responsibilities’ (MyAgedCare online article)

‘Human rights and older people’ (Australian Human Rights Commission fact sheet)

‘Protecting the rights of older Australians’ (Australian Government website)

‘Medication–it’s your choice’ (Older Persons Advocacy network resource)

Seniors Rights Service (brochure)

Powers of attorney (comprehensive Compass feature)

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Disclaimer: The information provided on this website is not a substitute for individual legal advice.

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