Professional development

Living positively: reimagining ageing and dementia with Kate Swaffer

Published: 30 Jan 2023


As tax practitioners, we rely on analytical and creative thinking skills to effectively advise clients. We also require the ability to remain sharp, adaptable, and up to date with the constantly changing tax landscape, legislation and practices.

Have you ever thought about what would happen if you lost those skills? Or if maintaining those skills became more difficult?

Dementia is the term used to describe the symptoms of a large group of illnesses which cause a progressive decline in a person’s functioning. In 2022 it is estimated that almost 500,000 people in Australia have dementia and 1.6 million people in Australia are involved in the care of someone living with dementia. These numbers are expected to rapidly increase over the next 30 years, without medical breakthrough.

Kate Swaffer is an author, activist, academic and Humanitarian and dementia advocate. She was South Australia's State Recipient of Australian of the Year in 2017 and after being diagnosed at 49, is living with dementia herself. Kate is speaking later this year at the SA Tax Forum in a non-technical keynote session to inspire and educate delegates about this topical subject. We chatted to her ahead of her session about just some of the work she does to help Australians and make a difference.

Kate was diagnosed with dementia aged 49 as a married, working mother of teenage sons. She had already had firsthand experience with the illness as a family care partner on three occasions throughout her life.

‘Dementia impacts a huge amount of people. Not only the strain on the aged care industry, [but] family members are required to provide unpaid care at home. Following around 20 formal reports into neglect, violence, and abuse in Australian residential aged care system, I think this is something that needs to be on everybody’s radar,’ she says.

Through her work and personal experience, Kate has formed the opinion that the health care system doesn’t do enough to empower people living with dementia, or supply the tools they need to continue living their best life. In her opinion, it is the opposite.

‘If I'd had a stroke at the age of 49, I know the health care system would have supported me to live my best life possible with rehabilitation and any other disability support that I might need. But with dementia people are just told to go home and get ready to die. That’s not okay for me. And I campaign really hard globally to try and change that,’ Kate says.

‘I've really fought against the system to manage my diagnosis not as a death sentence. I keep living positively and have been fortunate that I did save money as a younger person and can afford to fund self-prescribed things like rehabilitation, which is not offered yet to people with dementia.’

Kate’s experience of getting older is one that many can relate to. She noticed that as soon as her hair started greying, she started to experience ageism.

Our world is a very ageist place. We talk about having ‘Nana naps’ and people make all sorts of ageist remarks that they don’t realise. People generally don't receive adequate health care. There's a lot of ageism about and towards people with dementia and people who are older, because people think that you can't be positive or productive when you get older.’

Kate is also familiar with the kind of precise and detailed thinking that goes into a job working with finances and numbers day in and day out. Before her diagnosis, Kate was the one managing the books for her own business and her husband’s, using MYOB easily and efficiently. Once affected by dementia, that task became a struggle, and her career turned in a completely new direction as she became an accidental campaigner for the rights of people with dementia.

‘I work as a researcher, consultant and speaker in dementia and aging. The impact I hope that I can make for people is that you can live positively with dementia whether you’re younger or older. And that ageing can be a positive experience if we let it.’

We’ve invited Kate to speak to delegates at the SA Tax Forum in 2023 not only to provide tips for practitioners whose clients may be navigating a dementia diagnosis for themselves or their loved ones, but to inspire delegates to think about what their own aging process looks like.

‘I'm going to be talking about reimagining ageing and dementia and living positively as you get older, with or without dementia,’ Kate says.

‘I think that we should live every single day as if it's our last, just in case it is. We don't know what's happening today or tomorrow.’

Kate will also discuss the importance of planning financially for a happy and fulfilling old age, advocating for better education around saving and managing money. While she herself grew up learning to save and to invest in her superannuation, many of her friends don’t have that safety net in place.

‘Lots of my female friends have very little superannuation. What are they going to do when they retire? I'm in a good position to be able to retire with a reasonably comfortable lifestyle, but a lot of people my age and younger don't have significant super to be able to live positively and to be able to manage ongoing chronic health conditions,’ she says.

Tax practitioners rely on brainpower, creative thinking and the ability to keep learning through every stage of your career. As we age, these skills may become harder to harness making this is a hugely important issue.

‘Don't live as if as if you're already dead. Lots of people are waiting for another day to start saving or waiting for another day to go on that holiday they've always wanted to do. Don't wait. Do it today! Just in case tomorrow doesn't come.’

Find out more about other inspiring sessions at the SA Tax Forum.

Not based in SA? Check out Tax Forum events around the country.



About Kate Swaffer

Kate Swaffer is a researcher, speaker and author, and an award-winning campaigner including being the SA Australian Of The Year in 2017. She campaigns tirelessly for the disability rights of people with dementia and older persons globally. Kate has a Master of Science in Dementia Care, a Bachelor of Psychology, a BA, all completed after her own diagnosis of a rare young onset dementia, and graduate Diploma in grief counselling. She is also a retired chef and retired nurse. Kate is a co-founder and human rights of Dementia Alliance International, an international charity and support group for the more than 57 million people with dementia globally. 

She works locally, nationally, and internationally, including with the WHO and UN. She is an Honorary Associate Fellow with the Faculty of Science, Medicine & Health, at the University of Wollongong and an Ambassador for the Australia Day Council and StepUp For Dementia Research.

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