24 June 2021.

Talking about the health challenges of ageing can be hard at the best of times. But for many older Aboriginal people, sharing these experiences can be particularly stressful and traumatic.

That’s why a new research project into healthy Aboriginal ageing is taking a yarning approach that starts with a story, and not a question, Sax Institute researcher Mandy Cutmore says.

“On a respect level, it’s important to listen and hear what people’s stories are,” says Cutmore, who is a proud Anaiwan man from Armidale NSW. “When you ask older Aboriginal people about their health story, most of their yarns naturally cover the research areas of interest. In this way, Elders can share quite emotional stories about their health in a safe way.”

These yarning interviews are already providing powerful insights for the Cancer and Healthy Ageing in Aboriginal NSW Older Generations Study (CHANGES) – a groundbreaking study that aims to explore views of healthy ageing and improve cancer outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in NSW.

Self-care, lifestyle and the health system: listening to the challenges

CHANGES is a research partnership between NSW Aboriginal Medical Services (AMSs), the Cancer Institute NSW and the Sax Institute, and is funded by a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant.

Conversations with older Aboriginal Australians have now begun in five AMSs in urban, regional and rural NSW. And Mandy Cutmore and Carmel Crook, who are part of the research team, say the interviews are already revealing some of the key health challenges of ageing:

  • A lot of older people are committed to putting the needs of their families first, without considering their own needs. This can impact the amount of time, energy and motivation they invest in their own healthy ageing
  • Whilst there is a general understanding of what healthy ageing should look like, increased education and motivation to participate is required. Specifically, the importance and benefits of healthy eating, having an active lifestyle, and managing medical issues
  • The experience many older Aboriginal people have had (seeing their Elders enter the hospital system and not return home) has led to resistance in seeking medical intervention. Underlying this is the fear of prognosis and the fear of being vulnerable.

A roadmap for healing

Australia has a long history of complicated and exploitative health research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. One of the goals of CHANGES is to turn this around with community-led research that will provide real benefits to communities.

“There’s a lot of healing that needs to be done now,” says Cutmore. “And a lot of the older Aboriginal people I’m talking to want change for future generations.”

While many community members have lived long enough to see short-term health programs introduced to the community without positive effect, Cutmore says times are changing. “Hopefully through the CHANGES study, we can implement some really strong programs that will last a long time within these communities and start making this future generational change.”

The next phase of CHANGES will begin later this year, when researchers will consult with older Aboriginal people who have had cancer, or who are currently undergoing treatment, to get a better understanding of how the cancer care system is working for communities, and what can be done to improve cancer prevention and treatment.