Activating health through community enterprise

| November 30, 2016

What determines healthy ageing and how can we improve the lives of Australia’s growing number of people who, willingly or unwillingly, have left working life? Russ Grayson kicks off our Productive Ageing forum with some ideas on how to invest in individual and community self-help.

When I recently shared convivial lunch with a group of social housing tenants living on Sydney’s Waterloo Estate, and with a small team of UNSW social work students deployed there on placement, it became clear to me that older Australians do not have to live a life of solitude and isolation no matter their socioeconomic situation. The lunch is a weekly event on the estate.

Prior to that lunch one of the residents, an older woman who emigrated to Australia from Croatia decades ago, showed us around the community gardens on the estate. This, too, reinforced the realisation that ageing can include the social contact and physical activity necessary to good mental health. Participation in those community gardens, where mostly food but also flowers are grown, beings another determinant of healthy ageing — learning. To grow plants you have to learn how to do so.

Those gardens – there are four on or adjacent to the estate – plus the social contact, learning and food that comes out of them is made possible thanks to the work of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden Community Greening program. A small team from the Botanic Garden led by Phillip Pettitt takes community garden set-up assistance and training to social housing residents and schools across the state. Similar work is done in Melbourne through Cultivating Community.

It is much the same with community food gardens elsewhere than on social housing land. Observational evidence over the decades since the first community garden in Australia started at Nunuwading, Melbourne, in 1977, suggests strongly that the dietary benefits of community gardening play a role in sustaining the physical health of older people, while the learning and social contact play a role in maintaining their mental health. Community gardens have become an antidote for the social isolation of aged Australians, especially those living alone.

It is similar with the men’s sheds you find scattered around. These are makerspaces where usually anyone irrespective of age (and, as I understand it, gender) can use their physical skills in wood and metal work as well as in fixing and maintaining equipment. That, too, brings similar benefits to those of community gardening, and because of this men’s sheds make an appropriate installation that can accompany community gardens.

All of this validates local and state government support for community gardens, men’s sheds and similar community enterprise and makes it a positive investment in social wellbeing for older people.


Community gardens, men’s sheds and community shared meals, especially where there is access to a community kitchen, are just three low-cost initiatives that can improve the lives of Australia’s growing number of people who, willingly or unwillingly, have left working life. There are others.

Some are fortunate enough to be able to continue using their working life skills and knowledge to assist voluntary community organisations and NGOs after they leave employment or their own business and are living on superannuation or the aged pension. I have written before about the idea of government assistance, red-tape reduction and insurance cost-easing to enable older people — and this could include those below pension age unable to find work because of employer bias and faulty belief about older workers — set up worker co-operatives of teams with complementary skills to offer services to business and others. These could have potential in providing part-time work or, maybe, full-time, and of topping-up the aged pension.

That, too — increasing the existing allowable earnings on top of the pension — could be reformed to reward older workers engaging in collaborative self-help such as in worker co-operatives. The rational for expenditure by government would be the potential health costs savings due to the opportunity for physical and mental activity. Like services provided, health cost savings should be considered a yield rather than a side benefit.

Is there a case for lifting the annual level of earning for aged pensioners without it affecting their pension, because they continue to contribute economic value to society? I think so, just as there is now a case for local and state government in small-scale investment in community gardens and men’s sheds.

The positive aspect of the type of low-cost government investment I talk about, which currently is rather being seen as a hand-out, is that it is both a health investment, an investment in community amenity and opportunity and, importantly, an investment in individual and community self-help.