Older Victorians are drowning at an increasing rate, and this program is hoping to turn the tide

You’d never guess Carol Wu is 70 when she lifts dumbbells over the water while Kylie classics pump across the pool in Templestowe, north-east Melbourne.

She is an active woman. In fact, it’s her years playing badminton and other sports that have led to bad knees – which this course is helping.

“I’ve never had resistance training in water. In older people, their balance is not so good. So that helps them avoid more falls,” she says.

Splashing happily through the water, none of the other people in the pool with Ms. Wu are behaving their age.

And you would never guess that a few weeks earlier were clinging to the side of the pool, such was their lack of confidence in the water.

They are here as part of a three week Life Saving Victoria (LSV) program to encourage older Australians to improve their water skills.

A group of senior people smiling with their hands on their hips in the pool
At the Aquarena water and leisure center, the group has become familiar faces during the lesson.(ABC News: Mary Gearin)

Trudy Micallef, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at LSV, jokes with the group at the pool.

She says lockdowns have meant many older Australians have lost their familiarity with pools, making them reluctant to return.

“It really gives them the confidence to come back, to walk through the doors of big facilities like this and enjoy water-based activities with their friends,” she says.

Victoria sees a horror year for drowning

The program was sparked by worrying data showing a 10 percent increase in drowning rates among those over 65 in the past three years, compared to more than a decade’s average.

“We’re seeing a sharp increase in slips, trips and falls among those who may have a pre-existing medical condition, or among those who don’t understand their medication and how it might affect their use of water,” says Frau Micallef.

This is despite LSV’s goal to halve community-wide drowning rates by the end of 2020.

In fact, the LSV drowning report released in December showed that Victoria just had its worst fatal drowning rate in more than 20 years.

People from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds accounted for 35 percent of all drowning deaths.

It’s representative of a broader trend across the country.

“Incredible” progress in teaching

Carol Edmeades is the energetic, brightly dressed poolside instructor and says the progress this group has made in just three weeks has been “absolutely incredible”.

A uniformed woman smiles at the camera from outside a pool
Instructor Carol Edmeades is encouraged by the group’s progress in a short space of time. (ABC News: Mary Gearin)

She says the skills they need to learn can be very simple.

“Sometimes when they get into trouble, they just have to put their feet on the ground no matter where they are, whether it’s on the beach or in a pool,” she says.

“The skills we teach them here make them stronger. So if they have to stay up and tread water, they can do it longer.”

Chai Kong is a joker of the group.

At a sprightly 81, he says swimming a lifetime means he’s safe in the water, and proudly says his children and grandchildren have all learned to do it now.

A man in a swimming cap, goggles and a towel smiles from outside the pool
Chai Kong says there are social benefits to jumping in the pool.(ABC News: Mary Gearin)

But he worries about the elderly who don’t have the skills.

His message to learning disabilities is “It’s not that serious” – learning to swim can be fun.

The group met through Manningham’s Chinese Seniors Club, but it cemented their friendship.

A woman in a towel smiles from outside the pool.
Selina Leung says she sometimes worries about her water skills.(ABC News: Mary Gearin)

Selina Leung is the club’s community leader who organized this program for the group.

She admits she couldn’t swim well and worries about falls.

“I worry about it. So I jumped at the opportunity to do it… and it’s free.”

“Some of the members told me that it’s more fun to do it together as a group of members…rather than taking a class [with] strangers.”

More than 150 people between the ages of 50 and 90 have participated in the pilot program at six water facilities across the state, and LSV is now encouraging community groups to reach out to them to organize classes.

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