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Column: We think of older people as a burden. In fact, they’re anything but.

Our society has become used to regarding older people as a drain, writes Peter Kavanagh. But in these times, everyone has to pitch in.

Peter Kavanagh

I OFTEN GET asked at what age we become ‘older persons’. From a strictly biological point of view, an organism is ‘old’ when it reaches a point at which it could have given birth and successfully raised its offspring to childbearing age. That would make it about 34 years of age in the case of humans, but I think we can say no thirty-something ever wants to be considered an ‘older person’.

So much for biology. How about we look at it sociologically?

Otto von Bismarck established the world’s first ever social safety net in 1889. It took the form of an old age pension for any workers in the German Empire who reached the age of 70 – because very few people in the German Empire in 1889 reached the age of 70. Even a boy born in that very year could only expect to see his fortieth birthday, due to the incredibly high childhood mortality rates and the harsh working conditions.

In more recent decades, we’ve come to accept a definition of roughly 65 years or over as ‘old’, but that can vary wildly. Active Retirement Ireland occasionally uses the slogan ‘life begins at 50′, although we have long-since done away with any age restrictions – our 544 local groups are open to anyone either retired or semi-retired.

Ageing, as you can see, is entirely subjective. The concept of Active Ageing, however, is not. 2012 is the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations, and it is a great chance for us to reboot our thinking on what ageing means to each and every one of us. For many years now, we have been warned of the impending doom that will arrive with Ireland’s ageing population. By the year 2050, over 28 per cent of Ireland’s population will be 60 years of age or older. This has been called the ‘demographic timebomb’ by many social commentators, who claim that a level of retired people that high will cripple the economy.

‘Drain on society’

This is indicative of how we have seen older people in the past – as a drain on society. Yet this belies the actual situation, where older people are the linchpins of so many local communities through their Active Retirement Associations and other community groups. Retired people support their relatives and peers on a daily basis as childminders, carers and much more. Can older people, can any generation be described as an ‘unfair burden’?

In this European Year, we can start a nationwide conversation about what is needed to make Ireland ‘age-friendly’. Bear in mind, though, that age friendly doesn’t mean friendly just for older people. An Age-Friendly environment is one that supports and aids all of us, of all generations, as we grow older. Having Age-Friendly service provision and planning in towns and counties is as beneficial for the young mother or the schoolchild as it is for the widow or widower in their eighties. The concept of intergenerational solidarity means facing up the reality – no generation wants to profit at the expense of another.

In an era of belt-tightening and austerity, it is easy to target the marginalised of all generations for cutbacks, as has been done recently. While the government can’t shorten winter, they have reduced the winter fuel allowance for anyone in receipt of the Household Benefits Package. With the advent of prescription charges, carbon tax, an increased Drug Payment Scheme threshold, the removal of the ‘Christmas Bonus’ pension payment, unbelievable price increases in fuel and the aforementioned six-week cut in the fuel allowance; older people are, like any other age-group, facing into a grim short-term future.

Claim the dole

What we need to do to address this future is to instigate some joined-up thinking on ageing. The government have addressed the ‘problem’ of increased life expectancies by raising the retirement age to 66 years of age, gradually reaching 68 years by 2028. This has been done while simultaneously removing the transitional pension, meaning that if a worker’s contract forces them to retire at 65, they have no option but to claim the dole until they hit the pensionable age of 66.

If this affects their PRSI contributions, they may not be entitled to claim the full state pension. Neither are there any financial incentive for workers to stay in employment beyond the pensionable age, unlike the UK, where older workers’ pensions are topped up if they defer claiming them for a few years.

Likewise, we face into a budget where services for older people could be cut without a thought for the long-term repercussions. Cutting the Free Travel Scheme will save anything up to €55 million from the Department of Social Protection’s budget, but will add untold multiples of this figure to government spending in knock-on effects. Without free travel, many thousands of older people will not be able to attend hospitals for treatment and will end up in long-term care at a cost to the taxpayer.

Isolation

Many hotels, who rely on Active Retirement Associations to keep them afloat in the off-season, would close without free travel – as would many of their suppliers and surrounding tourist businesses – leading to more workers on the live register. The danger of isolation among older people, especially older men, in rural areas cannot be understated; and the social cost of cutting free travel would be too high to bear. This, like many other supports for everyone in receipt of social transfers, cannot be viewed just as a line on a spreadsheet.

To combat this dichotomy of public service provision, we need a strong, comprehensive National Positive Ageing Strategy to underpin all the actions taken to make Ireland “the best small country in the world to grow old in”, as promised in the Programme for Government. It needs to have an overarching approach and an input into budgeting processes in every department that affects ageing matters in Ireland. It needs to put in place the correct structures that can enable it to be more than just a report on a shelf. Above all, it needs to be a fully-implementable, cross-departmental, multi-sectoral working document.

The NPAS will be published during this European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations, and whether you’re ‘old’ or not – whether you’re in your twenties, your fifties or your nineties – it’s going to be a vitally important document.

After all, whether you think the boundary of ‘old’ is 50, 60, 70 or older, we all want to get there someday.

Peter Kavanagh is a member of the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations 2012 Steering Group and is the Information & Networking Officer with Active Retirement Ireland.

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