We are healthier and hope to live longer - but are we really prepared for old age?
Published 27/11/2015 | 02:30
Right now, in Ireland, there is a disease for which we have found no cure. Sufferers are the most neglected, worst-treated members of our society, when in fact they should be celebrated and cherished for their massive contribution to Irish life.
We are warned that in a few years' time, this disease will be a real epidemic, one for which we are not ready or making any preparation.
I am talking about old age.
We treat our elderly despicably and growing older like a horrible illness. They are cast off and isolated, left on the rubbish heap, their job done.
We are constantly hearing stories of terror on our elderly at the hands of crime gangs, especially in rural areas. There have been high-profile scandals and exposes about the abuse of elderly people in our nursing homes. Our hospitals are not able to cope with the volume of elderly patients.
Statistics around financial abuse of the elderly are deeply disturbing. Between 2007 and 2013, the HSE received 13,000 referrals from senior social workers.
This month, the Vulnerable Persons Bill, which aims to impose legal sanctions for financial abuse of the elderly, was introduced in the Dáil by Independent TD Mattie McGrath. He says we need to ignite a national conversation on how we treat elderly people and the measures we can put in place to offer them greater security and peace of mind.
Elder abuse, says Deputy McGrath, is an activity "cloaked in secrecy and shame on the part of the victims and families involved". Many people do not want to have "situations being reported" or Garda investigations taking place.
Two examples of how horribly we treat our elderly emerged in the last week. One was the heartbreaking case of 87-year-old Gerry Feeney, who spent his last weeks of life in distress and discomfort in Beaumont Hospital.
Staff were so stretched he was left for hours in soiled clothes - with his private parts sometimes exposed - in a six-bed public ward.
Gerry, who suffered from Parkinson's, was so traumatised he had attempted to pay visitors to bring him back to his nursing home. Last weekend, the badly decomposed body of 84-year-old Bridget Crosbie was found in a downstairs room of her home in Wexford. It is thought she may have been dead for two months.
She was regarded as a loner and a woman who guarded her privacy - but there should have been some alert system in place.
We are healthier and living longer and more of us can expect to reach the magic 100-year-old mark.
One in every five people in 20 years' time will be over 65.
Currently, there are 540,000 people aged 65 and over in Ireland, accounting for 12pc of the total population. According to the Central Statistics Office, this is set to rise to 1.4 million, or 22pc of the total population, by 2041.
But the figures for those aged 80 and over are even more dramatic.
Between now and 2041, the number of people aged 80 and over is projected to rise from 130,600 to 458,000 - an increase of 250pc. Ageing on this scale is unprecedented in Irish history.
Ireland's ageing population requires careful planning to meet the challenges ahead and to ensure we can all be secure in the knowledge that we can enjoy a healthy and fulfilled later life.
Major health, social, and economic inequalities have to be overcome to help us achieve this.
Recognising the importance of tackling issues of health and socioeconomic inequalities among older people, and across all age groups, is key to ensuring a better future for us all.
Instead of regarding the ageing population and our elderly community as a burden, we must celebrate and embrace the opportunities that an ageing population will bring.
I lived in China for two years, where older people are revered. Respect for elders has been at the foundation of Chinese culture for thousands of years.
Older people were valued for their wisdom, and important family decisions are not made without consulting them.
Old people are arguably among the happiest people in China. We often saw them singing and dancing in the parks, hanging out and joking on the streets.
The build-up to 2016 is now in full swing, with commemorative events being announced on an almost daily basis.
The sacrifices made by the men and women of 1916 paved the way for the foundation of the Irish State.
They had a vision of an independent Ireland with all citizens having a "right to national freedom and sovereignty".
The 1916 Proclamation also states: "The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts. . . "
Almost 100 years on, many of the hopes and dreams and aspirations of the men and women of 1916 have come to pass.
We are, for the most part (and despite recent economic difficulties), a great country to be born in, to grow up in, to raise a family in, to work in.
But when it comes to being a great country to grow old in, we must hang our heads in shame. Respect for the elderly and the expectation that they can die with dignity falls way behind.
We should treat our elderly with the respect and dignity they are due for their years of dedication to family, communities and the workplace.