Friday 30 September 2016

An ageing population is a reality, so we must change the way we think about age... and get old

Life expectancy has increased by four years since 2000 and we need to see older people as assets - not as looming liabilities, writes Pfizer chief Dr Paul Duffy

Dr Paul Duffy

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

'If we stay healthy and use lifelong learning to keep skills up to date we enjoy lead long and meaningful lives,' says Dr Paul Duffy. Photo: Mark Condren
'If we stay healthy and use lifelong learning to keep skills up to date we enjoy lead long and meaningful lives,' says Dr Paul Duffy. Photo: Mark Condren

The way society views older people is overwhelmingly negative. We speak of elderly people representing an additional cost burden on the health system, we talk of "pensions time bombs", increased longevity is perceived as a problem for economies - and there is almost never any mention of the positive contribution they continue to make.

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There are a few small signs of a change in this attitude. There appears to be a growing appreciation of the role that grandparents play in childcare, as well as for the work they do as carers, both of spouses and other relatives.

But this doesn't mean the oldest and most experienced members of our society are viewed as an asset, just less negatively.

This needs to change - and quickly.

An ageing population is a reality for Ireland. Investing in health has delivered results for Irish patients: life expectancy at birth in Ireland is now 81 years - this has increased a full four years since the year 2000 and is higher than the EU average and above the OECD average.

Pharmaceutical innovation has contributed hugely to increased life expectancy - one study has shown that between 2000 and 2009, 73pc of the increase in life expectancy was attributable to medicines.

We already have the paradoxical and faintly absurd position whereby the Government has acknowledged increased longevity by pushing out the State pension age to 68 in phases, but without extending the compulsory retirement age beyond 65.

They are not old enough to claim a State pension - but are too old to work, or so it seems.

We need to reimagine our world and the role older people play in it.

A first step on that journey is to acknowledge that people should be allowed to work for as long as the wish. There should be no expiry date on the right to work.

This needs to be accompanied by a change in our mindset around ageing. We should not only prepare ourselves for longer lives, we need to be ready for longer working lives.

As individuals, this means living healthier and looking after ourselves to live happier and more fulfilled lives in our later years.

It is not just a question of what we can gain as individuals, however. It is what society can gain as a result of our increased life expectancy. The first and most obvious benefit is in addressing the skills shortages which are beginning to emerge once again as the country recovers from the recent recession.

These skills and labour shortages exist throughout all sectors and older people can help meet them. Already, leading American companies like Walmart and Enterprise Car Rentals have positive employment policies in relation to older people.

This trend is not confined to America. In Barcelona, diners at the Entrepanez Diaz restaurant can be sure their more mature tastes will be catered to.

Owner Kim Diaz wanted to create a 1950s atmosphere and decided to hire older waiters to help him. In a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper, he said that he only hired waiters who are over 50 because he knew "they would be fantastic and because society has unjustly pushed them out of the job market.

"These guys have 20 or 30 years of experience, a lifetime. Here the waiter's profession is in decline - but the people I've employed see it as a vocation."

For the past three years, Pfizer has been challenging people to embrace ageing as not an end, but a beginning - a time to fulfil old dreams and make new ones a reality. Irish people need to start thinking this way as well.

The Pfizer 'Get Old' campaign is an ongoing initiative that fosters candid conversations around ageing, redefines what it means to "get old" and encourages individuals to adopt healthy behaviours to age the way they want.

These educational efforts are supported by more than a dozen Get Old partners who collaborate to provide guidance and educational content for the GetOld.com web resource.

If we stay healthy and use lifelong learning to keep our skills up to date, we can lead long and meaningful lives contributing to society and earning a living well into what we used to see as our twilight years.

Everyone can win if we act on this one big idea. Ireland as a country benefits through having a healthier population. A healthy workforce is the cornerstone of economic success.

Poor health leads to absenteeism, impacts productivity, strains health and social care services, and adds substantially to costs. Increasing the number of years we live disability-free improves our likelihood of independent living and capacity to remain in the workforce.

Improving our lifespan and quality will add to Ireland's attraction for inward investment, boost the public finances and transform a valuable human resource into a social and economic asset.

This cannot happen by itself, however. It will require increased investment in healthcare and health education by government as well as much greater allocations to lifelong learning from the education budget in order to ensure that skills remain up to date with the changing needs of industry. Retirement rules will also have to change as will our whole attitude to ageing - after all, we hope it will be us some day.

Dr Paul Duffy is vice president of Pfizer Global Supply

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