Thursday 22 August 2019

Respecting your elders is the really important work

We're all going to be old some day, if we're lucky, so why do we treat our elderly population so badly, asks Carol Hunt

We’re all going to be old some day, if we’re lucky, so why do we treat our elderly population so badly? (Stock image)
We’re all going to be old some day, if we’re lucky, so why do we treat our elderly population so badly? (Stock image)
Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

I don't think I'm alone in still thinking of the family house where I grew up as 'home'. It's the place where myself and siblings still meet, where we have extended family barbecues and parties, where we send our kids to stay when we go away for a weekend, and where, most importantly, our mother is. Or at least, that's where she is when she's not trekking round the world, or helping her kids out, or bringing her grandson to see Barcelona play Celtic (which she did last week), or doing voluntary work, or all the many things which make our lives richer.

The older I get, the more I realise how important, how vital, the older generation is to society and to their families.

Which is why I understood the outrage and hurt generated last March when an ESRI report suggested that elderly "empty nesters" should consider vacating their family home for younger couples in need of housing.

Though the report, 'Housing and Ireland's Older Population', didn't explicitly call this age demographic a useless bunch of geriatrics who should just take the hint and feck off, that was how it was interpreted by people who were old enough to get the message. Since the property crash and consequent recession hit us, there's been a lot of talk about this being no country for young people, and what with the initial upturn in unemployment and the possibility of ever owning a home beyond the reach of many Millennials, there is certainly a touch of truth to that narrative. But side by side with the 'woe-is-us young ones' story is the corresponding tale which says, resentfully, that life is just rosy for our older generation. They have homes and pensions and free travel; sure aren't they having the life of Reilly? Meanwhile, the rest of us are paying for them.

We started hearing how the A&E crisis wouldn't be so bad if only those "bed blockers" would find themselves a nursing home - or better still, just shuffle off this mortal coil completely. And then we decided that the housing crisis wouldn't be half so bad if only those selfish old goats would clear out of their homes and free up space for productive, working people.

Jonathan Swift's satirical essay, A Modest Proposal - that the children of the poor be served up as dinner to the rich, to prevent them becoming a burden on society - was bitterly remembered by an entire generation who were suddenly being portrayed as a burden on both society and their children, despite having worked for decades and paid extraordinary percentages in taxation and interest rates.

Recently, at the MacGill Summer School, Professor Alan Barrett of the ESRI had some suggestions on how to make the elderly pay their way so that their children won't be tempted to put them in a casserole. He suggested that extending the retirement age would "have positive impacts on national output, thereby increasing the tax base and making social programmes more affordable, as a percentage of GDP".

At first glance, what Professor Barrett said might be dismissed as another cynical ploy to squeeze our elderly for every penny they don't have, especially as he added, "In addition, to the extent that prolonged working lives would allow for the delayed payment of pensions, the sustainability of pensions systems could be further enhanced".

But, if we put the topic of economics aside for moment, what Barrett said makes absolute sense. There is absolutely no rational reason why people in full health, with all their faculties, should be told "sorry, we don't need you any more, you're past your sell-by date".

We know that the retirement age of 65 was first introduced by Otto von Bismarck in 1880, when he brought in a social security system designed to keep the socialists at bay. He never intended to pay out much of it, because at that time very, very few people lived to the ripe old age of 65. But over a hundred years later, our life expectancy has risen, and we can expect to live into our 80s and later. We work more and more with our minds, rather than our bodies.

The last thing that many of us will want to do, when we hit the now relatively young age of 65 or 66, is give up what for many is a source of purpose, stimulation, social connectivity and enjoyment - our jobs. The problem is that there are still far too many employers - among others - who think that "older" equals "useless".

Yet it's only relatively recently that we have become fixated by youth. Up until a few hundred years ago, the elders of a community were revered and honoured for their wisdom, experience and advice. Today they are more likely to be ignored, or worse.

We talk a lot about child abuse, but rarely about the increasing prevalence of elder abuse. The 2015 World Report on Ageing and Health from the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that ageism "is now a more pervasive form of discrimination than sexism or racism" - yet where is the equivalent of Unicef for older people?

Where are the advocacy groups and charities that are there in such abundance for children or minority groups, but strangely far less for our elderly? And yet we all - if we are lucky enough to survive 2015 World Report on Ageing and Health- will be elderly one day. So, why don't we care about older people?

Do we feel that their time is over, they have made their contribution, and we should instead concentrate on a younger, more innocent and therefore deserving generation? Or is it that we believe that our elderly are past the point of protest, that they are unlikely to be out manning the barricades or causing riots in the streets if we choose to ignore their concerns? Or is it because our elderly are nearer to death, and that's one taboo we still try not to think of?

On the first two counts, the evidence shows that neither is the case. For example, if all the grandparents in the country were to down tools and decide not to contribute to child-minding or helping out their kids with house deposits and bills, the economy would probably grind to a halt. And as for protests, remember the medical card debacle?

So perhaps the bottom line is that older people remind us all of our own mortality. Which is a fear that we need to talk about and get over, if we want to experience a rich and fulfilling old age. And who among us doesn't want that?

Twitter @carolmhunt

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