Sunday 18 August 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'We're all going to live longer, so why is this no country for old men - or women?'

Bursting with energy: It’s time to look again at our stereotypes for older citizens and how they live their lives
Bursting with energy: It’s time to look again at our stereotypes for older citizens and how they live their lives
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

The recent revelation that there will soon be more over-85s than under-fives here produced another wave of hysteria about our ageing population.

Instead of being reported as good news, the prediction is being talked about at best as worrying, and at worst as disastrous news for Ireland as needy, helpless old people eat up all of our health and social budgets.

The proportion of people aged over 85 will go from being the smallest demographic right now to the largest for women by 2060, according to these new Eurostat predictions.

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The over-85s currently represent 0.8pc of our population - smaller than any other age bracket.

But longer life expectancies and falling birth rates mean this age group will become the largest female demographic in Ireland in the next 40 years. By 2060, 3.4pc of all women are expected to be over 85.

Almost everybody and every news report talks about the fact that we will all live longer a "timebomb" - a problem that will one day go off and ruin the country for the rest of us. Our Government doesn't seem to be bothering with relevant policies for this and equally falls back on unhelpful scaremongering about burdens on our health and social security systems.

Ireland right now is no country for old women, or old men. Research in 2016 carried out as part of Macra na Feirme and Calor's Know Your Neighbour campaign found that over a quarter of people surveyed (27pc) said they were worried about being lonely in old age, while 22pc and 21pc have fears about safety and access to health services.

Add to that the diminishing number of role models - especially women - over a certain age, and you could be forgiven for thinking we live in a world where old people are locked away in attics.

The trouble is that many of us find it impossible to relate to these surveys, forgetting that every day we inch ever closer to our own dotage. For a start, we desperately need to change our unhealthy attitudes towards older people. Society has taught us not to see wisdom and experience but weakness and frailty.

Life past 70 isn't all nursing homes and geriatric wards and waiting for a death that will not come. We all know people in their 70s and 80s who are living very full, meaningful lives.

The polarisation of young and old is built on a lie that every young person has glossy hair, is bursting with energy, out every night and is never lonely. But this isn't true and growing older isn't half as miserable as the unhelpful stereotypes would have us believe.

We all know that being young doesn't always equate with being happy, so why should we believe that everything goes belly up when we hit 60? We need to build a society where people aren't so worried about getting old, where there's less stereotyping of older people, more inter-generational contact, and more opportunities to see older people as assets.

We still refuse to see older people as an important part of our social fabric, despite the fact that many of them do voluntary work and look after grandchildren.

Many of them still work - the age at which the State pension becomes payable has increased from 65 to 66, with a further rise to the age of 67 in 2021 and to 68 in 2028.

The whole concept of "retirement" has changed, too. The solid job followed by a full retirement is disappearing and there are many people who retire from what they're doing now, only to start up a side hustle or open an Airbnb. Small changes are happening. An alliance of organisations working in the age sector believe that to keep people safely at home they need a continuum of care: targeted services, when they need them, at the level they need, and for as long as they need.

One alliance member, Third Age, is a not-for-profit organisation working for social inclusion and to promote the positive contribution of older people in society. AgeWell is its peer-to-peer care model delivered in partnership with the HSE, which combines old-fashioned neighbourliness with 21st century technology. Third Age recruits and trains AgeWell companions to go on home visits to older people, providing social engagement and any necessary interventions.

Avril Hevey, AgeWell's manager, says: "Our four-month mid-line assessment shows an over 40pc increase in well-being (compared to our baseline score), and a 100pc reduction of clients at risk of poor well-being.

"Clients who have been with us for four months report 45pc reduction in loneliness, while those on the programme for nine months now report a massive 80pc loneliness reduction. Clients also tell us they are more physically active and show a significant improvement in fitness levels."

An ageing population is a good thing. Ever since time began, we've tried to lengthen human life so that we might live forever. But it was only over the past hundred years - with the development of antibiotics, better food, and more scientific and social breakthroughs - that we finally have the majority of us living into our 60s and beyond.

We, our friends, our family and society at large are going to get old. We need to shatter the stereotypes, invest in older people and put them at the centre of our society.

Irish Independent

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