Why do we treat our older people so badly?

Jacky Jones: Society benefits from them yet older people do not get the services they need

The summary results of Census 2016 provoked blatant ageism in the media. The population aged over 65 has increased by 19 per cent, or 102,174 people, since 2011. Anyone over 65 is classified for statistical purposes as a “dependent”, so the dependency ratio – older people as a percentage of the population of working age – increased by three percentage points.

The numbers of those aged 0-14 only increased by 71,439. So yes, the population is getting older. But is this necessarily a bad thing?

Well apparently so, according to virtually all the commentators interviewed on RTÉ radio and television about the results. There was the usual handwringing because of the supposed burden these older people place on younger, working people.

Why do the media ignore research which shows older people are net contributors to society?

Although most of the commentators and many of the presenters were over 65, none of them had a good word to say about the fact that people are living longer, including themselves.


Why do the media and other opinion-making actors contribute to ageism by continuing to ignore research which shows that, far from being a burden, older people are net contributors to society?

The latest report from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda), Health and Wellbeing: Active Ageing for Older Adults in Ireland 2017, found that "older adults in Ireland far from being reliant on social supports are net contributors to their extended families and the communities in which they live".

This contribution is, according to the report, a “pervading theme” which has “resonated at each wave of data collection” since the study began in 2009.

Social activities

The “overwhelming” direction of time and financial assistance is from older people to their children and grandchildren, rather than the other way around. Almost half of older people help their adult children out financially, whereas only 3 per cent of adult children provide financial help to their parents.

Half of adults aged 54 to 74 provide regular childcare for their grandchildren for an average of 36 hours each month. Two-thirds participate in a wide range of social activities including going to the pub and eating out in restaurants, thus contributing to the local economy. In addition, older people are the “backbone of our volunteer structure”.

The report shows that older people and health professionals have absorbed ageist attitudes all too well

More than half of people over 50 years of age living in Ireland have experienced ageism. There is convincing evidence that when older people experience age-related discrimination they internalise these negative views, feel older and less capable and are less likely to look after themselves.

Unfortunately, the Tilda report shows that older people and health professionals have absorbed ageist attitudes all too well. Older people need the same quality and quantity of food as younger adults but the findings show they are not feeding themselves properly. Almost 80 per cent are overweight or obese and they assume it is natural to gain weight as they get older.

Only a quarter eat the recommended five to seven portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Just 17 per cent eat enough dairy products. They eat about five times the recommended amount of treats and snacks.

Health problems

Health professionals have also absorbed ageist attitudes. The Tilda 2011 report showed that there were significant numbers of older people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, incontinence, hearing loss, pain, osteopenia and arterial fibrillation.

The 2017 report shows these conditions remained untreated. Fewer than one in three older people with depressive symptoms had been prescribed treatment for their condition. The authors concluded that many of these chronic health problems are “mistaken as part of the normal ageing process” and are underdiagnosed and untreated.

Contrary to popular belief older people are not greedy consumers of health services. The Tilda study found that there was little change in healthcare utilisation in the population aged 54 to 80. Increased hospital attendance was observed only in those aged over 80.

Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland and Sweden have much better homecare systems than Ireland. Need rather than ability to pay is the underlying principle

Public policy aspires to keep people in their own homes as long as possible but ageism means many end up in long-term residential care because homecare is not available in sufficient quantity.

A new Health Research Board report, Approaches to the Regulation and Financing of Home Care Services in Four European Countries: An Evidence Review, shows that Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland and Sweden have much better homecare systems than Ireland. Need rather than ability to pay is the underlying principle in all four countries.

Older people in Scotland and Sweden have a right to homecare services. Will this ever happen here? It seems unlikely given the pervasive ageism that exists in the country.