Second Opinion: Contribution of older citizens shouldn’t be downplayed


The impact of a difficult recession can sometimes wipe out perspective and memory. For example, if you are now 75, you would have been in your 30s and 40s in the fairly dreadful 1970s and 1980s, with interest rates heading towards 20 per cent, the equivalent college fees for your children many multiples of the current registration fee, and emigration rampant.

The recent ESRI report on the impact of the recession on various age groups was notable for not giving any sense of this historical continuum, or of the fact that the age of 20-45 is, and always has been, the peak time of financial difficulty for all generations.

For most of us, there will be one mortgage and one family to raise, and the bulk of this expense will occur during this time period.

Yet the press coverage after the ESRI report, which showed unsurprisingly that the recession had affected those under 45 most, generated yet another deluge of thoughtless ageism.

One might almost think that to have paid off one’s mortgage and to have raised a family in difficult times was a form of social misdemeanour, a selfish breach of intergenerational solidarity.

Mortgage arrears
In addition, one aspect of the report which did not make the headlines was that disposable income remained higher among households headed by the under-45s than among older households, even allowing for the changes due to unemployment, negative equity and mortgage arrears.

And indeed, there was also no sense of the fact that we have now hard evidence that older generations are providing a range of supports to younger generations.

The Irish longitudinal study on ageing showed that over a quarter of those over 50 had made significant financial contributions to their adult children, not to mention all the social support, including assisting with childcare.

A further relevant issue is that society makes ever-larger draws on older people in other ways. Older people were the first to have healthcare entitlements taken away from them in the last decade. The removal of the over-70s Medical Card, and the so-called Fair Deal (which replaced an entitlement to nursing home care at a cost of 80 per cent of the old age pension with 80 per cent of income, and 5 per cent of the value of your house and assets per year) were a bad start.

The astute will also have noticed that the Programme for Government is proposing to introduce similar charging systems for home care, a position reiterated by the Minister for Older People in the 2013 edition of the Irish Pensioner’s Handbook .

This would be unthinkable for cancer or cardiac care: it seems that stroke and dementia, the key illnesses of older people which compromise living at home, are fair game for such depredations.

The danger of the skewed commentary after the ESRI report is two-fold.

In the first instance it misdirects our attention to blameless older people instead of addressing the key issues in terms of our economy in their own right, in particular the high levels of young Irish people who can be classified as NEETS (not employed, in education or training), as well as resolving the issues of negative equity and indebtedness.

Noxious myth
More important perhaps is the propagation of the noxious myth that older people are a draw on society, and that their income and entitlements should be further eroded. In fact, increasing numbers of studies from around the world indicate that older people are net contributors to the economy, in addition to their previous contributions, when public and private finances are collated.

Older people are in general altruistic in terms of their view of public policy, and highly concerned about the fate of younger people in their society.

This altruism may even be to a fault: landmark studies showed that older people on waiting lists for cardiac surgery in the UK and Italy were willing to cede their place to a younger person.

On climate change, a public health policy paper from the US proposed that older people might be the most important agents for change because of their wish to support future generations.

So let us tackle issues on their own merits, and avoid setting generations against each other.

Ní neart go chur le chéile – and we stand more chance to weather this recession, as with previous recessions, if united rather than divided.

Prof Des O’Neill is a consultant in geriatric and stroke medicine

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