Creeping ageism puts ignorance on a pedestal


SECOND OPINION:It is time to recognise that older people have a lot to give, writes DES O'NEILL

FOR A short radio slot, It Says in the Paperspacks quite a punch, picking up and identifying common themes across the papers. The morning of the new Dáil recently was no exception, highlighting a fascinating synergy about politicians and age among the political columnists in the broadsheets.

The journalists made forceful pleas for Cabinet places for younger TDs rather than for older politicians, opining that a more mature Cabinet would be out of touch with younger generations.

A moment’s reflection reveals some droll scenarios that this line of thinking might throw up: would they really have preferred a Cabinet place for the younger Winston Churchill (author of the woeful disaster and slaughter of thousands of young Irish men at Gallipoli) as opposed to the septuagenarian (and victorious) war-time leader? Or the verbose and posturing younger Charles de Gaulle of the Free French (apparently as much a thorn in the side of the Allies as of the Germans) to the mature and capable creator (when taken out of his retirement) and saviour of the Fifth Republic?

It was not just the fourth estate who punctured the hollow rhetoric of an Ireland for all ages. Micheál Martin’s vision for the Senate struck some spectacular false notes, with the presentation of the second chamber as a nursery for future TDs doing little for the case for preservation of the Senate, nor seeming to offer much promise of a real fresh start for Fianna Fáil.

However, most offensive to the notion of intergenerational solidarity was the intimation that older senators should take to the ice floes. Thankfully, in yet another sign of what we have gained from ageing, we saw a rebellion in the senior ranks, and, as a result, the selection of the new Senate will be much more interesting.

It is a given that what citizens want is competence and humanity from their ministers, and they are relatively untroubled by their age, or membership of the Horse Outside fan club. The ballot box, constituency clinics and the media keep politicians well attuned to the needs and aspirations of their constituents of all ages, if they choose to listen.

Yet that such casual ageism can be expressed at the highest levels in the media and political circles speaks volumes for how easily the mask of an age-friendly society can slip, and how far we have still to go to appreciate the contribution of experience and maturity to Irish society.

It is not just a matter of worthy or lofty aspirations: the present and future of Ireland is that of a more mature society.

We will all lose if we do not recognise the opportunities afforded by ageing: a study released recently in the UK showed that older people contributed £40 billion (€46 billion) to the UK economy, a figure set to rise to £77 billion (€88 billion) annually by 2030. Reorienting our economy and policies to these realities will allow us to take a lead in Europe, as outlined at the Business of Ageing conference in Dublin earlier this month.

How can we take this forward? A hiatus has appeared with the decision not to make an appointment or assign responsibility for older people in the the new Cabinet.

This may be a measure of the ineffectiveness of a series of unremarkable junior ministers for older people, none of whom had much traction with either the system or the population at large.

Under their tutelage, the Irish Positive Ageing Strategy is having an exceptionally prolonged gestation, and Irish engagement with the Madrid Action Plan on Ageing (the template agreed by the United Nations for developing a society for all ages) has been notable for its invisibility.

A fresh start would be good, with a reorientation of the portfolio on ageing to truly recognise the demographic dividend, ranging from the contributions of older people to the fiscal and social economies, their creation of new markets, without neglecting the need to reshape the health and social environment to account for differing needs.

Perhaps it is time for a full ministerial shoulder to the wheel, as this is a complex and bold step to take forward (especially given the attitudes displayed over the past few weeks) but one that could reap rich societal and economic rewards.

And we really don’t mind what age he or she might be.

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