Elderly a resource, not a burden


Never before have we had such a high proportion of older people in our society, and the older people are living longer. The number of people of pensionable age is projected to grow for the foreseeable future, and in addition the number of people over 75 years and over 85 will increase markedly.

According to a report by the National Council for the Elderly an increase of 29.5 per cent in the number of over-65s is projected between 1991 and 2011. As a result, it projects a relative growth in the elderly from 11.4 per cent of the total population in 1991 to 14.1 per cent in 2011.

With these demographic changes, we are in serious need of a proper social policy on ageing. Social policy on ageing ought to be built on the belief that we can identify and respond to a range of needs that cut across generations and to regard older people, like younger people, as a potential resource, rather than as a burden. One benefit of thinking like this is that strategies and systems put in place to benefit the elderly can come in time to benefit everyone: for example, housing that is planned with access and mobility in mind is likely to be better designed, and better design will benefit everyone, not just those with mobility problems.

As a society we tend to perceive older people as dependent, constantly in need of help and support in their everyday lives and incapable of making decisions for themselves. But in fact only a small proportion of older people are ill and dependent; the majority live healthy, independent lives.

Our perception of old people as being in need of protection is largely well meant, but it is nevertheless both patronising and insidious.

Seeing older people as in need of protection means seeing them as dependent, and seeing them as dependent entails seeing them as a drain on resources, rather than as a resource in their own right. However well meant our protective attitude to older people may be, this is ageism.

One result of our ageist attitudes is that it has become socially acceptable to exclude older workers from the labour force: in 1960, 50 per cent of people over 65 in Ireland were active in the labour force; but by 1990, even though we are all now living longer, this participation rate had been reduced to only 16 per cent.

There is a mandatory retirement age in almost all employments. The idea was to remove the burden of work from older people. But making retirement at 65 mandatory has had the effect of removing older people's right to work if they so choose.

Of course, many workers are delighted to retire at the standard age, and both their right to do so and their right to a properly financed retirement must be respected. But there is no reason to make everyone retire at an arbitrarily decided age.

There are many reasons why people may not want to retire. They may experience a loss of both status and income on retirement. They may also miss the social contact of the working day and the feeling of making a contribution to society. There is no need to cut everyone off from all these benefits on their 65th birthday.

Many older people might appreciate the possibility of retiring gradually, perhaps moving into job-sharing or part-time work as they get older.

What we have is the opposite of a flexible system that would facilitate older people who wish to work, whether full or part time. Those who work after retirement age do not benefit from employee protection legislation - the Employment Equality Act excludes everyone over 65, which means that older employees do not enjoy the same protection against harassment and the arbitrary actions of employers as their younger colleagues. People aged 66 or over are not eligible for statutory redundancy payment, and the Unfair Dismissals Act does not apply to them.

The idea of a lifelong career leading to retirement is vanishing. This means that we need much greater flexibility in the way we view the life-course, which in turn should lead to collaboration rather than conflict between generations.

Taking a life-course perspective, we can learn to see ageing not as something that happens to other people, or something that can be pushed aside and not be dealt with until we get there, but something that is happening to us all, all the time.

This helps us to understand that there is not a separate and distant group that we can all clearly identify as "old".

When we do think about meeting the needs of older people, we tend to think in terms of care, but even in this most basic area of provision for the elderly, what we have is piecemeal. The result is that older people are often left in a very insecure, vulnerable and precarious position.

We need urgently to provide a range of care options, a range of housing and income options and a range of flexible working and educational options for our growing population of older people. And if we put such systems in place, we will all benefit, not just those of us who are older.

Sister Stanislaus is president of Focus Ireland

Vincent Browne is on leave