Image and the older citizen

 

NEXT YEAR the proportion of the population in the Republic over 65 years will exceed those under five for the first time. It is a significant demographic milestone with a myriad of social, economic and health implications. However, knee-jerk references to pension “time bombs” and older people as a “burden on society” are both unjust and unhelpful.

In a survey published by Amárach Research today, over-50s say they are not happy about the manner in which older people are portrayed by the media. Some 77 per cent believe their age group is depicted as vulnerable, while one-half feel the media portrays them as “unable to cope”. The survey of 500 adults aged over 50 in Ireland found older people are a key group who lead consumer change by readily switching supplier of services such as car insurance and banking. Far from inhabiting a social backwater, the 1.2 million older people in the State appear happy and relatively affluent.

This is a point echoed by Prof Rose Ann Kenny, professor of clinical gerontology at Trinity College Dublin, who last week told a seminar hosted by Third Age, an older people’s organisation, that our extended and healthy lifespan is due – at least in part – to laughter, a good diet, exercise and sexual activity. There is evidence to support her assertions: recent research, which looked at the brains of 70-year-olds who took aerobic exercise for 30 minutes five times a week and those who did not, showed the hippocampus, which controls memory, had increased in size in those who exercised. Laughter has been shown to suppress the body’s inflammatory processes and sexual activity is known to improve mood.

Prof Kenny leads Tilda, the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, a €29 million project which will provide the first comprehensive data on older people here. Some five years in, it is already beginning to bridge a significant knowledge gap, providing policymakers in health and social care with valuable information.

In general, research into the biological process of ageing has two goals: to prevent and cure diseases associated with old age; and to expand our maximum lifespan. Recent reports from Harvard University of gene treatment in mice reversing the ageing of the animals’ organs are both exciting and ethically challenging. Should such technology ever transfer successfully to humans, there is a risk society could begin to see normal ageing as a disease rather than a natural process.

Today will see a new government take office with plans to introduce a universal, single-tier health service. Providing medical care based on need rather than ability to pay and shifting the care of chronic disease from hospitals to primary care will benefit older people. But there is a need for clarity on who will pay for aids, appliances and residential modifications in the new system, without which some older people will be unable to remain in their own homes. And the new minister for health must address ongoing deficiencies in the residential and community care of older people, with many essential supports available on a patchy and geographically inequitable basis.