Society must collectively tackle inequality facing older people

Society must collectively tackle inequality facing older people
October 1 marks United Nations International Day of Older Persons and coincides with Positive Ageing Week when communities and groups throughout the country celebrate ageing and the opportunities it brings. Picture: iStock

On International Day of Older Persons, Paddy Connolly says we need to challenge our view of ageing and overcome the structural barriers to equality for all ages 

ONE of the clearest signs of how much progress we’ve made as a society since Independence is the massive increase in life expectancy. In 1916, average life expectancy was 53 years, now, more than 100 years later, average life expectancy has increased by almost 30 years to 81.61 years — a tremendous achievement.

To reap the benefits of this demographic bounty, we, as a society, need to challenge our view of ageing and overcome the structural barriers to equality for all ages.

October 1 marks United Nations International Day of Older Persons and coincides with Positive Ageing Week when communities and organisations throughout the country celebrate ageing and the opportunities it brings.

The UN’s theme for the day this year is: The Journey to Equality and this theme allows us to focus on the fact that the inequalities experienced by many older people reflect an accumulated disadvantage as a result of a lifetime of factors including socio-economic status, race, age, disability, gender, and geography.

Equality for people who are older, and for each of us as we age, cannot be achieved without achieving equality for all of us throughout the life course.

In working for equality, it’s critical that we focus on equality of outcomes not just equality of opportunity. We have to go beyond the notions of fairness and tolerance because fairness can sit too comfortably with ongoing inequality, once some minimum ‘acceptable’ standards are secured.

Take the matter of pensions, for example. The State bestows large advantages on a small proportion of people through tax breaks for private pensions and the rest get an ‘acceptable’ State pension. However, if we brought the tax breaks for private pensions in line with the 33% recommended in the National Pensions Framework and invested the money saved into the State pension, we could dramatically increase all older people’s incomes at no extra cost to the State.

This would transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of older people — many of them in vulnerable situations and living just above the ‘at risk of poverty’ rate — and enable them to thrive, not just get by.

Another area that is central to achieving equality for all older people is cultural and attitudinal change — especially in relation to ageism.

Ageism undermines the status, standing and sense of empowerment of people through individual attitudes and institutional systems rooted in false and generalised assumptions and stereotypes on age, ageing, and older people. For example, when the media use images of frailty to try to characterise the lives of a whole cohort — the vast majority of whom are healthy and active — they create a narrative of dependency, the so-called ‘demographic burden’. Terms such as ‘bed-blockers’, regularly used in mainstream media, are demeaning and de-humanising — they feed generalised assumptions about ageing. Creating a more equal society will involve countering the stereotypes and false assumptions that unfortunately dominate our public discourse on ageing and older people.

It shouldn’t require stating the obvious but older people are not a homogenous group either. They may share a common experience in terms of life-stage and a specific experience of ageism but they may identify as black, Asian, Traveller, or another ethnic minority or as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or intersex.

They may consider their role as a full-time carer as defining who they are. What is certain is that we are all ageing, and we will all benefit from a more equal society.

Intergenerational solidarity has been a powerful driver of change in Ireland in recent years; marriage equality, repeal of the Eighth Amendment, and the current climate justice movement are evidence that we can tackle major social issues through collective purpose.

Identifying structural inequalities — such as the disproportionate burden of unpaid work that falls on women, gender inequality in the pension system, child poverty and homelessness — and building cross-society collaboration to address them — will benefit us all as we age.

We should recognise, as the United Nations International Day of Older Persons theme suggests, that the journey to equality starts now, from childhood to old age, and to tackle inequality facing older people we need to address it collectively as a society at each stage of the life course.

Paddy Connolly is chief executive of Age Action

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