Longevity will force a rethink on our attitude to elderly

The good thing about having an ageing population is that it could prompt us to reimagine the future, writes Clodagh Finn.

EVERY time I pass his house, I wonder how he is doing. Our elderly neighbour, that is. He kept the most meticulous garden and now that he has gone into a nursing home, it has gone to wrack and ruin.

Actually, somebody cut the grass recently, so it’s short and tufty but the beautiful flower-beds have long since lost their colour-coordinated order.

That house was a joy to pass; not only to see what was possible in an urban garden but also to see its green-fingered occupant busy at work.

There’s another garden like that around the corner. I’m not sure what became of its elderly keeper, but since she left, the allium, the irises and the agapanthus have all gone too.

Perhaps both neighbours are gardening happily in their respective retirement homes and I hope so, but their gardens provide a daily reminder of what lies ahead for all of us.

It is in everybody’s interest to think about that because, let’s face it, all of us are going to be older for longer.

All the stats tell the same story — we are now living in the age of longevity. Life expectancy in Ireland has increased by 15 years since 1950. In 2015, the average Irish male could expect to make 79 years of age, while Irish women would see 83.

Why, then, do we persist in having such a negative attitude to old age?

Yes, thankfully, there has been a shift in the conversations around retirement. There’s the growing recognition that you don’t stop being a productive adult at age 65, or whatever age the State imposes retirement.

The change in the qualifying age for the State pension has prompted a welcome rethink about retirement. About time too, because by 2036, the number of people over the age of 65 years will double to about 1.1m. And the greatest increase will be in the 85+ age group, according to Census 2016.

Too often, you’ll find those statistics quoted as advance warning of the calamity unleashed on an already over-burdened health service.

Mention Ireland’s ageing population and it is, almost always, spoken about as if it is a burden and a thing to be feared.

It’s deeply ingrained in all of us. What do you think of when you hear the word ‘elderly’ — do the words decline, dependence, or decay come to mind? Or something more positive, such as wisdom and the kind of deep acceptance that comes with having seen it all before?

If all goes according to the projections, we are going to have lots of time to think about that. While we’re thinking, we might try to imagine a different kind of tomorrow; one that does not consider old age as an affliction.

As Justin Moran, head of advocacy and communications with Age Action said, the fact that people are living longer, healthier lives is a huge success story.

We’re not facing a demographic crisis, but a policy crisis, he says. The Government, which, ironically, is about to be led by its youngest-ever Taoiseach, must plan and prepare for what lies ahead.

However, it’s heartening to think that we don’t have to leave it entirely in their hands. Let’s take inspiration from a group of women in the UK who have just opened the first co-housing development set up for older women as an alternative to a retirement home.

Last month, 25 women, aged in their 50s to 80s, moved into a development in Barnet, north of London, where they will live in separate apartments, but as part of a retirement community providing support for each other.

All of the women involved were, for one reason or another, living alone but they wanted to retain independence and dignity into old age.

After hearing co-housing advocate Maria Brenton speak out against the institutions and agencies that encourage older people to be dependent, they came together to make it happen.

There’s a wonderful picture of them wearing hard hats inspecting the site. What better way to get the message out there that older women are far from passive or past it.

Retirement co-housing, already popular in Denmark and the Netherlands, is not communal living. It means you live close to, rather than with, those around you.

It typically involves a development of about 20 to 30 private houses clustered around a shared space. The idea is to create a community for everyone’s mutual benefit. The architecture is designed to facilitate frequent interaction and cultivate sharing and caring.

There has been some interest in co-housing here. For instance, Cloughjordan Co-housing has been working to design and finance a co-housing scheme in the Cloughjordan Ecovillage, but there hasn’t been much talk about how it might provide an alternative to nursing homes.

Nobody is saying that growing old is without its challenges. Bette Davis was not alone in thinking that old age is no place for sissies.

That’s just it. If you make it to old age, you don’t get there without retaining a fighting spirit, but one that might not yet be ready for a nursing home.

Those statistics reveal other social truths. One is that women live longer than men and, another, that women over 65 are twice as likely as men to live on their own.

Without meaning to overdo the stats, here’s one more: The health impact of loneliness and social isolation is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Surely it’s worth looking at the idea of an Irish co-housing development; setting up places where older women — or indeed men — could look out for each other, not after each other.

There will come a time when those people might need full-time care, but what better way to address the current gap — that awkward time when people need a little help but do not need to be in full-time residential care.

Let’s make the very most of those potentially enjoyable and productive years.


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