TERRY PRONE: Older people should be prized in this day and age of skills shortages

Where were the organisations that get state money to promote the interests of older people? writes Terry Prone

Where were the public representatives whose positions depend on fighting for the marginalised? Where were the columnists who have made their names writing about every major civil and human rights issue? Where were the half-million faithful knocking themselves out for a glimpse of the Pope?

Nowhere, that’s where they were. Silent as the grave. The three monkeys with their paws over mouths, eyes, and ears had nothing on them for willful uninvolvement. Potential contenders in the presidential election were allowed to rubbish Michael D Higgins, on the basis that, by the time it came to the end of his second term, he’d be too old for it.

Some of the commentary was rationalised by the argument that he had broken a promise — indeed, the first President in Irish history to do so.

He had broken the promise he had made when campaigning, the first time around, to be a one-term President.

Which raises a number of questions, foremost among which is why — in the first place, back then — he was asked about running for a second term. A second, related question is why we don’t remember any of the other contenders being asked the same question. That’s probably because they weren’t.

The reason they weren’t asked that question is, of course, that they weren’t as old as Michael D. It didn’t help that he was a bit wonky on the feet, having had knee surgery, but, you know what? Golfers and footballers are not found guilty of impending incapacity, due
to old age, when they have knee surgery. Furthermore, nobody has ever suggested that the reason Ivan Yates broadcasts, when he can, from a standing-up position, is because he is disabled by age, even though he cheerfully proclaims himself to be nudging sixty.

Surgery can happen at any point in life, even pre-birth, and yet Michael D was backed into a corner, last time around, by having had surgery, and by his age and the presumed symptoms of that age. Nobody actually said “You mightn’t last the full second term, you know”, because that would have been in bad taste.

The reality, of course, is that one of the contenders in that election, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, died long before the first term was completed. Had he been elected, this would have happened to him anyway, and had nothing to do with his age. Rare genetic diseases, such as that which killed McGuinness, are not particularly associated with age, any more than knee injuries are.

The statistics bend the other way. If you survive to be 70, your chances of reaching 80 are high. If you survive to be 80, your chances of reaching 90 are good, too. And yet Michael D was pursued, back then, by enough variants of the age question to persuade him to make a major concession: He wasn’t going to trouble the nation with his problematic eighties. He was going to do the decent thing and bow out while still in his seventies. If the nation put him in the Aras for the first while, he wouldn’t push his luck and come back for a second helping.

Older people should be prized in this day and age of skills shortages

Now, the argument about breaking promises is a separate issue. The problem here is that the promise was dragged out of Michael D, first time around, under implicit (and sometimes explicit) duress. The consensus was that age would be a disqualifier. Nobody past their seventies ever achieved anything, was the unspoken statement, so the nation needed insurance that Michael D would be removed before he became incapable.

None of the advocacy groups stamped their feet. None of the politicians, either.

But here’s the thing. If we go along with the proposition that 80-year-olds are past everything, why are we getting so enthusiastic about His Holiness, the 82-year-old Pontiff, coming to Ireland this summer? And why would the universal Roman Catholic Church still hold Pope John XXXIII in such high regard? Oh, yes, that was because, at a grievously advanced age, he understood, as none of the younger bishops did, that radical reform within the Church was needed, and set up Vatican II.

Konrad Adenauer was chancellor in Germany until he was 87, and the latter years were not a slippers-on, feet-up period. Adenauer had a work ethic that bordered on the obsessive and he didn’t stop the hard slog just because he got older. Bernie Sanders tapped into this when he ran for the US presidency, and his more than respectable showing was greatly helped by his capacity to convert young people to his cause.

John XXXIII summed it up neatly, if in a sexist way. “Men are like wine,” he opined. “Some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.”

Yet, in this country, we grieve over wasting state money investing in one age group and ostentatiously militate against a second age group paying off on state investment. It’s costly to educate doctors and nurses, so it bothers us when they buzz off to Oz to make money and barbecue spare ribs.

It’s costly to educate most workers, yet, at a time when we’re hitting full employment and are beginning to see severe skills shortages, we’d basically love if older skilled people would buzz off to Oz. We can’t stuff gardaí through Templemore fast enough to fill the gaps in their ranks, but instead of extending their retirement age, we’ve arranged it that gardaí have to retire at 60.

No choice.

Nobody examines their knees for signs of advancing age. Nobody makes them do a test to see if they could outrun a miscreant. They could be athletic Einsteins when they hit their 60th birthday, but that doesn’t count. Understandably, dismissed from the force, they look at overseas possibilities, so one former garda is something terribly important and well-paid in the Cayman Islands and another is the head of Europe’s maritime drug interdiction service, based in Portugal.

Fair dues to them, but they represent a lot of state investment thrown away.

We are vastly intolerant of old age in this country, and the main point arising from Michael D’s age-related travails is that old age is our last civil rights frontier

People over 60 are equal citizens. They have equal rights. They cannot be discriminated against because of age. They should not be written about in media as different and lessened by age. They should not be questioned by media based on prejudicial age assumptions. Nobody has the right to make predictive judgements about someone’s performance, based on their age.

And here’s the truth of it. No matter how young you are, if you don’t fight the age thing now, let me tell you, they’ll come for you in your time.

Or, rather, years before your time.


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