AS more and more of us live longer it is prudent that we discover as much as we can about how our lives change as we age.
Without this data uncertainty, disappointment and hardship are all too possible.
The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) is the most comprehensive study of its kind to date — it cost €29 million to prepare — and will follow the lives of more than 8,000 people aged 50 years and over for the next seven years.
Initial findings suggest that older people, who for no reason other than their age have seen it all before, are happier, have a strong sense of community and are more financially independent than stereotyping might suggest.
TILDA has also identified the invaluable contribution most older people make to their family and community.
Though intergenerational family support has been a facet of Irish life for generations, our changed circumstances are reflected in the statistics which show a third of older people provide household help to their children and nearly half play a significant part in caring for their grandchildren so their children can go to work. This can often be a joy but for some older people it can be a burden, especially as energy levels begin to drop, but it is one more consequence of our decade of madness that cannot be easily resolved.
Another is that family financial transfers flow mainly from parents to adult children. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of older people have given substantial — €5,000 or more — help to their children in the last decade. Some of this may have been largesse but it is not hard to believe that a good proportion of it was needed to support younger families under financial pressure.
Research did uncover a trend that should be cause for concern. A lot of undiagnosed health problems were confirmed, most notably that 58% of men and 49% of women had high blood pressure but were unaware of the threat. Just as worrying was the statistic that showed that only 20% of those who showed symptoms of depression had been treated for the illness.
TILDA will undoubtedly amass a great mountain of detail but it is not too hard to identify the primary concerns of someone approaching the autumn of their life. Each of us will want to remain independent as long as is possible. We will want the company of loved ones and friends to avoid that great catalyst for unhappiness — loneliness. We will worry too that if we have to move to a nursing home that we might be forgotten and neglected.
Recent history shows that these fears can be justified. To counter this, and create a well-deserved peace of mind for older people and their families, the inspectorate established to monitor nursing homes must be active and have all the powers it needs to create an air of confidence around nursing homes.
Each of us can play a part in trying to make sure that neighbours and relatives are not lonely and as communications technology advances there is no excuse for not making that longed-for call.
Thankfully, TILDA has established that the majority of older people are happy and we must do what we can to make sure if that statistic changes it changes for the better.
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