ONE of the more popular car stickers of recent years was the one that carried a threat: “Be nice to your children, remember they’ll choose your nursing home.”
It was based on a combination of reality, or likelihood at the very least, and the fear every one of us has about losing control over our lives because of incapacity brought about by illness, poverty or the irreversible ravages of time.
Otherwise brave and confident people can be undone by the thought of leaving their homes and being put at the mercy of anonymous staff made indifferent by long hours and the minimum wage.
We all know people barely past retirement age whose lives are overshadowed by the possibility that they might be placed, or as they would see it dumped, in a nursing home as soon as they need anything beyond the most basic support from their family.
When we reflect on the appalling standards once found at some nursing homes, private or public, it is not hard to understand why. The fact that there is a new regime of inspections and a new set of mandatory standards may, in time, assuage those fears.
The body responsible for ensuring proper standards are observed – the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) – will be to convince us all that there is nothing to fear about Irish nursing homes.
We need to do this because of Irish society’s unnatural disposition towards ageism. We, despite our constitutional declarations, are far less supportive than we should be of our older citizens.
It may be that older people remind us all of what lies ahead, of our inescapable mortality. Or it just may be indifference to people whose productive lives, we imagine, are behind them.
Our treatment of older people is not confined to how we manage nursing homes. Discrimination against the aged is subtle but it has the capacity to undermine individuals and society.
The Equality Authority gets more complaints on age grounds than any other category. At a time of crisis like this it seems daft not to avail of every resource at our disposal and that includes the great bank of experience built up by senior workers.
These difficulties are exacerbated by the dire situation so many of today’s workers face regarding pensions. Those expecting public service pensions will not enjoy the wonderful benefits their predecessors did. Nearly everyone who has paid into a private pension scheme is facing a far less comfortable retirement than they had planned or provided for.
These changes are a consequence of economic collapse but they will have a very real impact on the quality of life people can expect. It is stating the obvious to say that we need a root-and-branch reform of how we provide for pensions, be they private or public. If we do not we all need to prepare ourselves for huge disappointments.
We nearly all accept that we get the government we deserve and it is probably true to say we get the old age we deserve too. Even if only for selfish reasons we should quickly change our attitudes towards older people because it will be too late far sooner than any of us care to admit.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved