March 13, 2011

IRELAND: Elderly deserve respect not special treatment

DUBLIN, Ireland / The Sunday Independent /  Opinion / Analysis / March 13, 2011

From the bus pass to free medical care, older people are already very well served in our society, writes Eamon Delaney

LAST week Alone, the organisation for the elderly, urged the incoming Government to honour Enda Kenny's promise to make Ireland "the best place on earth where people could age with dignity" and to set up a special Minister for Older Persons.

Alone is an excellent organisation, set up by the late Willie Bermingham, and it is right to echo the valid, if typically over reaching, ambitions of Kenny. But do we really need a special Minister for Older Persons, and why should the old be treated as a special case, when in fact the very opposite may apply?

THE ALONE PROTEST:  Ministry for Old People Dropped    One day after repeating his vision for a country which is the best place on the planet to age in dignity new Taoiseach Enda Kenny has left older people in Ireland without a Minister to promote their interests.  For the first time in 14 years in Ireland there will be no Junior Ministry for Older People.

It is a pertinent point because during the election, a group called Older and Bolder took out full-page newspaper ads stressing the 'rights' of the elderly, and presenting themselves as some kind of marginalised, needy community in terms of public money. It gave the sense of yet another sectional interest group, looking after itself, as opposed to the overall good of the community, and, unfortunately, it reminded one of the over-75s medical cards fiasco.

Who can forget the images of all those affluent people coming in from Killiney and Monkstown to protest about the removal of their free medical care and then howling down the minister when he came to a church meeting to try and make his point. We look to our elders for a sense of dignity and proportion -- but, in this case, it was sadly lacking.

Few commentators were prepared to say this at the time -- but privately many felt it, including many older people, who said that yes, maybe they didn't need these medical cards and maybe surrendering them would be a sacrifice worth making to help others with more genuine needs.

But you wouldn't know this from the media hysteria of the time, and especially the apocalyptic coverage of the always gloomy Prime Time on TV which depicted it as if the pensioners were about to be deported. Now that things are worse, such coverage just looks hysterical.

Of course, we should respect the old and there's nothing worse than a brash, materialistic society which pushes them aside. In Japan, the elderly are revered, and put at the centre of the family and community, as they are in Mediterranean cultures.

We were once like this, too, but now, in our immature imitation of Anglo-American society, we seem content to push the elderly into nursing homes and out of sight. But if Garret FitzGerald can appear on TV talking more sense than the pundits half his age, then why can't we embrace the idea of ageing actively.

For this is the point, why treat older people, in general, as some kind of sacred cow, on the cusp of infirmity? Why also should older people be a special case in terms of public funding? And why should elderly people who are wealthy get free medical care?

Such universality, supported by the Labour Party, and thus by the new Government, has the potential to bankrupt the State. But this is only part of the financial burden, given that the increasing cost of the elderly, who now live longer, has created a 'pensions time bomb' -- or a 'grey lagoon'.

An editorial in last week's Irish Times criticised the use of phrases like 'time bombs' and 'burden on society' as 'unjust and unhelpful'. But this is a PC preoccupation with language. The editorial then welcomed a universal single-tier health service as being 'based on need rather than ability to pay'. But surely the idea of such State services is that they are, by necessity, means tested.

It is puzzling why people on the Left don't concede, and even welcome, such a distinction. Isn't this what they are about, after all -- helping those who can't pay? Unless such advocates really do think there is an unlimited amount of public money always available for such generosity.

But in the editorial's next sentence lies the rub. 'But there is a need for clarity on who will pay for aids, appliances and residential modifications in the new system, without which some older people will be unable to remain in their own homes.'

Precisely: who will pay exactly?

In the UK, a serious debate has opened up about the free services enjoyed in perpetuity by all the elderly. Even the trusty free bus pass has been questioned. According to the Guardian, such free travel costs up to stg£1bn a year -- and yet all surveys show that apparently most old people would gladly cut their usage, and even give up their bus passes, if it meant that the British government would not make the cuts in bus services necessary to save on bus company costs.

In almost all areas of society, the elderly win out financially. A very interesting report in the UK has appeared about the affluence of the 'baby boomer's', as they're called (those born post-1945) and here a survey, published last week, about the Irish over-50s -- hardly the elderly, surely -- reveals the spending power and consumer power of such a constituency. The reality is that many older people did well out of the boom here, selling their properties and downsizing, while it is the younger generation who are stuck with mortgages and negative equity.

If you look at the public sector, that huge draw on our finances, it is those who are retiring now who are doing best with their pensions package, whereas those retiring in the future will not do so well. And those on the lower ends of the civil service pay scales are nearly all younger. In fact, the whole public sector pensions and 'lump sums' bonanza could be seen in Ireland as a case of the older generation beggaring the young.

James Joyce once said that Ireland was 'the farrow that ate its young', and it's still the case. It is not the elderly who are taking the emigrant airplane, after all, but overwhelmingly the young.

This is not to underestimate the tough times that the elderly are also facing, and the particular disadvantages they face. Most pensions have lost their value and are no longer the guarantee of a secure old age that they once were -- itself an indictment of the changed pensions culture. Plus, a lot of old people had invested their life savings in bank shares and these are now worthless. For people on a small pension income, the prospect of water rates and especially property tax means they will now have to pay what could be, to them, substantial amounts in new taxation which they might reasonably have expected to have been spared in their declining years.

And these are taxes that will be with them all their lives -- following them to the grave -- unlike the mortgage which you can at least hope to have paid off in full some day. Nor do many older people have the option of reinventing themselves, and getting new work or qualifications to improve their earning power.

However, in terms of public monies and health, the old are well looked after, better than they ever have been perhaps. And while they, too, have to live through the tough times, everything is relative and much worse is the prospect of raising a young family in commuter land, facing unemployment or emigration, with no prospect of relief. And surely the basis of a welfare state should be to support those of less means, who cannot afford the services -- be they young or old.

Sunday Independent