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Ageing, as measured in years, is not difficult to document. It is often caricatured as a greying process, leading to a slowing down of activities, followed by a withdrawal from active participation in economic and social life. This theme seeks to challenge that caricature, enabling the child to discover who is old, while providing information on the range of lives it is possible to have as one grows older. One of the travesties in this area is that, too often, ageing is depicted in one-dimensional terms. Ageing is portrayed as a homogenous process that affects everyone in the same inflexible way. This is why people are expected to retire once they reach sixty-five years of age, whether they want to or not. Ageing is, of course, not the same for every person. Just as people experience life in different ways at different times, so too do people deal with ageing in many different ways, depending on their own personality and circumstances.
For children, of course, age is relative. Brothers and sisters are older, parents are old, and grandparents are ancient. Changes in the composition of households, smaller family sizes and distance means that the level of interaction between young and old is lower now than it used to be. This fact creates its own barriers to knowledge about who is old, and what it means to be old. While older people may still be seen, their voice has become fainter and fainter in a noisy and distant world. Some commentators have coined the phrase 'intimacy at a distance' to explain the new relationship between young and old, but it remains a rather cold and forbidding intimacy.
It is ironic that just as the number of older people in this country is now beginning to increase in line with our European neighbours, understanding about the proper relationship between young and old is at its lowest. While respect for older people among the young remains largely intact in Ireland, real understanding about the lives of older people remains poor. Little wonder, therefore, that when older people are spoken of, it is largely in terms of pity rather than celebration, as objects of charity rather than as citizens. The great sadness is that without knowledge of what ageing is and what opportunities it brings, we are condemned to a truncated understanding of our lives and the lives of others. Understanding that ageing goes on throughout all our lives is the key to understanding who is old.
Ireland has the youngest population of all countries in the European Union (EU), but the population is slowly beginning to age. Old age is normally seen as beginning at sixty-five years and over. That being so just over 11 per cent of the Irish population are old in this definitional sense. This proportion will increase to 14 per cent by the year 2016, rising to 22 per cent in the year 2036. What is perhaps even more significant in policy terms will be the increase in the numbers of people over eighty, the majority of whom will be women. Women live longer than men so much so that they dominate the higher ranges of the age pyramid in all European countries. In Ireland, two thirds of people aged eighty or over are women.
The majority of older people are fit and independent and live at home. Only about 20,000 older people, equal to 5 per cent of the elderly population live in either public or private long-stay care. A further 7 per cent of older people living at home are quite dependent and need a lot of care, which is mainly provided by family and friends. Most of the older people living at home live in private housing, the majority of which is owned outright. Although recently, there has been a significant increase in social housing for older people. The proportion of older people living alone is just over 25 per cent, which is low by international standards, and is not expected to increase significantly in the coming decades.
This theme examines the relationship between age and attitudes, and explores what younger people think of older people. The emphasis is on generating positive attitudes to ageing among younger people. If life can be explained in a narrative way, as a story, then ageing is central to that narrative and our understanding of ourselves. It is the connections between the various stages of our life that give us meaning. People gradually change in appearance, gain more experience and wisdom, but are essentially part of the same story. This story begins at birth and finds first social expression in the primary-school classroom. Growing old is a natural part of life. The you was me once, and the me will be you in the future.
Healthy ageing is possible and meaningful only if older people are able to participate fully, on their own terms, in all aspects of economic and social life. What sometimes stops older people from participating fully in society are ageist attitudes on the part of others, which sets limits on what older people can and cannot do and be. Older people are sometimes characterised as helpless, defenseless, and not able to fully make decisions for themselves. More perniciously, older people may be stigmatized as redundant, dependent, and, in more extreme language, as a drain on society's resources. This theme explores the meaning of ageism and helps children to identify ageist attitudes in themselves and others. It encourages children to challenge stereotypical negative descriptions of ageing and older people by highlighting the individual and positive dimensions of ageing.
One of the most fundamental questions addressed in this theme is what to call people as they grow older. While there is no consensus on this issue, the important point is to encourage children to confront the negative labeling of older people. Labels carry symbolic meaning and tell us a great deal about the role and status of the labeled. In a recent Eurobarometer survey on how people over sixty years should be described, the majority vote among older people across the EU was split between 'senior citizens' and 'older people'. The former nomenclature was most favoured in Ireland by older people themselves. While in these lesson we have used the term 'older people' as the dominant nomenclature, primarily for ease of understanding by the children, the concept of citizenship for older people is important as witnessed by their own preferred choice of name.
Letting older people make their own decisions is critical to ageing well. Choice and autonomy are central to the lives of young and old. It is important, therefore, as far as is possible and practicable, that older people remain in control of their own lives. For this to happen older people must, first of all, have sufficient income and opportunities to make decisions. If people are fit and well, they should be encouraged and facilitated to participate fully in economic and social life. Examples are given in the lessons of the positive contribution that older people make as mentors and advisers in business and voluntary work. Even if older people become dependent, they should be facilitated to live at home unless their condition demands hospital treatment. Asking older people what they want is better than telling them what they want, and is one of the central tenets of citizenship.
Valuing the contribution that older people make to society is a fundamental message running through all of the lessons in this theme. Sometimes this contribution is seen as finished once a certain age is reached. For example, older people are often valued only for what they have done or achieved during their lives. While retrospection is important, given the role that older people have played in developing both the economy and society, it is essential not to neglect the on-going contribution of older people. Being aware of what older people have done during their lives is important, but so also is information on what they do now and what they will do in the future. Knowledge of the wholeness of older people's lives, both actual and potential, is the best antidote to ageist attitudes and ageism in our society.
The vast majority of older people are fit and well and make a valuable contribution to economic, social and, in particular, family life in Ireland. Older people do jobs around the house, mind grandchildren, care for ill and dependent relatives, provide companionship, and give advice and emotional support to other family members. Contact between the generations is strong with high levels of interaction between young and old. The majority of older people remain integrated with their families. A good deal of learning and knowledge transfer between old and young continues to occur within families.
Some older people, however, are unable to do things for themselves due to chronic illness or the condition of old age. They depend on the support and care of family and friends to help them deal with the difficulties associated with their dependency and disability. Older people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable groups in society and deserve special consideration. This theme allows children to consider the concept of caring and sharing within the home. It provides information on the nature and amount of care provided to older people by family members. Carers are often older people themselves.
Care can come from a variety of sources. Formal care services from the Health Board include services like public health nurses, home helps, and various types of day-care facilities. The problem is that while existing community care services are usually good, there are not enough of them to deal with all of the existing problems. This means that family care is by far the dominant form of support for dependent older people living at home. Family carers provide a valuable service. Without them many older people currently living at home would have to be admitted to long-stay residential care, which is either publicly or privately provided.
The vast majority of carers are family relatives, with about half of dependent older people cared for by a member of their own household. Carers are usually women, made up mainly of daughters, wives, and daughters-in-law. Only one in ten carers are husbands or sons. Where carers are spouses, or brothers or sisters, they are also likely to be older people. Family carers spend an average of forty-seven hours per week providing care. This figure increases considerably as the dependency of the older person increases, up to eighty-six hours per week for people looking after the most dependent older people.
Carers incur both personal and financial costs in their caring role. Carers may have to give up work in order to look after the older person in their care. Some carers work part-time or forego career advancement in order to care. All carers give up leisure time in order to care. Caring can be very restrictive and places huge strains on the personal lives of carers. Carers show greater than average levels of psychological distress. Almost one in three carers believe that their health has suffered because of the strains of caring. Those people looking after older people with dementia are at even greater risk of psychological distress.
So why do carers provide so much care at such cost to themselves? The obvious answer is because of some combination of love and affection for the person being cared for. But caring roles may also be affected by social norms, which may explain why the majority of caring is done by women. Women are regarded by some as natural carers and are expected to provide whatever care is required within families. Patterns of care within families are also related to commitments and responsibilities, which have evolved over time and incorporate elements of reciprocity between the carer and older person. Many of those currently being looked after cared for their carers as children. A common theme running through the lessons is the notion of shared dependency within families.
The lessons also deal with the important issue of support for family carers in the caring role. Caring is a fundamental part of inter-generational solidarity, but it is sometimes taken for granted. The vast majority of carers want to care, but they need more support, especially financial support. Although there were improvements in the Carer's Allowance in 1999, the scheme is still not universal. Carers also need more information on entitlements, as well as relief care of various kinds. This theme highlights the inter-generational nature of caring and sharing. It emphasizes the need for those who do not yet have to care to support those who care now and who cared in the past.
This theme highlights the fact that older people have the capacity to remain active in work and play to the end of their lives if they remain fit and healthy. Active ageing should, therefore, incorporate a varied menu of choices for older people, which gives expression to their various needs and skills. The range of activities of older people in both work and play is highlighted in the lessons of this theme. Older people are currently engaged in both paid and unpaid work and in education. This emphasizes the fact that work, play, and learning can be life-long activities with no fixed cut-off points.
There is no set legal age at which a person must retire in Ireland. However, retirement is usually set in the contract of employment, or through custom and practice for the job. Generally, the normal retirement age is sixty-five years. A small but significant proportion of the workforce continues to work well in to old age, approximately 30,000 people in 1995. However, the number of people aged sixty-five years and over in the paid labour force declined significantly throughout the last century. This was mainly due to the reduction in the numbers of people employed in agriculture and improvements in the social welfare system. There is no provision for flexible retirement in Irish law. Early retirement is a matter for negotiation between employers and employees, or their representatives.
When flexibility does occur it is mainly down the age range only. Early retirement has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Employment rates for men aged 60-64 in Ireland declined from 82 per cent in 1970 to 60 per cent in 1991. Some of this early exit has been voluntary with workers opting to leave the paid labour force to pursue other interests and activities. Unfortunately, for many workers early exit from the labour market has not been voluntary. In periods of high unemployment, for example during the 1980s, older workers were often selected for redundancy. Older workers who are made redundant find it very difficult to re-enter the paid labour force and are de facto retired before they reach sixty-five years of age.
Discrimination on the basis of age is now outlawed in this country, thanks to recent anti-discrimination legislation. Ireland is one of the few countries in the world that has enacted legislation against age discrimination. In a 1992 Eurobarometer survey on attitudes to ageing and older people in the EU, a very high proportion of people of all ages thought that older workers were discriminated against with respect to job recruitment, promotion and training. There is little doubt that discrimination has been an insidious part of the labour market experience of older workers, particularly in times of high unemployment and labour surplus.
Demographic changes now occurring with varying degrees of speed across Europe are causing governments to rethink the role of older workers in the labour force. There will be a significant increase in older people and a decline in younger people in Ireland in the next two decades. This will coincide with a general ageing of the workforce in the upcoming decades. Once the baby-boom generation begins to pass into retirement in about twenty years time, the goods and services produced by a shrinking pool of workers will have to be shared by an increasing number of people not at work if current retirement practices continue. This has set alarm bells ringing, not least due to the problem of providing pensions for increasing numbers of older people in the country.
The emphasis in the future will be on finding ways to keep older workers in the labour force. This can be a positive development if handled properly. Instead of older people being forced out of the labour force at a relatively young age, they may now be encouraged to play an active part in the economy and society for much longer. Incentives for early retirement are likely to be abolished, and active ageing will probably be encouraged. Active ageing is critical to the well-being of older people and society generally, if interpreted in the right way. For active ageing policies to be successful, the wholeness of individuals must be recognised. Active ageing implies a high degree of flexibility in how individuals choose to allocate their time over their later years - in work, in learning, in leisure, and in care giving. The more active older people are, and the more flexibility they have to pursue their various interests, the better the quality of their lives. This is the central message of this theme.
This theme is concerned with how the media influence our attitude to age and older people. The emphasis is on helping the child to understand the effect of the media in shaping our attitudes to the ageing process. The media come in many forms and include newspapers, books, radio, television and film. Young people are influenced by each of these mediums, particularly by television and film. If older people are absent from the media, or are portrayed in a negative way, this will have a negative effect on our attitudes to ageing. Unfortunately, the media have contributed to an ageism culture in society, which can lead to prejudice and discrimination against older people. The stereotyping of older people, either systematic or casual, can lead to misunderstanding and injustice between young and old. The aim of this theme is to create awareness in the children of the benefits of a critical approach to understanding the portrayal of older people in the media.
The way that older people are described matters. We have already mentioned in an earlier theme that people aged sixty or over prefer to be called either 'older people' or 'senior citizens'. While these terms are sometimes used, the word elderly is now more commonly used to describe older people, based on an age cut-off point. The problem with the term elderly is that it assumes a certain homogeneity in older people, which is at variance with what we know about the lives of most older people. It is a convenient label, but presupposes too much. An older person is just older; a senior citizen remains a citizen. However, an elderly person is different from other people, yet is assumed to be the same as everybody else who is in the same age category. Nobody assumes that people aged 25-29 share the same characteristics as people aged 45-49. Yet, that is what we are asked to believe about people aged 65-69 and 85-89, who are simply lumped together and called elderly. There are just as many differences in the older populations as there are in younger populations. The problem is that we are not always allowed to see the differences in the older populations.
Part of the reason for this is the portrayal of older people in the media. Stories about the burdens imposed by older people on society are not hard to find. These stories sometimes reach apocalyptic proportions when reference is made to the demographic time-bomb ticking ever louder as more and more people reach the age of sixty-five, the arbitrary cut-off point for being elderly. The term burden is especially used to highlight the economic implications of ageing populations. The economic burden usually incorporates the cost of pensions, medical care and long-term care. The use of the word burden carries an implicit threat for society directly attributable to a specific group in society called 'the elderly'. The irony is, of course, that before the writers and readers of such stories know it, they too are old.
In contrast, children are rarely referred to as a burden, presumably because their most productive years are yet to come and, therefore, they can be seen as an investment for the future rather than as a drain on resources. This dichotomy is understandable, because of the way the economy has replaced society as the reference point for progress in our lives. If all we think about is material progress and economic growth, then productivity can be defined in only one way, that is, in terms of the contribution people make to economic development. This is unfortunate and wrong, because within this framework once a person's working life is over he or she becomes invisible. It as if their contribution to society is also finished, which of course for the vast majority of people is untrue.
Older people continue to make a vital contribution at the level of the family and of society. Sometimes it is difficult to see that contribution due to the myopic portrayal of older people in the media as outsiders in the productive economy. Part of the challenge in these lessons is to encourage children to question what they see and hear in the media. The lessons provide ample opportunity for the children to challenge the negative stereotyping of older people through the positive affirmation of age and relationships between the generations. I am not you needs to be transformed into I am like you for real continuity and solidarity between young and old.
The overall aim of this theme is to explore ageing around the world by looking at similarities and differences in the experience of growing old. Ageing is taking place in all countries. European countries, however, have much older age profiles than African or Asian countries, where fertility rates have only recently begun to decline. China will, however, soon become an older country. The number of people surviving into old age is higher in developed countries than in less-developed countries.
By the year 2020, there will be twice as many older people in the EU as there were in 1960. The major growth in older people in Europe will take place in the very old age categories, which are predominantly made up of women with a ratio of 2:1, females to males. While ageing populations is a general phenomenon in Europe, the degree and pace of ageing differs across the EU. Ireland has the lowest percentage of older people in the EU, but over the next two decades will move towards current EU averages.
The participation of older people in political activity varies across countries with the United States (US) leading the way in age-interest politics. Age-based politics is sometimes a reaction to perceived injustices between the generations. Conflict between the generations is related to the degree of social integration between young and old, within a country. Although Europe is not likely to follow the age-interest politics of the US, there are differences in relationships between young and old across the EU. Older people in Denmark and Ireland have the most positive attitudes towards younger people, whereas Belgium and Italy have the least positive attitudes.
The steady increase in life expectancy resulting from advances in medical science, technology and living conditions is responsible for the large and increasing numbers of older people in the world. There are, however, significant and persistent differences in life expectancy at age sixty-five across countries. Older people in Ireland have the poorest life expectancy at age sixty-five in the developed world, much worse than might be expected given the level of economic development in the country. Life expectancy at sixty-five for men in Ireland is thirteen years, which is three years less than in Japan and France. It is two years less than a whole range of economically diverse countries such as Spain, Sweden, Canada and Greece. Life expectancy at sixty-five for women in Ireland is seventeen years, which is four years less than in Japan and France. Economic development in Ireland has not brought about an improvement in life expectancy for older people making this country a relatively unhealthy place to grow old in.
There are differences across countries in the number of older people living alone. In general, living alone is more prevalent in northern Europe and in the US, whereas in southern Europe, Asia, and Africa, older people tend to live with their families. In general, living alone is correlated with economic development. Richer countries tend to have a higher proportion of the population living on their own. There are exceptions, of course, most notably Japan, where the number of older people living alone is low, but the general rule applies. In Ireland, about one in four older people live alone, which is low compared to Nordic countries, but high relative to southern European countries such as Greece, where only 5 per cent of older people aged sixty-five years and over live alone.
There are also differences in the number of people in long-stay residential care across different countries. In the developing world, with less-developed health and social care systems, older people tend to remain in their own homes in the community when they become dependent or disabled. In Europe, there are also differences among countries in the supply of long-stay care facilities. In Denmark, 11 per cent of older people are in residential care, while in contrast, only 2 per cent of older people are in residential care in Spain and Portugal. Once again, there is a north-south divide in terms of patterns of residential care use. Ireland is in-between at just about 5 per cent.
The main objectives of this theme are to explore what life is like for older people, and to create an awareness of the link between our lives now and in the future. The children are encouraged to think about the time when they will be old and the things that may interest them then. They are also encouraged to think about the time when people who are older now were young, and the things that they may have been interested in the past. Projecting forward and backward in this way allows the children to explore the continuity and connections between young and old. Ageing is often presented in a dichotomous way, with very discrete changes between the different stages of life. Most of us know that this is not the case, and that ageing is a gradual process that is influenced by what has happened in the past and what people think may happen in the future.
A good understanding and relationship between young and old are critical to the well-being of society and to healthy ageing. An interesting exercise, and one that philosophers have used in other contexts, is to ask people to think about the future in terms of the best set of relationships possible for society. In this theme, the children are asked to think about life when they are older. What kind of life would they like to have? Who do they want to be with? Where do they want to live? What do they want to be doing? In addressing these questions, the children are encouraged to consider the lives of older people now, if only as a reference point to what they would like for themselves. Empathy and understanding can only come from considering lives outside of our own.
The lessons emphasize the importance of reaching the future. Healthy ageing requires investment at an early age in healthy living. Many people do not reach old age because of premature death caused by unhealthy living, especially cigarette smoking. The way we live now affects the way we will live, or not live, in the future. Poverty and inequality can also cause early death. Differences across countries in mortality are partly explained by the levels of economic development and the distribution of resources between rich and poor. Ageing is itself a fundamental human right that is clearly not always respected in the world. Asking children to consider these issues allows them to identify the wide range of influences on healthy ageing.
Thinking about the future allows us, therefore, to consider what we would like to change, both in our own lives, because we are the older people of tomorrow, and in society generally, because public policy influences all of our lives. The critical dimension is for older people to be treated as citizens, with the same rights and responsibilities as younger people. When we can stop talking about positive attitudes towards older people, full citizenship will have been achieved.
A useful way to think about the future is to focus on ways to bridge the gap between the actual and the potential in the lives of older people: between what they currently achieve and what they might achieve given more opportunities. That gap is larger for some older people than for others, but the gap is there for the vast majority of older people. The task for the future is to increase the potential of people's lives through greater understanding and solidarity between the generations.
Public policy for older people has a role to play in bridging the gap between the actual and the potential of older people's lives. Equality legislation, flexible retirement, life-long learning, adequate income, social housing, health promotion, and investment in community-based health and social care services all have a role to play in healthy ageing. In that regard, continued economic growth, allied to the change in the population structure, may free more resources for spending on older people in the future.
However, while it is likely that older people in the future will have more choices and opportunities than older people now, greater choice will not necessarily mean a better quality of life, unless it is accompanied by a greater solidarity between the generations. This is what this project and the various themes in it are about.