11 July 2002 Edition

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Elderly people want more than a seat on the bus


Many elderly women in particular, who stayed at home to rear families, were not considered gainfully employed and are now forced to live on welfare pensions that are significantly less than contributory pensions
Sylvia Meehan is President of the Senior Citizens’ Parliament, an umbrella group for a number of age organisations. She believes elderly people are discriminated against in society.

A report from the Equality Authority in an attempt to highlight the phenomenon of widespread ageism in Irish society backs up her view. Titled "Implementing equality for older people", it finds that negative stereotypes of older people are evident in many sectors of Irish society. It says that negative and ill informed assumptions as to the relationship between a person’s age and a person’s capacity all too often shape decision making by employers, health providers, governmental bodies and the general public.

This report is a positive step for elderly people who are being discriminated against but who may not even realise their rights are being curtailed, says Sylvia.

"The organisations I am involved in aim to lobby and influence decision making in areas such as health, welfare, income, employment and education," she told us in an interview. "In many respects, older people are lacking a voice and when you take away the voice of a group they are ignored and forgotten."

A number of systemic and institutional factors pose barriers to the participation of older people in social, economic and political life. Among these is the general consensus that older people should retire from paid employment when they reach the age of 65.

Sylvia points out that there are some people who may want to and are capable of working beyond the age of 65. "There are many people out there who reach 65 and do want to retire," she said. "But there are also people who feel quite capable of continuing in their jobs and feel under pressure to retire just because they have reached that pre-ordained age. Turning 65 does not mean you become incompetent overnight. There are people who at 65 are more competent than they have ever been. They may have an awful lot to contribute to their job, based on their experiences and education."

The report recommends that people should not be discriminated against in paid employment on the basis of their age. If an elderly person’s health is failing and this is affecting their performance in a job, then an employer has a right to suggest retirement to that person, but an employer should not suggest retirement on the basis of age alone.

Sylvia believes that once a person is considered to not be contributing economically, they become less of a person in society's eyes, and this discrimination extends even beyond old people.

"Many elderly people fear that if they are forced to retire from their jobs they will become worthless, and this fear encourages them to cling to their jobs, even if they would like to retire. The stigma attached to not directly contributing to the GNP of a country has to be removed. Many older people have worked their whole lives and deserve to retire and still retain the respect of society."

A key element the report highlights is the discrimination in pensions directed at older people who were not 'employed' during their lives. Many elderly women in particular, who stayed at home to rear families, were not considered gainfully employed and are now forced to live on welfare pensions that are significantly less than contributory pensions.

Sylvia feels that there is a strong argument for raising the rates of welfare pensions, especially in the cases of women who did not choose to abstain from gainful employment.

"These women are responsible for the youth of today. They stayed at home and reared often large families on next to nothing and what thanks do they receive? None. They are given a small pension, to live on for the rest of their days, by a society that has forgotten where it came from."

Another issue the report focuses on is the lack of involvement of elderly people in politics. Most age action groups are adamant that they should be included in all levels of political decision making. The report states that a process of 'active ageing' should be pursued, and this denotes involvement in society to the maximum extent possible.

In line with this, older people should be entitled to their say in political matters, particularly ones they feel they are most affected by. The Partnership schemes are noted as being especially lacking in a voice from groups for the aged.

"The Partnerships are made up of all manner of groups – women’s groups and young people’s groups and so on, but they do not contain old people’s groups. This is implying that what older people have to say is of no value," Sylvia says.

"Although young people in today’s society often feel that it is only older people who have a say in politics, because of their perception of the majority of politicians, this isn't the case. There may be older individuals involved in politics but the ordinary elderly person feels as misrepresented as many young people do,"

Sylvia adds. "There is no calender date when we cease to be citizens. We must not be excluded from political decision making. We need to have our place in the partnership agreements that make decisions affecting us all. Discrimination against older people on grounds of calender age is always wrong."

The equality report outlines the valuable contributions that many elderly people can make to society. It states that older people should be valued for their life-experiences, and that many are great listeners as well as great advisors. Along with this, due regard must be paid to differences in older people, differences that are reflected in their particular situation, experience and identity.

It states: "We must repect the diversity of older people as old men, old women, old Travellers and other minority groups, older gays and lesbians and older people with disabilities." Old people, it says, must not be lumped together under the one category of 'old', but be recognised for the people that they are.

An area of great importance to elderly people is health. Sylvia points out that many older people fear that because of the inadequacies in the health service, their needs may be neglected and placed below the needs of younger people.

"This is, of course, no reflection on the young people, but on the health service in general," she says. "Elderly people would like to be able to help reform this system, which is of vital importance to their lives. The health service should be available to everyone; heartbreaking decisions over who should benefit from it based on age should not have to be made."

Speaking at the launch of the report, the Chief Executive of the Equality Authority, Niall Crowley, said: "This is an equality report that is not just for older people of today but all generations in the future, given the potential of all to become older people. This must give urgency to our search for a society where capacity and potential is not deemed to be determined by chronological age, where cultural norms celebrate and accord a prominence to all ages, and where older people are integral to the economic, political, cultural and affective arenas of society."

The report says these issues can be addressed through legislative change, the full participation of older people and their organisations in decision making, age awareness training for policy makers, service providers and employers, and age-proofing or assessing of all policies for their impact on older people.

The report is available on the Equality Authority's website.

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