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Speaking as an Elder - Mary Robinson Addresses Age Action's AGM

Written by: Mary Robinson
30/06/2017

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We were delighted to have former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, address our 24th AGM on 27th June 2017: Let me begin with warm congratulations on your 25th Anniversary, which is a significant landmark to reach. You were formed during my time as President, which reminds me that was quite a while ago, and that now I am speaking to you as an Elder!

I still remember vividly the preparatory meeting in South Africa with Nelson Mandela in May 2007 when he told us why he wanted to bring together a group of Elders, and described what he hoped we might do.

He asked us to be an independent voice and to work for peace and human rights. He reminded us that people in a country or a community know best what their problems are, and that we should listen to them.

He also urged us to link in particular with women and with young people. This was a message he repeated again at our formal launch on his birthday, 18th July 2007.

This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes. Together they will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair."

So the Elders will mark our 10th Anniversary in Cape Town on 18th July this year, when we launch a year-long campaign of Walking Together for Freedom, ending on 18th July 2018, Mandela’s 100th birthday.

Elders in a global village

It is interesting that Nelson Mandela chose a group of older people to help further his legacy, seeing us as Elders in the global village. 

He told us to be humble and to listen - perhaps remembering the words of William Cowper, “Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much; Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.”

As Elders, we have taken seriously the need to listen to and engage with young people. We ensure that we meet with them where possible on visits to countries, and we have emphasised the importance of intergenerational equity, particularly when it comes to climate change.

I see some similarities between the Elders and Age Action. It is true that your main focus is on issues relating to older people, but I see that you have a very good approach to young people in your Generations Together programme, in collaboration with the National Youth Council of Ireland.

This is an important value for any country, to value the diversity of people of all ages and to foster intergenerational dialogue and engagement.

Acting CEO Lorraine Fitzsimons presents Mary Robinson with a bouquet of flowers

Impact of austerity

I have read Age Action Ireland’s Strategic Plan for 2016-2018, and I commend you for the priorities you have identified there, and the core values which guide you in your work. I especially liked these two sentences;

We will continue to promote the adoption of a life course approach which recognises ageing as a lifelong process. We will particularly focus on highlighting the needs of the most disadvantaged of older people”.

Your references to the impact of austerity and the reduction in income bring home the harsh reality for a significant number of older people.

Apart from being an Elder, it helped me in preparing for this talk that I am also Chancellor of Dublin University. I have been very proud of the Irish Longitudinal Study in Ageing, (TILDA), led by Trinity College which has built up such a strong evidence base for the work of Age Action Ireland and others.

As Chancellor I was able to call for an update on the contribution of older adults to society in Ireland. You will be glad to know it is very positive – as follows:

“A pervading theme which resonates at each wave of data collection in TILDA is the enormous contribution that adults aged 50 and over make to Irish society. This is evident both in the amount of care provided to others and in financial and other transfers. Contrary to perceptions, the overwhelming direction of transfers of time and financial assistance is to children and grandchildren.

For example, adults aged 54 years and over who have children are more likely to provide financial assistance to their children (48%) than receive financial help from them (3%). Furthermore, half of adults aged 54 to 64 years and 65 to 74 years provide regular childcare for their grandchildren for an average of 36 hours per month.

The high cost of formal childcare in Ireland often precludes mothers from returning to the workforce, therefore, grandparents who provide informal childcare enable many women to remain in the labour market when they have pre-school aged children. The social and economic value of this contribution spreads beyond the immediate family as it benefits the wider economy and society. In the main, the consequences of such transfers are better health and well-being for the provider.

For adults with living parents (14%), one quarter assisted their parent(s) with basic personal care while 43% provided help with other activities such as household chores, errands, shopping, and transportation. Half of older adults, with living parents, also provided financial help to their parent(s).

Adults aged 50 years and older in Ireland are the backbone of our volunteer structure with more than half volunteering during the previous year and 17% doing so at least once per week. Again, volunteering is significantly associated with better mood and quality of life as is regular social participation i.e. sports and social clubs. While many of these social activities are beneficial to the participants’ health and wellbeing, they also help form strong social networks and bonds.

Thus, we provide empirical support to the contention that, far from later years being a time characterised by decline and increased dependency, older adults continue to make valuable contributions to society, with many characterised by active citizenship and participation in the lives of their families and their communities.”

So take a bow older people! You are truly valued.

Setting a challenge

Now let me challenge you to be Elders in Ireland for a cause that we need to take more seriously – climate justice. In 2015, Ireland and over 190 other countries signed up to the 2030 Agenda, with its 17 sustainable development goals, and the Paris Climate Agreement. We are not yet on course to fulfil these commitments.

This is not just a responsibility of government, it is a responsibility of every household. I am sure that many of you grew up in a time when we were encouraged to be thrifty, to mend things and re-use them.

These are skills we need now, in becoming more energy efficient and learning to reduce, re-use and recycle.

As older people we need to think of the world we leave to younger generations. A child born in Ireland today will be 33 years old in 2050, and she will share the world with 9.8 billion people. How will that world have enough food, enough water, and live in social harmony?

This is why it is so urgent that we take steps now to reduce our emissions and move to renewable energy. It is a challenge we can meet, but everyone needs to be involved, and older people need to give a good lead.

Let me end by wishing Age Action Ireland another successful 25 years working on behalf of older people. As the old Irish proverb goes:

“Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine”

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