“I cannot afford either life or home insurance,” she wrote. “I have to go to bed early to save on heating and electricity. My husband passed away last year and I still have not paid off his funeral expenses. We did have life insurance but they cut it because we couldn’t keep up the payments.”
Older people have a great life. We hear it so often there must be some truth to it despite what our members tell us in the run-up to the budget.
They’re living in big houses that they should really sell so that others can buy them and they should go somewhere else – only no one ever seems to be that concerned where that somewhere is.
The State Pension wasn’t cut during the recession so they must have done well, we’re told, never mind the cuts of more than €13 a week in secondary income supports or the changes to the State Pension system in 2012 that punished carers, women and the self-employed.
Too often in this country we see older people as the problem, as dependents, as bed-blockers, as a pensions timebomb, as almost a different species rather than our future selves.
Living longer beats dying earlier
People in Ireland are living longer. This is a success story. Living longer, an Age Action member once reminded me, beats dying earlier.
We should be celebrating the contributions that older people make. More than one in two grandparents provide unpaid childcare looking after their grandchildren. This is what enables their adult children to go to work, to pursue education, to drive our economy.
And many of those grandparents would like to be working but are forced out of their jobs because of ageist and out-dated mandatory retirement contracts, which leave more people on the dole at 65 than at any other age.
Growing old in Ireland should be a positive, rewarding, experience. But, for many, it isn’t.
Growing old in Ireland should not mean growing afraid. But it does.
Savings run out
“I have to draw on savings every month to pay bills,” another member wrote. “When my savings run out, I can’t begin to imagine what will happen as I get older and less able to maintain the house and pay regular bills.”
Pensioners struggling to cope with rising costs are afraid of losing their home because they can’t pay a property tax that seems destined to rise forever. They’re afraid of going into a nursing home because the supports to stay at home aren’t there.
They worry about prescription charges that rose 500 per cent since they were introduced, about nursing home fees, about how they’ll pay for medicine, about ageist car insurance premiums driving them off the road, about energy bills that are growing quickly enough without a big increase in the PSO levy.
Budgets, we’re told, are about making the hard choices. When a pensioner has to choose between which medicine he can afford that week or whether he can really afford the luxury of heating a second room, he doesn’t have much to learn about hard choices from anybody.
Older people built this country. They shouldered their share of the austerity burden. As the economy continues, with their help, to grow they have a legitimate expectation that the sacrifices they made will be acknowledged and that the cuts they endured will be reversed.
The reality is that even with increases in the State Pension over the last two budgets the income of someone on the State Pension and the household benefits package is still lower than it was seven years ago.
And we can forget that not everyone gets the top rate of the State Pension. Women, carers, self-employed, people with a broken record of PRSI contributions, get a fraction of what many people think of as ‘the pension’.
It is a bizarre anomaly of our system that a woman who works for 30 years, taking time out of the workforce to rear a family, will get a smaller pension than a woman who works only the last ten years before the pension age.
We need to stop punishing women for rearing a family. We need to recognise that is a contribution to our communities, our society and our economy no less valuable than someone who goes to work.
If I paint a dark picture, it is because this is the reality for many of Ireland’s 600,000 pensioners but it is important to acknowledge progress.
Minister Jim Daly has launched a public consultation on a desperately needed statutory homecare scheme, Minister Regina Doherty has delivered improvements in how the Fuel Allowance will be paid and just this week the Taoiseach protected the family homes of older people from a crippling new tax.
We welcome the cross-party support for an increase in the State Pension in October but we need to think bigger, much bigger, if we are going to seize the opportunity presented by an ageing population.
Last month the Citizens’ Assembly voted on a number of proposals which could radically improve how Ireland supports older people – and all of us who will grow old – including the abolition of mandatory retirement, proposals for a fairer State Pension system and investment in homecare supports.
The citizens did their job. When their report is delivered to the Oireachtas at the end of September it will be up to the politicians to do theirs.
More than 600,000 registered voters will be watching.