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A Fair Society for All? Listening to the Voices of Older People

Published 12/09/2019


Often, inequalities experienced by older people reflect an accumulated disadvantage which can be as a result of factors such as socio-economic status, health, gender, location. How existing inequalities impact on us as we age is something we in Age Action explored through a panel discussion 10 September – A Fair Society For All? Listening to the Voice of Older People – in Croke Park, on the occasion of the Annual General Meeting 2019.

An audience of over 160 people, including members of Age Action and people working in the ageing sector, joined the conversatoin which included a panel disucssion moderated by the CEO Paddy Connolly. The discussion centred on a discussion paper, Equality for All - Older People for Equality, published by Age Action in advance.The  panel set the scene with inputs from Michael Taft, Economist and political economy columnist, Colette Bennett, Policy Analyst Social Justice Ireland, Deirdre Garvey, CEO The Wheel, Ailbhe Smith, Co-Director of Together for Yes.

Michael Taft set the scence by challenging some of the myths that surround the "demographic timebomb - an insulting pejorative phrase" used to describe our ageing population. Michael outlined how Ireland does not have one of the most generous State Pension rates in Europe particlarly when one considers the access to services such as healthcare and public transport that other members of the EU enjoy. He explained how Ireland’s current economic model does not measure long term impact; it does not allow downstream benefits to be analysed with upfront capital infrastructure costs. He said that the dominant mentality  is "how much will it cost not what are the benefits which can accrue from investment in public goods and services".  Taft noted  many people who work at a community level be they teachers or public health nurses have an impact on the fabric of communities. He said that their contribution out of hours and that of thousands of volunteers up and down the country 'is the “stuff” which communities are made of' yet it is not correctly counted or measured and therefore not valued. 

Picking up on the budgetary cycle that currently sets the rate of State Pension and secondary benefits Colette Bennet noted that If all social transfers were removed, the number of people who would have been at risk of poverty in Ireland was 43.8%. Referring to the shift in homeownership she highlighted the increased number of older people paying off mortgages - an increase of 26% in the 2011 to 2016 period - which raises serious questions about the income adequcy of people relying on the State Pension which would be 'inadequate to meet average mortgage repayments or even the average rents in the private rental market' she said. 




Turning to how older people can mobilise for equality Ailbhe Smith noted that older people are not a homogenous group and have accumulated both disadvantages and advantages throughout their lives. However, she noted how ageist attitudes tended to undermine the agency of older people. 'What are your dreams? What do you want to do? Who do you want to be with? What impact do you want to have? Who asks us?' she wondered. 'Who asks us when we are over 65?' Ailbhe challenged.

She called for strategies and alliances to be built between groups who do not always share the same views and noted the power of a shared vision when she wondered  about 'the power the ticking time bomb would exert if it was to explode in the right place'. 

Deirdre Garvey cited how the lessons from the two recent referenda must be learned. She noted that it is important and positive to forge diverse but effective alliances of different groups which work together for the greater good; 'This is the “stuff” which communities are made of' she said in reference to the civil society and voluntary sector which is represented by The Wheel. Reflecting on what actually affects change she noted that corridor shuffling, as in lobbying politicians directly on specific sectoral interests, and public demonstrations such as marches and meetings work but that it is 'at he intersection of these two models is where change can be generated'.



Declan Cahill, who works for community radio Near FM in Coolock was one of many audience members who participated in the discussion. Capturing the spirit of the panel discussion Declan said that everyone who attended the Age Action AGM 'was an activist simply by being here'.  He noted that if people want to engage in getting change at local level needs a simple action plan for the next twelve months that they can use to lobby for change but suggested that data relevant to the local situation could be shared by organisations such as Age Action to boost people's capacity to engage with local elected representatives. He said that everyone can contribute to change making but that the message needs to be sent out. He suggested that people should find out about and use CRAOL the national organisation for community radio as it is a powerful asset.

The session highlighted examples of affecting social change towards a more equal society which ranged from actions to promote participation at community level, influencing decision makers and identifying actions to address inequality. 

At the heart of Age Action is a determination to enable the participation of older people in the design and implementation of policies that affect them. This event was a practical expression of our desire to ensure that Irish policy on ageing is formulated in the lived experience of older people which means that it takes account of the challenges, hopes and experiences of older people. 


Age Based Analysis of Mortgage Arrears Released for First Time

We welcome the publication, by the Irish Times, of data released for the first time by the Central Bank of Ireland that shows the number of people approaching, or already at retirement age, who are dealing wtih significant mortgage debt. The information gives a clearer picture of the worrying situation for Ireland’s ageing population. Simply, a lack of evidence exists on the cost of ageing with less complete data collected about us the older we become. As a result, crucial policy decisions are made without the availability of disaggregated and representative data which can result in discriminatory outcomes. We need an urgent rethinking of how we gather evidence and inform policy that meets the needs of a changing Ireland.

While there has been an assumption that older people close to, and in receipt of, the State pension are generally mortgage-free home owners, it is clear that this is no longer true with many still carrying large mortgages, in mortgage arrears or living in precarious private rentals with no security of tenure in older age. We should all have a choice to age in place which means the creation of age friendly environments, including the provision of support services locally, which enable people to remain in their own homes and in communities for longer; but the changing nature of homeownership, rising cost of living, and the lack of a coordinated policy response to the housing crisis means many people will be facing a very difficult situation in later life. 

Many older people live in the most vulnerable situations in our society. An increasing number are struggling to meet the rising cost of living – in particular costs around rent and mortgages - in the context of a State pension that sees many surviving on incomes only just above the poverty line. Latest CSO EU SILC figures show 1 in 10 older people at risk of poverty. New taxes, and rising prices in recent years have a greater impact on older people generally living on a fixed income with limited opportunities to improve their situation. Budget 2020 saw the income of older person headed households increase by €1.08 per week for those living with another person, and by €6.08 per week for those living alone in older age. It did not offer the majority of older people the support needed to meet the increasing costs of living and it did not offer a concrete plan to support us to age in place.

Ageist attitudes towards working later in life still exist, for example many older people have reported high levels of discrimination during recruitment. Discriminatory mandatory retirement clauses are still in place forcing people out of the workforce earlier than they may wish. These two things undermine people’s ability to continue working in later life whether by choice or necessity. In the context of a buoyant labour market, we urgently need a fundamental shift in how we view and support older workers.

An increasing number of older people are experiencing fear about retirement due to worries about income adequacy. Less than half of those working have a private or occupational pension to support them in later life. While Age Action welcomes the publication of the recent autoenrolment scheme by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection which will see increased pension coverage for more than an estimated half a million workers, the current design will further drive existing pension inequalities unless there is a targeted intervention to include people in low paid jobs, particularly women and long term unemployed.

Our economy has been built on the backs of those already in, and approaching, older age: these are the same women and men who lived through the Marriage Bar, shouldered several recessions and are now dealing with the accumulated disadvantages. Successive government policies have failed to adequately plan and provide for an ageing population which will ultimately impact on all of us throughout our lives.