Growing old in Ireland is a topic that makes the headlines almost daily. But we wanted to ask the question – is Ireland the best country to grow old in? We would love your feedback on this guest blog post from Peter Kavanagh, Advocacy and Communications Executive with Active Retirement Ireland.
Bluebird Care held a series of nationwide events to ask this question called An Engagement With Bluebird Care and the overwhelming response by older people and advocacy groups was that Ireland would be a great place if a number of key considerations were prioritised by Government.
What makes a country a great place to grow old?
There are a number of factors that contribute towards a country being a great place to grow old in.
The Global AgeWatch Index ranks 96 countries according to well-being in four key areas: income security, health status, opportunities for education or employment, and social connectedness.
Ireland’s position on that index may surprise you. We have slipped from 12th in 2013 to 15th last year, falling further behind the leading country, Switzerland. Countries performing best in the index have policies that support older people’s wellbeing and autonomy. Switzerland and the Nordic countries, for example, all have universal pensions, flexible employment opportunities, lifelong learning and effective healthcare.
In Ireland, our government is quick to remind us that they have protected the state pension. However, rising costs coupled with reductions in secondary income supports, such as telephone and fuel allowances and the introduction of a number of ‘stealth’ charges for property, tax and water, have hit older people hard.
Cuts to health budgets have disproportionately affected older people. In contrast to universal citizens’ pensions, Ireland’s pension system is biased in favour of people with uninterrupted careers. This disproportionately affects women, who are more likely to leave paid employment to care for children or sick relatives. In fact, the Gender Pension Gap stands at 35%.
The Irish Contributory State Pension, at its full rate of €233.30 per week, is a far higher sum than most other countries pay their older citizens. When making a straightforward comparison with, for example, Britain, the Irish pensioner appears to be coming out almost €100 per week better off.
When weighting for average earnings, cost of living and benefits in kind are taken into account, however, the Irish pensioner is less able to cope with emergencies and unexpected expenditure.
Health status is a measure based on the three key areas of life expectancy at 60, healthy life expectancy at 60, and self-reported psychological wellbeing. Ireland’s averages in both life expectancy and healthy life expectancy are solid if unspectacular, placing us in 20th place worldwide, far behind Japan. Where we really fall down, though, as a nation, is how we care for our oldest citizens.
The Irish model of care is fundamentally unchanged since the Poor Laws of 1838. Our entire system is geared toward residential long-term care, something only 4% of over 65s require.
The poorly-named Fair Deal is funded at the expense of home care packages and home help hours, meaning many older people who could age well at home are denied the opportunity to remain part of their communities.
Opportunities for education or employment
Ireland does not have a mandatory retirement age, so in theory older people can stay in work for as long as they would like.
In practice, however, employment contracts tend to finish at age 65 in the private sector, despite the State Pension kicking in only at 66. There is also no option but to take the State Pension at 66 years of age, adding potential taxation issues to continued employment.
Many people retire either because they are forced to by their employer, or because the increased tax burden makes carrying on in work an unattractive prospect.
Countries that score highly on the AgeWatch Index have more flexible approaches to retirement, such as winding down to part-time work or retraining in older age to take on less demanding roles. Ireland’s hard retirement age and lack of flexibility means retirement is forced on many people who are not prepared, and this can be quite stressful.
Educational opportunities for older people were among the first to be cut in the recession Ireland entered in 2008. Local Education and Training Boards were instructed to focus on youth unemployment and the long-term unemployed, and to make a particular effort to retrain those who were working in Ireland’s swollen construction industry before the global financial crash.
While all of these areas are vital to Ireland’s economic recovery, tighter public purses tend to neglect education’s valuable role in improving quality of life. Education for education’s sake, rather than just as a means to getting a job, is also vitally important.
Where once Active Retirement groups could access art classes, computer classes and foreign language lessons; now younger men and women fill classrooms hoping to learn practical skills. The delicate balance that treasured lifelong learning is broken.
This is measured by access to public transport, physical safety, social connections and civic freedom.
Ireland scores very highly on civic freedom and social connections. Older people are valued within their communities for the volunteer work they do. In most Irish towns and villages, older people are the glue that holds together the fabric of society. Just look at your local Tidy Towns, GAA Club, Tennis Club, Residents’ Association, or any other community group.
Older people volunteer. It’s what we tend to do in retirement. Older people are also more civically engaged than other age cohorts. They vote in greater numbers and are quite passionate about the issues that affect them, their families and their communities.
Despite communities relying on older people for so much, it is becoming more difficult for these wonderful people to remain at home as they age. While Ireland is a world leader in giving free travel to over-66s, a lack of rural transport links mean that many older people outside of major towns and cities are forced to maintain a car.
With increasing insurance premiums, this is a major cost for those still in employment, let alone the retired.
Physical safety is also a major issue for older people in rural areas. While the number of reported crimes has not risen, a lack of a visible Garda presence and the closure of smaller stations have left many older people feeling unsafe in their own homes. When crime does strike close to home, it can rock entire communities of older people, left feeling abandoned as younger relatives have had to migrate to cities here and abroad in search of work.
Cause for optimism?
All that said, the situation in Ireland is not dire. Irish older people are far from the most poorly treated in the world, and those who are socially active are far happier and healthier than those who are not. What the country needs is to make sure that we enable older people to age in place, and remain as part of their communities as they grow older.
Organisations like Active Retirement Ireland and companies like Bluebird Care strive to reach the stage where we can truly say that Ireland is a great place for all its citizens, and a great place to grow older in.