EDITORIAL: Strategy for elder care a necessity

April 23rd, 2017 5:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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FINAL figures released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) from the 2016 Census of Population confirmed the ongoing increase in the number of older people the country needs to plan for in the coming years. Since the previous census in 2011, the number of people aged over 65 has increased by 19.1 per cent to 637,567, while there was also a 15.6 per cent increase in the number of people aged over 85 to 67,555 due to longer life expectancy. The fact that people are living longer, healthier and more active lives is something we should cherish, as next month’s annual Bealtaine Festival, celebrating creativity in older people, will be doing. However, not all of them are so switched on and active and, inevitably, growing older leads to health problems for many and the need for care, which will add to the huge pressures already on our public health service to cater for. This has been coming for a long time, but planning for the eventuality has been slow and the thinking behind it is not fully joined up. A policy crisis has arisen because of the failure of successive governments to prepare and plan cohesively for the population increases shown in the latest census figures and which are set to continue to the middle of the century and beyond. There has been a lot of talking – and there is still much more of that to come – but at least the matter is firmly on the national agenda. Earlier this month, a welcome National Positive Ageing Forum was launched by the Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People, Helen McEntee, TD, as part a National Positive Ageing Strategy, at which organisations advocating for the elderly got to brief government departments about the requirements for an ageing population.  Ireland’s older population is set to more than double to 1.4 million over the next three decades, which will be a substantial percentage of the overall number of people living in the country. The higher cost of their pension, home and healthcare requirements will be borne, pro rata, by a lesser number of working people, so financing this will become an increasingly bigger challenge for government as time goes by. It is something that the Citizens’ Assembly has been asked to do some brainstorming about as an exercise in what it terms ‘deliberative democracy.’ The Assembly, chaired by Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, and comprising 99 citizens randomly selected to be broadly representative of the Irish electorate, has invited members of the public, representative groups and citizen organisations to make submissions to them on ‘How we respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population.’ It will then be the role of the Assembly members to consider how the challenges should be responded to and to report back to the government with recommendations for discussion by the Houses of the Oireachtas to inform policy decisions. Implementing these will inevitably cost money and this is something that has to be provided for and ring-fenced over several decades. The age for qualifying for the old age pension is being pushed back from 66 to 67, and then 68, over the coming years and, while people should be given the opportunity to work on to their applicable pension age, either way there will still be a lot more pensioners to be paid by the Exchequer and this will become an ongoing rising cost in annual budgets. The demands on the public health service will also be much greater and, given that it cannot keep up with current demands, it is difficult to have confidence that the long-awaited radical overhaul to cater for the extra demands will take place in a timely manner. Then, there are the welfare and social issues that older people also have, such as loneliness and social isolation, lack of services, poor health, poverty, homelessness or housing, that need to be considered by the Citizens’ Assembly in their deliberations. The situation of older people in need of institutional care occupying acute hospital beds for significant periods of time has to stop and enough Fair Deal packages need to be made available for those who absolutely need to be cared for in nursing homes. In the longer term, the emphasis should be on home care packages to give elderly people the dignity of being able to live out their lives in their homes, and which is much more cost-effective also. However, unlike the current situation, adequate home help hours will need to be allocated to ensure elderly people, especially those living alone, are visited at least once a day. The opportunity now being provided to get elder care on the right track for the future is too important to waste and all the talk we’ll be hearing about it in the coming months will be useless if not subsequently backed up by tangible policy actions.

Final figures released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) from the 2016 Census of Population confirmed the ongoing increase in the number of older people the country needs to plan for in the coming years. 

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