spacer
The Vacuum Issue 10 spacer Issue 10
Older People
by Liam O'Rourke
spacer
Who are the 'older people'? In this article, older people are those aged 65 or over. In 1998, it was estimated that in Northern Ireland 219,500 people or 13% of the population were within this age range. (Northern Ireland Research and Statistics Agency, 1999) Ageing is truly a global phenomenon. There are currently about 580 million older people (aged 60 years and above) in the world, with 355 million in developing countries. By 2025 the corresponding figures will reach over 1.2 billion and over 700 million respectively. The sharp increases in life expectancy have been followed by substantial falls in fertility worldwide in both developed and developing countries. By 2020 one in four European Union citizens will be aged 60 or more. In Northern Ireland between 1900 - 1995 life expectancy for men rose from 47.1 years to 72.7 years and for women from 46.7 years to 78.3 years. It is estimated that in the 1996-2036 period, the percentage of the population in Northern Ireland aged 65 or over will almost double from 13% to 24%. This increase in the older population together with lower fertility levels means fewer people will be working to generate resources to meet the needs of an ageing population. This has caused panic and scare-mongering in some quarters concerning society's ability to cope with the change. On the positive side it has assisted in moving issues about ageing from the periphery to the centre of political debate. What are the central issues affecting the social and economic conditions of elderly citizens ?
spacer
The UK is the world's fourth richest country, yet more than two million pensioners live below the poverty line. A third of pensioner households lived in poverty in 2000. The majority of those aged 65 or over are in receipt of a state pension. The basic pension is £77.45 a week and £128.80 for a couple. The value of the pension has decreased by some 25 pounds since the linkage of pensions to average earnings was broken in 1979, and is now seen as not sufficient to live on, so a 'minimum income guarantee' for older people has been introduced. Accordingly, if an older person passes a means test then they are entitled to an income support top-up or 'minimum income guarantee' from the state. In 2000/2001 the minimum guarantee is £78.45 per week for a single person and £121.95 for a couple. Those aged 75 or over, or disabled will receive a higher amount. Another interesting fact is that in Northern Ireland, one in four people aged 60 years or more is in receipt of income support, whilst the percentage of older people entitled to Income Support but who do not claim it is 33 percent. The number entitled to Housing Benefit but who do not claim is 18 percent.
spacer
In Northern Ireland, the material depravation of older people is very marked in terms of fuel poverty. Problems of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland are more severe than in other parts of the UK. A common definition of a fuel poor household is one in which the occupants need to spend in excess of 10% of their income on fuel to maintain a satisfactory level of heating. The Department for Social Development has noted that the over 60s have the worst health risks, are least likely to move out of fuel poverty through increased income and are the most likely to live in dwellings with the lowest energy efficiency. Some of the most unfit properties are in the section of the private rented sector which is subject to rent control. For poorer older people, this is a particularly difficult situation as the landlord is receiving very little rent and may not feel it worthwhile improving the property.
spacer
Older people also face problems in the health system. A big issue is waiting lists. There are a higher proportion of people on waiting lists for hospital treatment for more than twelve months in Northern Ireland compared to Britain. But more worrying perhaps is the differential treatment they have to face. Older people comment that they sometimes feel that they are treated less seriously in relation to the treatment offered to them because of their age. This can range from the types of medication offered to the 'do not resuscitate' notes which have been found on medical files. Older people face age barriers to screening programmes and treatment options in the NHS which are not supported by clinical evidence. Examples include screening for breast cancer, operations for cataracts and hip or knee replacements, access to specialist care for stroke, coronary care and treatment for depression or addiction.
spacer
spacer
Over half of the personal social services expenditure per annum in Northern Ireland is spent on older people (over 65 age group), and a lot of it is spent on social care services (services such as assistance with cleaning and laundry and personal care services such as assistance with bathing and taking medication community nursing, therapy input and aids and adaptations to the home etc). The problem is that vulnerable people are not being sufficiently supported in their own homes and that there has been a reduction in home-based care packages for the elderly since 1995. Local authorities impose upper limits ("ceilings") on what they are willing to pay for an older person to be supported at home or in residential or nursing home care, which are lower than those for younger adults. Charging for care impacts most heavily on older people because they are the major users. One of the consequences of the charging system is that people who are being given financial assistance from social services are required to pay over the majority of their weekly income towards the fees, leaving them with a personal allowance of £15.45 per week to cover toiletries, clothing and other personal expenditure such as birthday presents, magazines or cigarettes. A report by Age Concern Northern Ireland found that many older people feel that community care, while welcome, has been undermined in practice by a lack of funding.
spacer
While there are several international instruments protecting and promoting the rights of older people, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission found in its 2001 report ('Enhancing the Rights of Older People') that laws, policies and practices in Northern Ireland still discriminate directly and indirectly against older people in the enjoyment of their human rights. The extent of discrimination tends to be hidden because of an absence of research especially in relation to the health care system. The fact that by 2036 over 24 percent of the population of Northern Ireland will be over 65 years of age calls for urgent action.
spacer
Quantitative information taken from the websites of:
  • Help the aged NI
  • Age Concern NI
  • NIHRC "Enhancing the Rights of Older People"
spacer
Older People
spacer
spacer
home | information | issues | artists & writers | columns | reviews
spacer