27th of April 2015: Growing old waiting for aging strategy to be implemented

It took six years just to write the national ageing strategy but it seems that there is no still urgency by the State towards implementing the plan, writes Justin Moran

It is eight years since a government — not even the last one, but the one before that — started on a strategy for positive ageing. It took six years just to write it.

Today, two years on from its publication, I can look up from my desk and see it sitting on a shelf, literally gathering dust.

The National Positive Ageing Strategy was supposed to outline Ireland’s vision for ageing and older people, to provide a blueprint for how policies and services could be designed to protect the rights of older people.

It has taken three governments, five political parties, and three ministers for older people to get this far and now what limited progress was visible seems to have stalled.

The needs of older people have dropped down the political agenda, partly the result, perhaps, of a perception that they have been insulated from the worst of successive austerity budgets.

The Government did maintain the state pension in a challenging economic climate, but it cut the fuel allowance and abolished the telephone allowance.

The budget for the housing adaptation grant has been reduced and it is now a lot harder to qualify.

Prescription charges have increased 500% since 2011 and thousands of over-70s have lost their medical cards.

Put simply, because of the recession, older people have been left colder, more isolated, and less sure of access to the medical services they need as their numbers have been increasing.

The growing population of older people in Ireland is often characterised as a problem. They are a ‘pensions time-bomb’. They are ‘bed blockers’, taking up space in our acute hospital services.

But the reality that we are all living longer is a success story. It’s something we should welcome.

Certainly, it poses challenges in how we provide services and how we enable older people to live the lives they want. But these are not impossible challenges. They can be met. Growing old in Ireland can be a positive experience, not something frightening.

And it is something we are all going to face. If we do not plan for the future, it is not our current pensioners who lose out. It is people today in their 30s and 40s who don’t see ageing issues as anything to do with them.

According to the latest census, 532,000 people aged 65 and over were living in Ireland in 2011. This will rise to 1.4m in 2046. The number of people over 80 years old is set to nearly quadruple, from 128,000 in 2011, to 470,000 in 2046.

But even while the number of older people is rising, we struggle to meet the needs of those currently growing older, let alone the figures we can expect in the next 10 to 15 years.

These problems are particularly especially clear when it comes to older people needing long-term care and the Government’s exclusive focus on nursing home beds.

One of the National Positive Ageing Strategy’s key goals is to: “Enable people to age with confidence, security and dignity in their own homes and communities for as long as possible.”

Yet HSE figures compiled in February showed that 17% of people in delayed discharge beds were due to go home, but were awaiting approval of a range of supports such as home care packages and home adaptations.

Age Action is aware of older people placed in nursing homes who do not need long-term care or 24-hour monitoring, but who simply cannot get the supports they need to be able to live, with dignity, at home.

So they find themselves, at 70 and 80 years of age, moved from their homes to share dormitories with strangers.

While the Government’s recent commitment of an extra €44m for the Nursing Home Support Scheme is to be welcomed, no additional funding was identified for the supports older people want that would allow them to live at home.

It is eight years since a government — not even the last one, but the one before that — started on a strategy for positive ageing. It took six years just to write it.

Today, two years on from its publication, I can look up from my desk and see it sitting on a shelf, literally gathering dust.

The National Positive Ageing Strategy was supposed to outline Ireland’s vision for ageing and older people, to provide a blueprint for how policies and services could be designed to protect the rights of older people.

It has taken three governments, five political parties, and three ministers for older people to get this far and now what limited progress was visible seems to have stalled.

The needs of older people have dropped down the political agenda, partly the result, perhaps, of a perception that they have been insulated from the worst of successive austerity budgets.

The Government did maintain the state pension in a challenging economic climate, but it cut the fuel allowance and abolished the telephone allowance.

The budget for the housing adaptation grant has been reduced and it is now a lot harder to qualify.

Prescription charges have increased 500% since 2011 and thousands of over-70s have lost their medical cards.

Put simply, because of the recession, older people have been left colder, more isolated, and less sure of access to the medical services they need as their numbers have been increasing.

This would make an enormous difference in the lives of older people and their families.

So how will the strategy’s goal of enabling older people to stay at home be delivered? What are the targets and deadlines for measuring progress? How much will it cost and who will pay for it? No one knows.

To make the commitments in the National Positive Ageing Strategy a reality, to make Ireland a better country in which to grow old, we need a plan that brings together all of the various departments and agencies working with older people.

The Department of Health’s website currently predicts the implementation plan will be published in the second quarter of 2014. More realistically, in January, Ministers Leo Varadkar and Kathleen Lynch announced that developing an implementation plan was one of their priorities for the year.

It’s a long overdue commitment, yet four months on from January, there is still no sign of progress.

To the frustration of everyone who realises the scale of the challenge facing us, the serious work of implementing the strategy, of figuring out how we support not just today’s older people, but all of us who will depend on these services in the years to come, has yet to begin.

Justin Moran is head of advocacy and communications at the older people’s charity, Age Action

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