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The Elderly

Much has been said and written about the effects the rise of individualism and consumerism has had on morality, principles, and basic manners in contemporary society. Many equate the sharp rise in modern day ailments such as crime, mental illnesses, and addictions, as well as the overall increase in societal ‘moral decay’, with the replacing of the traditional community, in many instances held together by a collective religious belief, by a religion of greed and neoliberalism. Whether those arguments stack up or not is debatable, nevertheless, one would find it difficult to counteract an argument that some deeply unsavoury traits are packed away in the arrival luggage of neoliberalism and individualism.

Mahatma Ghandi once said, “A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest member”. While we could all argue about what individuals collectively form the weakest group within society, I don’t think anyone could deny that our elderly would make the shortlist. Our elderly shaped the Ireland we live in today and their hard work is responsible for many of the services and social benefits we take for granted today. At the very least, they should have our respect, but in reality are deserving of much more, not least our concern for their welfare.

A fortnight ago I found myself bearing witness to the harsh reality of contemporary society’s abandonment of care and compassion for their weakest members. On a packed double decker, with a seating capacity of at least 100, I found myself sharing a space with a group of passengers, seemingly absent of any resemblance of awareness of the toll that standing in a bus could have on a frail, elderly man. Without rehashing the exact sequence of events that took place, not alone could the sight of a struggling elderly man not convince anyone to give up their seat, but a publicly voiced request did not move anyone either. In retrospect, the situation could have been handled much better by me. Perhaps asking individual passengers to give up their seat would have been more successful, and may have ensured I wasn’t risking embarrassing this man. All that aside, this wasn’t about me. This was about the forty plus people in the direct line of sight of him being so socially unaware, that they could not recognise an elderly man struggling to merely hold his footing. But perhaps worse than that, they remained collectively silent when this man's plight was publicly pointed out to them. Not a single person moved.

Was this a unique experience for this man? Sadly it seems to be just a snapshot of the harsh reality of the lives of elderly people in our society. In the time since that incident took place, a photo of an elderly woman in her eighties begging on the streets of Dublin has been hitting headlines across Ireland. What is her plight? Winter is arriving and she needs to beg to get the money to be able to heat her home in Finglas. What an absolute indictment of Irish society, and of you and I for allowing this to happen. Has Ireland of 2015 no shame?

In the 4 years since we elected Fine Gael and Labour to power, they have been at pains to hammer home their message of ‘recovery’ to us. Pain has been experienced at hugely varying levels of severity, yet it has all been ‘worthwhile’. Anyone you talk to these days speaks of the familiar light of prosperity, which supposedly is coming firmly into our view again. All economic indicators seem to suggest that the ravaging of the most vulnerable in society has been a success. But how do we measure success?

The experience of that elderly man aboard the 208 hugely concerned and angered me, but in reality, that bus trip is nothing but a depressing metaphor for the elderly in our society. In 2013, the current government imposed cuts to phone, medical and energy supports for the elderly. In 2014 they cut housing aid for the elderly, as well as mobility aid. Can you call a government that has systematically attacked the most vulnerable, in this case the elderly, by the implementation of deeply regressive budgets a success? Has the welfare of our most vulnerable and needy become subservient to economic success and greater accessibility to material things? Has neoliberalism eradicated all traits of collective responsibility from the social conscious? Sadly, I am beginning to think that the answer to all the above questions is yes.

At what point did the elderly become a burden to our fast paced and materialistic lives? Michael D Higgins, Mary Robinson and David Norris are all well known Irish political figures, in their seventies, still contributing to the etching of the contemporary Irish and global social landscape. When they move aside will they not be deserving of a comfortable seat aboard the bus of Irish society or will all their hard work be forgotten for the sake of your five minutes of repose? 

In 2013, the CSO released statistics about the elderly in Ireland, combined with predictions about the future age profile of the Irish population. In 2013, there were just under half a million elderly people living in Ireland. By 2046, they envisage there to be just shy of 1.5 million. We are lucky enough to live in a free society, ironically contributed to, and brought about by people like the elderly man I spoke of at the start of this piece. Because of this freedom, people are entitled to not care about the elderly, and most certainly not obliged to give up their seats for those more vulnerable than they are. But what you, I, and they cannot ignore is cold hard facts. The phrase “one paycheque away” is often bandied about when people discuss the realistic proximity of homelessness and joblessness to all of our lives. The proximity of our elder years is even closer. One day, in the not too distant future, we will all be elderly people, and we may too be in dire need of a comfortable seat aboard Irish society. If you are unable to care for an elderly person for compassionate reasons, do it for selfish one. You’re just a few birthdays away.

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