Fergus Finlay on Community Support for Older People

Fergus Finlay speaking on RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime 22/04/2009

I met the Senior Citizens’ Parliament last Friday at their Annual Conference in Dublin. They are an impressive and determined group of people who have two aims, to be a strong voice representing Older People and their needs and to promote inter-generational solidarity.

Although God knows I am not far off being qualified to be a member of the Parliament, I was there because my day job involves supporting children and I wanted to suggest that at times like this all the generations should be working together.

What I found when I met the Parliament was a group of very angry people, they are still angry about last years Medical Card fiasco and determined it won’t happen again and they are equally angry about the decision in the Budget of a fortnight ago to deprive pensioners of the now well established Christmas bonus.

Their President, Sylvia Meehan, made the point passionately at the conference that this latest cut would mean that a lot of Irish pensioners, especially those who live alone will be colder and hungrier this year.

But when you speak to the Parliament member’s individually one thing becomes very clear, these are the people who never want to be a drain on the State. They are proud of the contribution they have made over their lifetime, raising families, holding down jobs, paying their taxes, involving themselves in all sorts of community activities. They have been through all the hardships of the past and they have paid their dues, what they want now and what they deserve is to be treated with respect.

There is one other thing that the members of that generation all have in common: ‘independence’, they are still more than prepared to carry their share of the burden and more than prepared to look after themselves and indeed in the times that we live in many of the Grandparents all are still contributing to the economy by enabling their children to participate.

An awful lot of homes have been bought in Ireland in recent years with the hard earned help of grandparents and an awful lot of parents have been able to stay at work because grandparents are willing to help with the child minding and by and large they are proud to do it. So wouldn’t you think our government would think twice about undermining the independence of that generation that has done so much to make us what we are today.

Well think again a fortnight ago on April 6th the Government announced the latest plan of investment in the scheme of Community Support for Older People. This is a scheme whose purpose is to enable the provision of socially monitored alarm systems, what we sometimes call panic buttons and small items of security equipment such as sensor lighting, window and door locks, door chains, smoke alarms. It’s a small enough scheme around 10 thousand elderly people are benefiting every year but in terms of the added security it gives people and as way of promoting continued independence, it gives a fantastic return on the €3 – 4 million of investment made each year. And by the way the investment creates and sustains Irish jobs, since one of the largest suppliers of the emergency response equipment involved is based in Enniscorthy.

When he announced his latest plans under the scheme Minister for State John Curran thanked the Voluntary and Community groups involved. Their efforts he said greatly improved the security and support offered to Older People throughout the country. The following day April 7th the Minister announced that he was suspending the operation of the scheme; April 7th of course was Budget Day.

One of the hidden cuts in that budget was a €15 million reduction in what the Department of Finance called ‘Supports for the Community and Voluntary Sector and Local and Community Development Programmes’. So, this is a scheme which costs nothing to administer because it is done on a voluntary basis. A tiny amount of grants goes directly towards protecting security and independence.

It is a scheme which enables people to live at home, who otherwise might have to spend their later years in a Nursing Home often at an enormous cost to the State. In other words it is a scheme that actually saves the State a lot of money as well as promoting independence and dignity and it has been done away with, at least for now. It’s hard to imagine anything more short sighted isn’t it. The old saying ‘Spoiling the ship for a ha’pworth of tar’, comes to mind but it’s actually worse than that.

Cuts like this designed to save a tiny amount of money and the cost of inflicting real social damage suggests a lack of basic care. If they have any sense, this is one cut they’ll start to undo.