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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 19 Jun 2008

Vol. 190 No. 4

Older Persons: Statements.

Gabhaim buíochas leat, a Chathaoirligh, agus le gach Seanadóir as ucht an deis seo a thabhairt dom labhairt sa Teach mar gheall ar chúrsaí a bhaineann le daoine níos sine. Tá mé sásta éisteacht leis na cainteoirí ar gach taobh. Tógfaidh mé na pointí éagsúla faoi deara.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and Senators for giving me this opportunity to make a statement on the subject of older people. It is very appropriate to address this important issue, given the potential to bring about change following the establishment of the Office for Older People earlier this year. This move, which was brought into force at the end of January, highlights once more the commitment of the Government to older people.

In recent years there has been a growing realisation of the enormous contribution made by older citizens through all walks of life in both the public and the private arenas. If we look across the Atlantic to the example of the septuagenarian senator, John McCain, we see that age need be no barrier to ambition and achievement. Closer to home, the actor David Kelly, the author Jennifer Johnston, the painter Louis le Brocquy and the historian RB McDowell, are just a few who force us to rethink the supposed limits and boundaries of age. I think also of Paddy Burke of Littleton, Thurles, age 79, who was recently awarded a recognised award for being a cheesemaker, and also Maura Armstrong from Upperchurch, Thurles, again from my constituency, who at the age of 83 completed the women's mini-marathon a couple of weeks ago here in Dublin. They are an inspiration to us all. Older people are living longer, healthier lives and those lives can be filled with purpose and meaning.

In comparison with some European countries, Ireland has a relatively young population. The latest statistics tell us that 11% of people living in Ireland are aged 65 years or over. It has been estimated, however, that this figure will rise to 20% by 2036 and to 29% by 2056. This presents Ireland with both great challenges and great opportunities in the future. It is to be regretted that, all too often, the debate and statistics surrounding older people relate to talk of "problems" or "burdens". While issues such as care or illness are genuine concerns that must be properly addressed, I am happy to use any occasion to stress the wide-ranging possibilities and potential of older people.

For that reason, I am pleased that one of the key functions of my office is to develop a strategy for positive ageing. My goal is to develop a meaningful and innovative strategy that will result in real improvements in the lives of older people. The strategy will involve, for example, the development of operational plans by Departments, clearly setting out objectives relating to older people and joined-up thinking on initiatives serving this community. Other areas for consideration include ongoing mechanisms to monitor progress and identify challenges.

The new strategy will be developed on a cross-departmental basis. To ensure this happens, I also have responsibilities in the Departments of Social and Family Affairs and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I am also a member of the Cabinet committee on social inclusion which ensures there is an integrated, coherent approach to issues relating to older people at Government level. This approach is key to delivering the Government's vision of improved integration of services, and thereby further supporting older people into the future.

My office also will continue to develop health policy and will oversee and monitor the delivery of health and personal social services for older people and the running of the long-stay charges scheme. It will, in short, be the focal point for the development of a more comprehensive policy in regard to older people. The remit of the office also will be extended to impact positively on issues in regard to employment rights and opportunities, promote gender equality for older people, and work closely with agencies providing services to older people in rural communities. The resources of my office, which is staffed by officials from the Department of Health and Children, will be strengthened by the addition of staff of the National Council on Ageing and Older People. These new staff will add significantly to the research and overall capacity of my office.

I stress that the voluntary sector in general, and older people in particular, will of course also make a positive and essential contribution to the development of policy in this area. This will be primarily through the establishment of a new national advisory council on older people. One of the main functions of this new council will be to advise me, as Minister of State, on all aspects of the lives of older people. The council also will suggest ways of better co-ordination and delivery of services for this sector of society.

The establishment of the office, the interdepartmental network and the advisory council will bring a greater coherence to policy making for older people. These significant new measures will allow for a much greater degree of cross-cutting and will develop further the partnership approach that has featured so strongly in the planning and development of services for older people in recent years.

The establishment of the Office for Older People is only the most recent manifestation of the Government's long-running commitment to improving the welfare of older people. The Government and the social partners have adopted a life cycle perspective in the current social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, placing the person as the centrepiece of social policy development. The vision for older people, as reinforced in Towards 2016, is to provide the support, where necessary, to enable older people to maintain their health and well-being as well as to live active and full lives in an independent way in their homes and communities for as long as possible. There are specific initiatives for older people in the partnership agreement, such as pensions and income supports, housing and accommodation, community and residential health care, mobility, and promoting education and employment opportunities.

The high level objectives of these initiatives, individually and in combination, are intended to make a real and significant improvement in the quality of the lives of older people. To underpin the objectives in Towards 2016, older people have been highlighted in the social inclusion priority of the National Development Plan 2007-2013. A sum of €9.7 million will be invested under the older people programme, with €4.7 million allocated to the living at home sub-programme and €5 million to be provided for the residential care sub-programme.

The Government is firmly committed to using the national development plan as a vehicle to translate policy into reality over period of the plan. Our objective of continued development of community based services for older persons is reflected in the unprecedented level of funding invested in the system in recent years. In the past three years, this Government has funded the largest ever expansion in services for older people to ensure they receive as much care as possible in their own homes, that high standards are set and enforced in all residential care settings and that the cost of residential care is always affordable and never an anxiety. In 2006 and 2007, just over €400 million was provided to enhance service development across the sector, of which €190 million was for community based services over these two years.

While considerable attention understandably has been paid to the number of older people in long-term residential care, it is important to note that only 4.6% of older people are in this situation. More than 95% are at home in their own communities, which is where they want to be. A key stone of the Government's policy for older people is supporting them in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. To cater for the needs of this majority, the Government has invested heavily in this area, resulting in significant service improvements in community supports in recent years. Home help, which is the backbone of community-based services, includes the provision of a range of essential services that make all the difference to the quality of life of each individual. In 2007, nearly 12 million home help hours were provided, benefitting an estimated 53,000 people. In the past three years, more than €50 million has been allocated to expand home help services across the country. Where it is not feasible for people to remain at home, the health service supports access to quality long-term residential care where this is appropriate. This policy approach is renewed in Towards 2016.

For those in need of greater community-based support, the Government has introduced, on a pilot basis in 2005 and a national basis since 2006, the concept of home care packages. These packages are designed to reduce pressures on acute hospitals and long-term residential care systems by supporting older people to continue to live in their own communities. Home care packages are therefore an mechanism over and above existing mainstream community services and are designed to enhance rather than replace existing home support services.

In 2007 the HSE provided more than 4,000 home care packages, assisting in the region of 11,500 clients at a total investment of €110 million. An interdepartmental group comprising representatives of the Departments of Finance, Health and Children and Social and Family Affairs and the HSE is currently preparing for an evaluation of this home care package initiative. The evaluation, which will be undertaken later this year by independent consultants, will examine the current provision of services in this key area and make recommendations for improvements in the years ahead.

For many people, whether carers or those who are being cared for, the availability of day and respite care is extremely important. More than €12 million has been made available for this area in the past two years. In 2006, an additional €9 million was provided for a wide range of new and increasing services, including improved therapy services for specific needs at local level. A further €3.5 million provided in the following year for an additional 1,100 day places per week. The total projected day care provision this year is over 21,000 places.

A fundamental feature of the myriad of services delivered throughout Ireland is the partnership approach involving the State and the voluntary sector. Voluntary groups make invaluable contributions to the well-being of all sectors of society, including the provision of services and expertise at local level in conjunction with State agencies. I acknowledge the tremendous work being done by these groups in the area of older persons.

Additional supports are available through community intervention teams, which assist in preventing avoidable hospital admissions and facilitate early discharge. These teams were developed in 2006 and, while not exclusively available to older people, the majority of those availing of them are aged over 65. The teams operate in addition to existing mainstream community services on a seven day per week basis and provide fast tracked non-medical care or support for an interim period while mainstream services are being arranged for a patient but are not immediately available. This service provides an immediate response for patients who are identified by a GP as requiring new or enhanced supports and offers a link between community services and patients who are discharged from accident and emergency departments but require community supports.

The 2002 report, Protecting Our Future, made a number of recommendations regarding the principles, policies and procedures to be followed and the infrastructure required to address elder abuse. This is a complex issue and is difficult to define precisely. Abuse may take financial, psychological, physical or sexual forms or it may arise due to inadequacy of care. Irrespective of the form in which it presents, it is simply unacceptable. Significant progress has been made on the health service-related recommendations. A HSE national steering committee is now in place, along with regional steering committees for each of the four HSE regions, dedicated elder abuse officers in three of the regions and the appointment of 27 of the 32 senior case workers. My office has commissioned the National Council on Ageing and Older People to undertake a review of Protecting Our Future and this will inform us of future action. The potential abuse of our older people, including financial abuse, concerns us all and it is an area that I intend to pursue vigorously until the best possible measures are in place to protect vulnerable older people.

The report on the national advisory committee on palliative care was published in 2001 and subsequently adopted as Government policy. In 2005, the National Council for Specialist Palliative Care was established by the Government. A baseline study launched in 2006 revealed regional variances in the provision of hospice and specialist palliative care services. Under the programme for Government, we have committed to removing these regional disparities in the provision and funding of care and to ensuring that the needs of those who require palliative care are met. Current spending on palliative care is approximately €75 million.

While helping people to live in their own homes for as long as possible, the Government is also committed to supporting access to nursing home care for those who need it. This commitment is reflected in the new fair deal scheme, which will put in place a single transparent system of support towards the cost of nursing home care. For the first time, there will be a uniform system of financial support for individuals in public and private nursing home beds. The scheme will involve a co-payment arrangement between the individual and the State. At the time of receipt of care the individual will contribute 80% of his or her net income towards the cost of care. In addition, a capped contribution based on the individual's asset wealth will be payable. This part of the payment, however, may be deferred until the settlement of the person's estate. These new arrangements are designed to remove the real financial hardships experienced by many individuals and their families who under the old system of nursing home subvention had to sell or re-mortgage their homes to pay for the cost of care. By contrast, the new fair deal will make long-term residential care affordable, accessible and anxiety free for those who need it. The Bill providing for the scheme is at an advanced stage and is currently being finalised by the Office of the Attorney General. My colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, hopes to publish the Bill at the earliest opportunity following its clearance by the Attorney General and the Government's approval. The Minister has let it be known that the subsequent presentation and passage of the legislation through the Houses will be a priority because we all wish to make the benefits of the scheme available to older people. In advance of the fair deal, a number of key improvements were made to the nursing home subvention scheme, including an increase in the basic rate to €300 per week. Budget 2007 provided €85 million to support these improvements, further underlining the Government's commitment to supporting those in need of nursing home care.

Senators will appreciate that the fair deal arrangements will depend on a number of success factors, including an increase in the number of long-stay beds. For that reason, the Health Service Executive estimates that it will deliver 860 additional public beds in the period from 2007 to 2009. This process is at present well under way and HSE will devote a significant proportion of its capital resources over the coming years to an expansion of long-term residential capacity and upgrading existing facilities across the country.

The development of a national carers' strategy is a key commitment of the programme for Government and the national partnership agreement, Towards 2016, in recognition of the important role played by carers in society. A working group chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach has begun to develop a strategy. The Department of Social and Family Affairs provides the secretariat to the working group, which also includes representatives of the Departments of Finance, Health and Children and Enterprise, Trade and Enterprise, FÁS and the Health Service Executive. The working group has met on four occasions to date, in February March, April and earlier this month.

Issues of concern to carers cut across many Departments and agencies and consultation is, therefore, a key element in developing the strategy. The working group has used a three-strand approach involving consultations with the social partners, organisations representing carers, people with disabilities and older people, consultations with Departments and agencies not represented on the working group and written submissions from the public. These consultations will continue during the development of the strategy. Some 100 submissions from individuals and 48 from organisations were received in response to the public advertisement earlier this year and will also inform the strategy, which it is intended to publish later in the year.

In keeping with its commitment to help older people continue to live in their communities, the Government is conscious of the need to provide accessible and appropriate shelter for the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Sheltered housing is one of the most significant developments in the fostering of continued independent living among frail or vulnerable older people.

When I was appointed in June of last year, I undertook, in the company of staff from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to visit a number of housing projects that have been extremely successful in providing sheltered accommodation for older people. These projects ensure that independence and quality of life are to the fore but there is also an assurance that a good, wholesome meal will be provided in the middle of the day and that residents' homes will be secure at night. The fine projects to which I refer are located in Mayo, my constituency in Tipperary, Cork and elsewhere. We will continue to support and expand on these projects in the future.

Following receipt of the report of the interdepartmental working group on long-term care of the elderly, the Government decided on a number of actions to be progressed. Among these is a commitment to establish a cross-departmental team to develop and oversee policy in respect of sheltered housing for older people and to agree, as a matter of priority, local structures and protocols for integrated management and delivery of housing and related care services. This team, which was established in July 2007, is chaired by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and involves the input of the Department of Health and Children, the Health Service Executive, the office for social inclusion, local authorities and representatives from my office. During the current year, the team will develop a policy framework in respect of sheltered housing for older people. This framework will be also reflected in the new national positive ageing strategy to be developed by my office. Through this group, I look forward to the development of innovative housing solutions which will further enhance the quality of life of older people.

As previously stated, demographic changes in the coming decades will lead to the ageing of the population. A range of options will, therefore, be required to meet the housing and accommodation needs of older people. In this context, the new adaptation grants to assist older people and those with disabilities or mobility issues, which were introduced on 1 November 2007 and which are being administered by local authorities, are essential in ensuring older people can remain in their homes for as long as possible.

The housing adaptation grant for people with disabilities and the mobility aids grant scheme provide grant assistance to adapt accommodation to meet the needs of those with disabilities. Many of these individuals are older people with age-related mobility problems. As part of the new suite of initiatives, an additional scheme — the housing aid for older people scheme — provides targeted support to improve conditions in the existing housing of older people. This scheme will provide grant aid of up to €10,500 to cover works such as structural repairs, replacement of windows and doors, rewiring, drylining, installation of central heating, water and sanitary services, cleaning and painting.

The introduction of the latter scheme will also facilitate the implementation of a Government decision, taken in February 2006, to the effect that a more integrated service could be achieved by transferring the special housing aid for the elderly scheme from the HSE to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which already had responsibility for the disabled persons and essential repairs grant schemes. The transfer of the scheme poses significant challenges for local authorities in the context of both workload and resources. In recognition of this, and in order to ensure satisfactory resolution of outstanding issues, it was agreed between the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the HSE that the special housing aid for the elderly scheme will continue to be operated and administered by the executive until such time as all issues arising from the transfer are satisfactorily addressed. It was also agreed that the appropriate resources and arrangements will be put in place to ensure that local authorities will be in a position to accept the scheme on transfer. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is engaged with the HSE to conclude this process as quickly as possible.

The special housing aid for the elderly scheme is extremely effective in addressing the housing needs of older people. The flexibility and integrity of the scheme must be maintained under the new regime. In that context, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in conjunction with the HSE and the housing authorities, is developing specific mechanisms to ensure the needs of the more vulnerable members of our older community, such as those suffering from illiteracy, social exclusion and isolation, are adequately addressed following the cessation of the special housing aid for the elderly scheme.

Senators will appreciate that many things are changing for older people and that this is a very exciting time for them. I am pleased to be a part of this changing environment and I look forward to working with all stakeholders to initiate real change in the years ahead.

This debate is very important. It is vital that we place on record and reaffirm our commitment to the welfare of older people and our recognition of their enormous contribution to society. We can be proud of older people and we should be grateful to them for what they have passed on to us. Older people helped to create the Celtic tiger. It is not their fault that the latter has some large thorns in its paws and is limping along at present.

Older people showed remarkable wisdom and foresight in the context of how they prioritised education. These individuals supported the State education system by paying their taxes and by highlighting the importance of education to their families. People who did not have the privilege of a lengthy education identified the value thereof and passed it on to their children. They also provided their children with great educational opportunities while enduring great hardship and poverty and making major sacrifices. Theirs was an enormous contribution and it was the key factor in the creation of the society in which we live and the economic success we have achieved. The fact that we can refer to upskilling people, diversification, etc., is due to the contribution made by older people in the past. We should salute those to whom I refer.

Old people are vulnerable to the extent that when they are the victims of abuse or wrongdoing, the knowledge relating to what they endured dies with them. The tragic, horrific and almost indescribable institutional abuse of young people that occurred over many years was brought to light because those who were victims of this abuse lived to tell their tales. Older people often do not live long enough to recount their experiences.

We should pay tribute to those in the voluntary sector who have helped older people for many years. I refer here to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other organisations. Positive Age is a major and successful group operating in County Cavan and it is doing great work. I ask that the Minister of State examine the "morning call" system that Positive Age has put in place in respect of older people. The latter can register with the organisation and specific people will be charged with contacting them by telephone each morning. Those in the voluntary sector have done great work for older people. In many instances they have taken up the slack in the absence of an adequate State response to the needs of older people.

The HSE recently published a report which states that the position in respect of the abuse of the elderly is stark and frightening. It indicated 1,500 were now under investigation by the State, with 96% of the cases being abuse by family members. This is reprehensible and requires following up, along with the highest form of vigilance. I ask the Minister of State in her response later to give the House an assurance on that score that the investigations will be speedy, rigorous and uncompromising, no matter what they must delve into. The abuse of older people is unacceptable.

With regard to our nursing homes, I put on record that it is my experience in visiting local nursing homes that in 98% of instances the care is excellent, compassionate and holistic. It is wonderful. We all know about Leas Cross and other instances where abuses occurred. I am happy to say there is a high level of inspections in my own Health Service Executive area, as I was told this at a briefing session with Members. Will the Minister of State indicate that nationally there is a high level of unannounced and constant inspections? I am disappointed reference was not made to that issue so it is important the Minister of State should respond specifically on it.

In the context of nursing homes, I noted the Minister of State made reference to the fair deal plan. I endorse her comments but it is disturbing that as a result of the difficulties in bringing forward the legislation, there is now a limbo meaning a number of people are neither in one place nor another. This causes immense hardship in particular cases. In my clinic work at local level I have come across a number of affected cases.

The cost of electricity is to rise by 30% and fuel has risen over 60% in recent years. The fuel allowance must be increased as it is not sufficient for it to cover only half the year. The cost of living for a person living alone is 80% of the cost for a couple, simply because the person living alone requires the same amount of fuel and electricity. We must increase the living alone allowance along with amount and term of the fuel allowance. I hope to get a positive response in that regard.

There has not been enough use of the home help scheme and the home care assistance scheme. There is much isolation in rural Ireland and a visiting dimension should be added. The home help scheme is very cost-effective, as it is cheap in providing money to people doing the home help. Those people recycle the money into the economy so the net cost is quite low. Many older and isolated people could do with a visiting service from neighbours in a home help capacity. This is quite apart from help in lifting people or making cups of tea, although that is also required. People need people to visit and have a chat.

Ireland has become depersonalised and the local rural postman, for example, is not the same. As a result the health service should be expanded. I commend to the Minister of State the practical suggestion that a voluntary organisation which could show evidence its members were visiting older people as part of its remit would get a special supporting grant. There should be a positive response to a voluntary organisation that could indicate it organises a certain amount of visits to older people in the year and show evidence of it. Programmes of home help, which may include visiting, must be expanded.

We need responses on issues such as the fuel allowance and the living alone allowance and we need an expansion of the home help service. We need commitment to the parts of the voluntary sector which show evidence of working with the old. I welcome the Minister of State and look forward to her response.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Máire Hoctor, and congratulate her on her reappointment as a Minister of State with responsibility for older people. I listened to her speech and it is an excellent idea that she would integrate into her office the National Council on Ageing and Older People. It is a tremendous resource and probably the best organisation for older people.

We spoke about elder abuse and there was a day last week which marked how important it is to get on top of the issue. From my information, it appears most of this abuse occurs in the home, coming from family members, rather than those in institutions. For those non-family people looking after older people, it is more difficult to deal with family members abusing older people. There is a major issue in that and I wish the Minister of State the best of luck in dealing with it.

I am disappointed the Minister, Deputy Harney, has not been able to deliver the fair deal legislation. This was promised at the beginning of this year and I told people in the last few months of 2007 that it would come about. I was very supportive of it. It is very disappointing that six months later it still has not happened. That is not the Minister of State's problem.

I will make a few points on the position of older people. I welcome all the ladies in the Visitors Gallery. Last Friday I attended a conference in UCD to mark Elder Abuse Day 2008. The president of UCD, Dr. Hugh Brady, in opening the conference stated that we are witness to the greatest democratic shift in human history. The average person in the world today can expect to live 20 years longer than his or her average counterpart during the first half of the previous century. All of us in this room can expect to live 20 years longer than people in the previous century. It is a fantastic feeling.

It is good news.

In some developed countries today, the proportion of older people is already one in four. During the first half of the 21st century, this proportion is expected to reach one in two. The president of UCD is a doctor as well as president of a university, and he stated that as a medic and health professional, he believed it important to state that as a success story. On the other hand, it poses major challenges for us.

In parallel with increased life expectancy, the fertility rate has declined rapidly. This is leading to what Dr. Brady referred to as an age quake. I do not know if anybody else in the room has heard the term before as I have not. This age quake has never before been seen in history but is one of the greatest medical, social and economic challenges of the 21st century. It arises from all of us in this era living 20 years longer than people in the previous century and younger people of child-producing age not having children, leading to a decrease in fertility rates. I would bet nobody in the Chamber has heard of the term before, although I thought it was a wonderfully profound term.

As a policy-driven Senator, during 2005 and 2006 I held public meetings to discuss the issue of ageing and ageism. I researched many reports and documents on the issue and published a policy document in 2006 entitled A New Approach to Ageing and Ageism. I made 28 recommendations based on public meetings I had in this city and throughout the country at which I listened to what older people had to say and what they wanted.

All the 28 recommendations were important but I will deal specifically with the first two today which concern compulsory retirement at 65 in the public and private sectors. The Minister of State will remember I raised the issue many times at parliamentary party meetings in front of the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern. I asked him why he could not do what a former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, did in bringing about free travel for pensioners. I told him he should allow people to stay on at work if they so wish. I got this included in the joint programme for Government. The Government has committed itself to giving people a choice in the age at which they retire.

The age limit of 65 was introduced when life expectancy was closer to that age but people are now healthier and live longer. People approaching 65 who work in the public and private sectors are only approaching their peak. The Minister of State referred to John McCain who may be the next President of the United States and he will be 72 in January. I am addicted to American television and I have never heard reference to his age. I believe attitudes to older people in Ireland are 40 years behind those in the United States.

In the public and private sectors many thousands of people are forced to retire at 65, despite not wanting to do so. They want a choice in when and how they retire and they may wish to retire gradually. A person who joined the public sector after 2004 need not retire at 65 so the human rights of those who joined the public sector prior to that year are being denied.

I wish to put the Minister of State on red alert that when I return in the autumn I will drive this issue in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party. I want the Government to deliver on the commitment in the programme for Government, which was launched after the new Government was formed, to give people a choice in their retirement and allow them to stop working when they wish.

Senator Mullen will be interested to know that at my public meetings I found it heartbreaking to listen to people approaching retirement in two or three years who did not want to stop working. Many women at those meetings said this was the second time they had experienced this type of discrimination because until 1973 they had to retire from the public sector on getting married. The women at my public meetings said they were being discriminated against twice because they will have to retire again at 65, as they did when they got married.

We are denying people's human rights by not allowing them to work after 65 years of age. Why can TDs and Senators keep their jobs after 65 years of age? Two laws need to be changed.

The Senator's time has expired and she is on a sticky wicket.

There are two pieces of legislation, one for the public sector and one for the private sector. However, the people who make the legislation do not have to retire at 65 years of age. Deputy Jackie Healy-Rae is 76 so we should get on with this.

That is at the behest of the public.

I welcome Senator Mary White's comments, which were interesting as always. Some politicians must retire well before 65 due to the whims of the public and as a first-time Senator I hope I am not subject to that law. I also welcome Senator Mary White's comments on the marriage bar and I agree with her that a terrible injustice was done. It is terrible to think people will experience discrimination twice by being forced to retire when they would have liked to continue working.

We are making these comments against the background of this morning's report about the disparity in the work contributions of men and women. I heard that women work on average between 30 and 40 minutes more per day and this amounts to a month more work per annum. As I have said before, when we discuss the interaction of home life and work life the key determining issue is the choice of the individuals involved. People have different aspirations in life and I am wary of a one-size-fits-all approach or a gender war approach that would insist men and women have the same experiences.

Regarding work in the home, it is up to families to decide who will be the primary care giver and who will be the primary breadwinner. Anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests many women want flexibility in the workplace to allow them the option of working part-time, in addition to, in many cases, taking a preferred greater share of home duties. Men need to be educated about this and the area is a work in progress but things are better than they used to be in terms of the participation of men in home life.

We can draw a parallel between how people of working age balance home life and work life and the issue of retirement. There are demographic reasons the formal age of retirement may be pushed outwards but we must aspire to empower people in their individual decisions. Some people will want to continue working well after the age of 65 and politicians are frequently among that group, but there are also people who look forward to retirement. These people may have made a huge contribution to society and seek to retire for health or other reasons. It is important that we do not saddle an older generation with duties deriving from society's economic imperatives. We must always have regard for the contributions people have made over many years to the well-being of society in terms of raising families, the transmission of positive values and the economic development of the country.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and listened with interest to what she said. There is a great danger in society that we might view the growing number of older persons as a demographic time bomb. I may need to re-examine the statements of Dr. Brady of University College Dublin on an "age quake". I join Professor Des O'Neill and the Irish Gerontological Society in warning against an apocalyptic approach to demographics that presents the growth in the number of older persons in society as a problem. We must move from thinking in terms of a demographic time bomb to thinking in terms of a demographic dividend that allows for the huge contribution older people made in the past, are making and will make in the future. They contribute not only to the fabric of life but also to the economy.

As a symbolic example of what I speak of, two concerts were held in Dublin last weekend, by Leonard Cohen and Neil Diamond, and over 100,000 people attended. I was at the Neil Diamond concert, as was a retired Taoiseach who got a big cheer when the camera panned on to him. This is an example of older people being very active in society to the huge cultural benefit of us all. Many older people actively enjoyed and participated in those concerts and I do not mean that in a patronising sense but merely as an example of the great importance of the participation of older people in society.

I am very interested in the views of the Irish Gerontological Society because in a recent response to the Green Paper on pensions it expressed concern that the ten-year framework social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, failed to give as strong a prominence to intergenerational ties and solidarity as the United Nations did. The Green Paper on pensions refers to intergenerational fairness and equity but that is in the narrow context of raising the pension age and offers a limited, one-way perspective. There would need to be a two-way perspective on intergenerational solidarity. The report of the National Economic and Social Council comments on solidarity, I note, but not specifically in an intergenerational context. It is in that context that the Irish Gerontological Society goes on to critique apocalyptic demography, as well as the misapplication of the concept of dependency and oversimplified classifications of older people as dependent, rather in the way that children are classified as such. It describes this as a vexing tendency. It goes on to note the many hidden ways in which older people contribute to the economy, particularly the fact that private transfers — including education funding and bequests, among a range of others — substantially offset public funds that are directed towards older people. It mentions the fact, rightly, that older people contribute to their own care financially over and above their entitlements and talks about the number of older people who are actively involved as care givers. It is therefore important that in all our debates about practical economic issues — there is nothing more practical and economic than a debate on pensions — that we pursue a vision of society that prioritises intergenerational solidarity and an awareness and respect for the cultural and practical contribution being made by older people in society, as opposed to focusing on older people as being in various states of dependency.

There are many older people who have particular needs. I would like to mention to the Minister of State, who might have a word with her colleagues in Government, an amendment I tabled to the Broadcasting Bill on Committee State with regard to the establishment of a heritage television channel. The focus in Towards 2016 is on life cycle. If we are to have provision for niche but worthwhile areas such as an Irish film channel or a Houses of the Oireachtas channel, why should we not have a television channel that would focus on the life cycle or life span and particularly on the needs of older persons? I will continue to advocate this. I suggested that such a channel would provide programming that at the moment we have only in spots. It should be possible to have one channel which, throughout the day, would show documentaries and programmes drawing on our considerable archival material or showcasing Irish tradition and culture. It would have programmes focused on the interests, needs and tastes of older people. I would be careful of confining it to older people because such a channel would be also of interest to the Irish abroad, tourists and others interested in heritage and culture. I am aware of the fact that there are more than 25,000 people in nursing homes. I have experience of visiting nursing homes and I wondered why those living there must watch "Judge Judy" or "The Bill".

I see Senator Boyle of the Green Party is here.

The Senator's time has expired.

I will conclude shortly. I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence.

I ask Senator Boyle to raise this issue with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources when he returns from Asia. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, might do the same.

Senator Mullen, your time has expired.

There would be substantial support for a heritage channel which would focus on the entire life span and reflect the interests of older people.

The Acting Chairman should let him continue. It is interesting.

I wish to share my time with Senator Ormonde.

The Senators have six minutes between them.

Perhaps the Acting Chairman will notify me after five minutes.

Are the Senators sharing the six minutes?

Do I have seven minutes?

No; there are six minutes between the two Senators.

I understood I had eight minutes, the same as other Senators. I will try to deliver within the allotted time. I ask the Acting Chairman to notify me when I have spoken for three minutes.

I salute our older people, who have made an important contribution to Ireland during their working lives and their retirement. I also welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, to the House. She is making a major difference to older people. The appointment of a Minister of State for older persons to deal with legislation and with problems that arise for older people demonstrates the importance of older people to the Government.

We must allow older people to stay at home for as long as possible. This is the most important role we as a Government can play in ensuring that people are able to enjoy the surroundings they are used to and in which they are happy. This is where the important role of the carer comes into play. Carers play a major role in this regard. We have not yet understood the importance of carers. Senator O'Reilly referred to the role of the carer and how economical it is.

In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown we have a number of fine establishments for the elderly, including Leopardstown Park Hospital. We should be proud of the work we have done in this regard. All Governments over the years have done much to promote better standards for the elderly. I am sure the Minister of State during her term in office will be responsible for further improvements in this regard. Many voluntary organisations provide extra services, which is the key to the future. No government in the world would be able to provide total funding for the elderly. Senator Mullen put his finger on it when he stated that elderly people have a major ability to deliver services when they retire. Retirement should not be forced. That is important.

We must end ageism, which is a state of mind for some people. Most people of retirement age have much experience, which we tend to ignore, and they are not given the chance to develop in their later lives. The right to work and decent entitlements are also important. Facilities such as public seating are very important in our towns and cities. Older people need to rest from time to time. Choice in housing, which was mentioned by the Minister of State, is important. We must make sure when providing housing for the elderly that it is in good, mixed developments where young children, younger people and older people can mix. Older people also need equal health care and the right to be angry, if necessary. Taxation and benefits should be integrated in order that aged people do not have to spend their time begging for a whole range of funding to cover specific needs. That is one of the basic rights.

Large sums are spent on care homes for people who would have been able to live pleasantly near their families.

The Senator has two minutes left.

In the city of Dublin we see——

That is if the Senator wishes to share with Senator Ormonde.

There are two minutes left?

Yes, in total.

As I want to leave Senator Ormonde some time I will conclude, although I would like to have spoken for longer. We are making a major contribution in this area. Senator Mary White was right in saying we must drive the policy in this regard.

Yes, all of us together.

Certainly all of us in the House. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House, for listening to what we have had to say and for taking it on board.

I thank Senator Butler for sharing his time.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish her well in her task. I acknowledge the work done in setting up her new office and the new strategic policy she is about to introduce. The emphasis in this area must have regard to the fact that we are talking about people who are healthy and that growing old does not necessarily mean slowing down — that is the bottom line.

Senator Mullen used the words "flexible" and "choice" in his contribution. People must have choices. In terms of an official retirement age of 65, the word "retirement" should be abolished from the vocabulary. Members of society do not talk about retirement in that sense today. There is a major disconnect between the official retirement age and society at large in terms of the vast experience of people. If people are healthy, strong and want to stay on in their jobs and make a further contribution, they should not be denied that option. However, I acknowledge that there are many vulnerable people. The Government has acknowledged that and given a commitment to provide for these people in terms of the budgetary allocation for home care packages, the increased provision in the home help service, provision for palliative care and access to nursing homes. I welcome the fair deal concept. I hope it is introduced as it would help to change the perception in regard to nursing homes being affordable, accessible and those who are vulnerable would have less anxiety about their health care.

There are two prongs to the Minister of State's work in this area, to which I know she is very committed. Those who are healthy and able should be allowed to stay on in their jobs, while those who are vulnerable and unhealthy must have access to all the help we can give them. The decision to retire or to remain in the workplace should be left to the individual concerned and we should revisit the issue of the compulsory retirement age. There is a disconnect between that notion and the society's view of it. There are anti-wrinkle creams and new approaches to life and I do not see why we should not accept that is the way life is now.

Furthermore, we have a Celtic tiger economy. Compared to the older generation, who as young people went to work at the age of 14, 15 or 16 years, young people today have a longer adolescence period, so to speak, in that they do not begin work proper until the age of 25, 26 or 27. Many people, therefore, do not take up permanent work until they are 30 and they are supposed to retire at 60 or 65. That is a crazy system and it cannot work given the approach to life today. We must have an open approach to retirement. If one is healthy, well and able to do one's job, one should be allowed to continue in work. People will know when they are slowing down.

The Minister of State is committed to her job. I have listened to her speak about the way she does her job. I acknowledge that there is much work to be done in this area. She has empathy for the work in which she is engaged. We will work with her in any way we can.

I will chair the annual conference of the Institute of Public Health Nurses that will be held in Croke Park tomorrow. The issue of the elderly and many of the concerns raised in this debate will form part of the discussion at the conference. I would have liked the Minister of State to attend but I appreciate she cannot be everywhere. I will inform her of the discussion that takes place there.

I acknowledge the work she has done and wish her well in her work. There is much more to be done in this area.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have been present for most of the debate which has been very worthwhile.

I wish to raise a number of points, most of which have been touched on by previous speakers. I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Ormonde in regard to the retirement age. There is an urgent need for the Government to examine the stereotypes and rules that have surrounded retirement for many years. In general, people nowadays enjoy much better health, both physically and mentally, for much longer than was the case for people in the past. Many people today would warmly welcome the opportunity of being able to remain in employment after the traditional retirement age. I would welcome a change in that respect. I would also welcome a broad-ranging discussion, particularly on this important issue, with those groups who represent elderly people.

I also want to raise the issue of transport. The Minister of State represents a rural constituency, as do I. One of the main obstacles facing people of all ages, but particularly older people — many of whom might not have transport of their own — is the lack of sufficient transport facilities. Strides have been made in the provision of services. In some of the larger towns, groups have been set up to provide a transport service from the outlying regions to the centre once or twice a week, but that level of service is not sufficient. I would welcome a significant improvement in that regard in the very near future. I am thinking in particular of the provision of feeder buses to main transport routes. A number of national primary routes pass through my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny on which there are scheduled bus services. However, for people who live in villages a few miles from those routes, the transport service available to them is virtually non-existent. If we are serious about tackling the problems older people face, we need to address this issue because one of the main problems they face is isolation, particularly in rural, but also in urban, areas. The is a physical gap between where people live and where they wish to go to obtain services. I would welcome a significant improvement in this area.

I wish to raise the issue of the fair deal plan, which was also raised by Senator Mary White. She said she was disappointed that it seems to have been shelved. I echo her comments. In 2006, a commitment was given by the Minister for Health and Children that this plan would come into play. We were told last year it would be introduced within a matter of months, but we are half way through 2008 and it seems to have dropped off the radar. As I stated on the Order of Business this morning, the economy is not as strong as it has been for the past 15 years. Those people who are now retired stayed in this country and kept the economy ticking over when we had very little. We owe them a debt of gratitude. The least we owe them is a fair deal — a self-explanatory phrase in the title of that scheme — in their twilight years.

I believe this is an appropriate forum in which to raise the following matter. When difficulties arose in regard to the charging of residents in nursing homes a number of years ago, the nursing homes refund scheme was established. Many residents in public nursing homes were refunded. However, I have been presented with a case which I believe is representative of 3,000 other cases across the country. I refer to the case of elderly relatives who moved to live in private nursing homes merely because there was no public nursing home option available in the area in which they lived. The majority if not all of those people do not fall under the remit of the refund scheme. That is a disgrace. The case with which I am familiar is that of a family who did not have great resources. The elderly woman in question, who has since deceased, moved into a private nursing home. Her family scraped for years, in the absence of a public facility, to pay for this private accommodation. Now they are told they do not qualify for a refund. It is a disgrace.