After witnessing student behaviour on a recent Dublin Bus trip to campus, Sean Finnan investigates student attitudes towards the elderly
They fumble with their change while paying for shopping, control back and country roads with exaggerated care and sway slowly along pathways agitating shoppers. Yes, along with the economy, weather and traffic, the elderly are up there in the top five of daily complaints.
The national view of older people is changing from one of respect for our elders and the idea that we can learn from their experiences, to one of ignorance descending from the economic notion that all of our elders are reliable on the state for their economic well-being.
When on buses or other public transport, it is no longer the norm to give up your seat for an elderly person. When did we lose our respect for the elderly and begin to regard them as an inconvenience?
This perception raises unconscious contempt for the elderly, as if they are a burden on society. Are these prejudices shaping our attitude towards the elderly and making us forget to show the courtesy and respect that older people deserve?
Where once a simple “ah, bring us some sugar for the tea love” was greeted with all sorts of affection, it is now met with a blunt grunt of “get it yourself, y’aul codger”. The old mantra of “respect for one’s elders” is drowned out amongst the sound and fury of modern day living. The University Observer spoke to a number of students to find out about their relationships with the elderly.
“I speak to them very rarely,” replies modern languages student, Adam Blanck, when asked how often he is in contact with the elderly. “Generally not a lot of contact, not in the past few years, no.”
On the same subject, maths science student Paul Sharkey says: “It would probably be about once a week, as I am only home at the weekends. My grandmother is in a nursing home, so I go and visit her about every two weeks, but no, I would never have any contact with any older person that’s unrelated [to me].”
Based on our findings, it is evident that the majority of students have little contact with the elderly and most of the opinions and prejudices that are formed on older people are often as a result of the unfair attitudes towards elderly people afforded to them by society.
They are described in many circles in the same breath as children. Their contribution to society from previous employment, community work, caring for spouses/children and their spending power is ignored when we categorise older people in this way. Older people’s experiences and knowledge bear little relevance to people’s lives nowadays, as they are deemed to be “behind” in the world.
“They bump up the numbers at mass,” says Julie Seagrave, a second-year music and sociology student. “They keep the churches going.”
From these interviews, confusion surrounds the role of the elderly in society. While it could be said that children and adults each have a perceived role (education, career, family etc.), students find it difficult to define their perceptions of elderly in society, mainly because of a lack of contact between the two groups.
Stories and traditions are becoming lost in the ever-widening chasm that exists between students and the elderly. The generation gap may seem insignificant, but when there is an estimated 23,000 people in Ireland subject to ageist abuse ignorance and a lack of tolerance towards older people seems much more worrying.
Over the past years, investigations have uncovered the horrendous neglect and abuse of older people in care. In 2005, a Prime Time investigation uncovered the shocking state of patient care in Leas Cross nursing home in Dublin and since then, more scandal surrounding the basic care of the elderly has come to light.
Even more daunting is that over 1,800 cases of elderly abuse were reported to the HSE last year and approximately half of these claims were made by older people against their own children. The most common type of abuse was psychological abuse, followed by neglect and financial troubles.
The abuse of older people and the general ambivalence shown towards the elderly community is on the rise in Ireland. A gap is appearing between this generation of students and elderly people that consists of more than just years.
Ideas, morals and faith are just some of the issues that divide a new generation’s philosophy with that of their peers. However, difference shouldn’t mean isolation between generations. Reach out to those in your community, or volunteer with a charity such as Age Action. You’ll find that the elderly are a far more interesting group than our generation gives them credit for. We should not feel that this is a chore. After all, it will be us fifty years from now who are maintaining the traditions of today.