Ageing is a widespread phenomenon. You, me and Joe Public are ageing every year, every hour, every second. Ageing starts from the moment of insemination and ends with our last breath. In fact, “life” could be a synonym for ageing.
We all age, but how we do so differs. One of us may remain relatively fit and healthy until 103, one may have a stroke at 81, and one may get Alzheimer’s at 49. In recent decades, the average lifetime has become longer and the number of healthy years has increased. An average, however, hides a wide dispersion: not everyone reaches the age of 90 in good health.
Yet modern society wants to make illness and the resulting need for care invisible. You don’t really see older people on talk shows and even nursing homes are advertised with images of healthy and wealthy third-agers enjoying their carefree retirement. Everyone is expected to take such good care of their health that no medical care or nursing will be needed. This is supposed to save the public economy from feared problems of fiscal sustainability. As a result, Finnish authorities can continue to grant subsidies to business – which are known to be ineffective – that are four times larger than what is invested in the home care costs of older people.
The coverage of home care in Finland has decreased almost 50% since the 1990s, and nowadays less than 12% of people over 75 receive regular home care. At the same time, there has been a major decrease in institutional care, meaning that many older people with extensive service needs end up within home care. However, the home care services of municipalities have not been able to respond to the increasing needs. Studies show that in this situation many older people are left without the help they need. What’s more, many cannot afford to pay the increased service fees. This has resulted in attention-grabbing tabloid headlines: several old persons have been found dead in their homes, having been left without care.
A healthy lifestyle and physical activity can slow the ageing process and decrease the risk of illness – but only to a certain extent. Those who lead a healthy lifestyle also get cancer and suffer from memory disorders. Whereas one person might enjoy retirement for a long time in good health, another may die of a heart attack in middle age. Yet another may have his second stroke at the age of 70 and need constant help and care for the rest of his life. Ultimately, ageing is like a gigantic lottery in which you can only hope that your ticket and that of your loved ones will not be chosen. We must remember to demand that decision-makers ensure help for everyone to whom the lottery brings illness and the need for assistance – after all, it’s just a question of time until our own number comes up.
Professor of Social and Public Policy
Head of the Centre of Excellence in Research on Ageing and Care
Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy