‘We may have a lot of elder citizens, but not elderly ones’

By Maurice Garvey

A FREQUENT lament of modern society is the lack of respect shown towards the elderly, compared with previous generations.

During Covid-19, over 70s are deemed to be in the high risk category and have for the most part, been cocooning at home for their own safety on the advice of health authorities.

Guss OConnell Nigeria compressor

Cllr Guss O’Connell with a group of motor apprentices in 1963 in the Trade Training Centre, Ahiara, Owerri, then Eastern Nigeria.

However, lumping an entire demographic into one category can be detrimental, according to Independent Cllr Guss O’Connell.

“I’ve had people complain to me that the blanket ban on over 70s sends out the wrong message. And that it’s unfair, both to over 70s and to society in general,” he said.

“Before Covid-19, there was concern that an aging population would be an intolerable burden on the economy. And in the current discussion on putting a Government together, the question of pensionable age has become contentious.

Before we all got politically correct, we spoke of old people who then became senior citizens and the active retired but in recent times are increasingly referred to as ‘the elderly.’ Indeed!”

A Palmerstown Cllr, O’Connell, grew up in West Clare and as a child, was taught to respect elders “but somewhere along the line they became elderly”.

So what is the difference?  Well “quite a lot” says O’Connell, who recalls a lay missionary trip to West Africa in the early 1960s.

“The country had just received its independence but many of the traditions survived British rule and lived on in how the Igbo people organised village life. Local authorities had been set up, but these were seen as official and foreign,” said O’Connell.

 “Everybody no matter what age, had a role in keeping the village tidy and as a functioning community. Every aspect of life was covered by village protocol.

There was great respect for the elders. They were not elderly, but elders and referred to as such.

Their main role in the order of things was to bring the wisdom they had gained at the anvil of life, to bear on the issues that arose from day to day. 

“The younger ones consulted with them on a one-to-one basis or as a group. It was a very egalitarian society as for example, when the Chief died all the men in the village, who had earned certain qualifications, could compete to succeed him. Incidentally, before I offend all the feminists, there was a matriarchal tribe in another part of the country where the roles were reversed.”

O’Connell trained mechanics and fitters in a trade centre, which was owned by the Diocese of Owerri.

The training involved taking out contracts in hospitals, schools and railways, all “new opportunities opening to local people in Africa as countries emerged from colonial rule”, according to O’Connell.

The mission went onto open a comprehensive school but war intervened.

O’Connell returned home and found many parallels with life in the Nigerian village, even more so today where he wonders if Ireland has “lost some of the critical values our ancestors handed us”.

“One of the lessons we can learn is that we need to be more sensitive to the real needs, and real worth, of people,” he said.

“In reacting to the Covid-19, we lump all over 70 into the one box. Well not all, because we forgot about the 30,000 in nursing and care homes, and a further 18,000 looked after in their own homes.

“Why would we make those who are quite independent and capable of not only looking after themselves but (as in looking after the grandchildren) are indispensable in so many ways, totally dependent on others.

“Legislation is very clear in relation to discrimination and very valuable but with the best of good intentions we can get it wrong.  We may have a lot of elder citizens, but not elderly ones.”

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