ROME – European bishops are calling for a social shift in how elderly are viewed and treated in light of both the coronavirus pandemic and a notable change in demographic trends in the continent’s rapidly aging population.
Current numbers indicate that over the next few decades, older people will account for an increasing percentage of the population as the European birth rate continues to fall.
A 2020 report by the European Commission Report on the Impact of Demographic Change estimates that by 2070 some 30 percent of Europeans will be aged 65 and above, an increase of 20 percent from today’s statistics.
From 2019 until 2070, the number of people 80 or over is expected to more than double, amounting to 13 percent of the population.
According to the report, while the number of elderly is set to increase, the number of those who are of working age, between 20-64, is expected to go down.
In 2019, the working force amounted to some 59 percent of the population, whereas by 2070 the number is expected to fall to 51 percent. It is estimated that in this time, the number of children and young people aged 0-19 will fall by 12.6 million, the report found.
In a message published Dec. 3, COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, called the elderly an “integral part of the family” and suggested investment in intergenerational solidarity, social inclusion and in families generally as “the key to face the current demographic challenges.”
COMECE is a continental body composed of delegates from the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of the 27 member states of the European Union, and thus presents the collective perspective of the European Church.
In their message, the bishops noted that the COVID-19 pandemic “has shown to the world many hidden vulnerabilities – including in our old continent.”
“It has become clear that it is time to stop the ‘culture of waste’ and focus on more public policies supporting families,” they said, insisting that the elderly are “crucial actors in building pluralistic societies where human dignity and freedom is valued and respected.”
“It is them who have seen the European project emerge and develop from the ruins of the XX Century’s totalitarianisms,” and because of this, they have an “undoubtable role in the future of Europe,” the bishops said.
The elderly, they said, also play a key role in passing on the faith and are true “missionaries of the family” who can show younger generations how to overcome difficulty by offering a broader perspective on whatever short-term worries they might have.
Older people are not only the most susceptible to the virus, but they are also “in the periphery of daily life,” they said, citing data from the World Health Organization estimating that some 50 percent of coronavirus deaths during Europe’s spring outbreak occurred in nursing homes.
They pointed to several concerning trends that emerged amid the pandemic, including elderly abuse and discriminatory treatment of the elderly in healthcare.
“In a world context of health emergency where medical capacities and equipment are limited, access to healthcare cannot be always guaranteed to all. Yet this should never lead to situations of active discrimination, based on age for example,” the bishops said.
Throughout the pandemic, “a lack of concepts and sensibilities for organizing social and intergenerational solidarity” was clearly visible, largely related to a “lack of sanitary protocols in nursing homes,” they said, insisting on the need to avoid repeating these mistakes, which they said, “led to discrimination and disrespect of the dignity of many persons during the public health crisis.”
On elderly abuse, which is often “ignored or overlooked,” the bishops said COVID-19 has also shed a light on this, particularly for elderly people isolated in care homes, where they are more at risk for institutional abuse, whether it be mental or physical.
Pointing to the problem of loneliness among the elderly, which was a widespread problem even before the coronavirus, but which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, COMECE called it “one of the new scourges of this generation.”
As older people watch friends and family die, modern labor trends tend to put more distance between family members, with children living farther and farther from their parents.
Loneliness is also a result of the fact “that Europeans have less and less children,” they said, insisting that having more children improves the intergenerational balance and thus makes intergenerational solidarity stronger.
With demographic challenges an increasingly “visible reality” in Europe, the bishops insisted the problem is not that the overall population is getting older, which shows the strength of European health systems, but that there are fewer and fewer young people, a fact “which threatens the viability of our economic and social life.”
“It is crucial to recognize that demographic change is an issue that needs to be tackled,” they said, arguing that for the situation to be fixed, demographic policies must address the declining birth rate “by erasing every obstacle” families face in having children, at the economic, social, and cultural levels.
Another problem posed by the declining birth rate is the increasing number of elderly who are solitary, with no children or grandchildren, meaning the burden of care will fall to their social and ecclesial communities.
To this end, the bishops advocated for continental “family-friendly” policies, such as increased support for caretakers, including better pay and more flexible work hours, and reducing work requirements on weekends.
They also urged EU leaders to invest more in healthcare systems, with a particular focus on the needs of the elderly, and to develop diversified long-term care systems offering more support to families who care for elderly relatives at home.
Access to affordable and quality long-term care facilities should also be a priority, as well as creating opportunities for social inclusion and interaction among elderly living in institutions, they said.
Pointing to “old-age poverty” as another problematic issue, especially among women, the bishops said that among the various factors contributing to this is a pension gap largely tied to what they dubbed a “motherhood pay gap.”
Mothers who take time off to raise children are not considered part of the working force, and since they are unpaid, they are not included in pension calculations. This is something COMECE said must change.
They also argued in favor of fiscal benefits for family and elderly-friendly housing, and said more opportunities ought to be created for older people to contribute to their communities, many of which depend on the elderly for volunteer work.
“Elderly people are not only vulnerable persons but are also active actors of social life,” they said, adding, “To overcome this confusion between age and vulnerability, elderly persons need to be welcomed in all spheres of community life, also through life-long learning and digital education, both as teachers and as users.”
The bishops then issued several policy recommendations, including a push for a Union-wide approach to managing cross-border health crises in light of COVID-19, and further support for long-term care plans, particularly those in rural areas.
A better work-life balance must also be promoted, and care workers must also be offered fair working conditions “with a transparent labor contract,” guaranteeing insurance, fair pay, and reasonable working hours, as well as set amounts of free time, they said.
More focus ought to be given to creating jobs in the care sector, they said, and advocated for more EU funds to be invested into care facilities. The bishops also backed the proposal of “foster care” for elderly people with no family and said more attention should be given to policies that support families, whether it be through tele-working, cutting back on working hours, or designating Sunday “as a common day of rest.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen