Some aspects of the social weakness of elders


In modern society, the elderly are becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that the time available to them is limited. This feeling is amplified even more in the elderly who are afflicted by the so-called “social weakness”, caused by the continuous acceleration of technological, economic and social processes that changes the natural time-line. An example of this alteration of the time line is caused by the modern society that incite people towards the patterns of eternal contrived youth, achieved through artificial methods such as the use of technologies of rejuvenation, surgery and drugs.

Another factor that in modern society has contributed to the “social weakness” of the elderly regards how knowledge and information are shared. In particular, it regards the decline in the oral transfer of knowledge to new generations. In the per-industrial society, the dissemination of knowledge and wisdom was transmitted only orally by older people and it was focused mainly on life stories and life experiences. For this reason, the role of elderlies was fundamental for the evolution of the civilization because they represented the only way to transmit knowledge. Despite the elderly were physically weak, they had mental clarity and they were considered as a valuable knowledge base to be observed with reverence and devotion. Elderlies were considered as an important social group for everyone. In modern society, however, the information are transmitted mainly through writings and any type of media, such as the Internet. Today, the speed of progress makes the knowledge of the elderlies often obsolete and no longer useful. This determines a significant decline of their social power that leads inexorably to an exclusion and sometimes to an expulsion from today's society. This situation ethically impose to find new solutions to give to elderlies a new social role. Try to fight against ageing through artificial methods can not represent a valid ethical solution because it covers only aesthetic factors and do not improve health status or personal abilities.

Economic impact of ageing

The average of life expectancy in Europe has reached more than 80 years of age and by 2020 about 25% of the population will be over 65 years of age.

Nowadays, technology offers the elderly the opportunity to live independently and continue to enjoy a high standard of quality of life. Unfortunately, some barriers prevent the older generation to take full advantages of the communication technology. In order to overcome these problems, the European Commission carries out initiatives to spread the use of ICT among the elderlies. The European Commission raises interest in the inclusion of older people in society as long-term forecasts predict an increase of about 35% of people over 50 years of age between the 2005 and the 2050, while the number of people with more than 85 years of age will triple by 2050.

The OECD data also provide for an increase in costs due to an ageing population in Japan, in United States and in Europe. One cause of population ageing is the decline in fertility rate of people. This results in Europe, a ratio of 4:1 among working people and the rest of the population, and by 2050 it will reach a ratio up to 2:1.

This imbalance between the active and retired people causes a significant increase of health care costs subtracting money to other areas displeasing the other citizens.

If this trend will not be stopped by a targeted intervention in the countries at risk, the social models and the public finances will incur serious problems. To do that, the obstacles that stand between the elderly and the use of ICT must be overcome and policies for the diffusion of ICT among the elderly must be actuated.

This increasing number of elderlies is due to a reduction of fertility rate in population and the increasing of the life expectancy.

The old age should not be seen as a disease even if often it means being physically weaker and suffer from mental deficiency. In general, the health conditions for the people should remain acceptable to at least 90 years of age.

Recent data show that in the last two years of a person's life, he spends about a quarter of the health care costs that he bear in all his life, regardless of the age of death. This means that the costs for the health care partially increase due to ageing of population.

Considering that most people die over 65 years of age, this has led to think that the health care costs for the elderly are high. In contrast, however, the financial burden of social people suffering from chronic diseases or are suffering from disabilities, in reality, is not as expensive as presumed.

Financially, the elderlies can be divided into two categories: those that are just weak and can not be classified as sick or disabled, and those that are sick and can no longer live alone. The latter category is often forced to have to make use of nursing homes and pay their own pocket fees, unless the health system do not intervene economically. Older people forced paying, using the money from the pensions, their savings, from the sale of their home. This system, for many seniors, is unsustainable and is also ethically intolerable.

Also, due to ageing, there is a decrease in the percentage of people in the working world. This leads to a context where there are tax restrictions inevitably lead to lower economic power and therefore fewer services for older citizens.

What can the ICT do? ICT could help to increase the percentage of workers and reducing the need of nursing home for elderlies needed of constant care. European community encourage for an action plan to age well by exploiting the potential of the information society. Through that, the goal is to keep seniors more active and productive as possible, giving them the tools to engage in the social life through on-line services (e-inclusion) and through healthier and lifestyles of quality.

According to the social sciences, it is necessary to redesign the role of “older people” giving back the lost role they had in pre-industrial era, with the support of ICT. In this way, the elderly figure can be empowered. This can be done changing the so called "ageing" in a model where ICT is at the base to create new legislation geared to senior citizens. The objective has to improve care social and health care and to apply technologies of care.

The elderlies are characterized by a double weakness: (i) the physical weak that results in a reduction of mobility, memory and learning, (ii) the social exclusion for the above reasons. Both of these causes of fragility can be postponed and mitigated but it is not possible to avoid them because they derive from biological processes that lead also to a lack of a positive social role in the modern context. The current model of the role of the elderly does not confer any benefit to modern society and needs to be completely reconsidered according to radical changes in the political and ethical. An idea is to make responsible elderlies modelling again the perception of time giving them more time in a subjective way (i.e. filling their time with events and making them able to follow their interests) and in a objective way (i.e. giving them the possibility to get a loan or a credit). This permits to the elderly to stay active and productive for a longer time thus removing the feeling of the limited time.

Analysis for possible solutions

The reaching of the retirement age often leads to a significant change for the person, both in terms of habits and in terms of the will to participate in a pro-active way to the social life. This is a problem for modern society that sees individuals that until not long before were active in individuals no longer able to have a real social function because they think that the time to cultivate new interests and experiences is now over despite that their physical and mental abilities have remained largely unaltered. Obstacles such as the inability to get a loan, or to buy insurance, or to take out a mortgage for age limits, can be overcome in order to give an important role to pensioners.

ICT can make a significant contribution to overcoming the obstacles that arise to who is now retired but not yet old, offering concrete solutions.

ICT already helps to create a new category of pensioners. ICT can compensate any not acute physical and mental disability. In addition, technologies such as computers, mobile phones and communication networks can facilitate their participation in social and political life. The number of elderlies who that regularly use these tools is always more increasing, permitting them staying active and productive for longer time. This increasing number helps to address one of the main causes of the ageing society: the growing number of inactive persons. This could give to elderlies a chance to stay in the workforce, to participate in social and political life, overcoming the legislative constraints that tend to force them into an inactive role. The objective of enabling older people to remain active is mainly a policy question that requires political perspectives.

Even if the elderlies empowerment is generated by politic factors, this is in reality a social process. The ICT can be an important factor for the elderlies inclusion but the will to maintain the elderlies active and productive is mainly a political issue.

Today, in most cases, the retiree who wants to maintain an active social role are entrusted to charity and volunteer works. Permitting to the retiree to conduct only unpaid activities poses a discriminatory problem against those who are paid for the same activity. Voluntary work also does not always reward the activities of the individual, thus depriving him of certain rights as a citizen that hardly a pensioner is able to enforce. For these reasons, volunteering can not and should not be considered a solution to assign a social role to retired people.

In addition to ICT, policy also plays a key role in providing a social role to retired people. Firstly it is necessary the will of the policy to give an important social role to pensioners, allowing them to also enjoy of full economic rights regardless of their age. This goal can only be achieved through the modification and the abolition of laws and regulations that make legal the discrimination based on personal criteria regarding the economic treatment.

As for the time of the pension, a person should have the right to choice for the retirement after a certain age without being obligated unless proven reasons that make him unsuitable for a work task. In this context, the ICT has the purpose of facilitating inclusive processes at work.

The introduction of ICT, however, leads to the problem to access to technology tools (e-accessibility). Nowadays, people of retirement age are not able to use a keyboard, a monitor to see and use the Internet for an easy navigation of a consultation. The same holds true for the use of the latest mobile phones. These limitations are impairment for today. The flashing characters, banner, pop-up windows, writing using a not sufficient large display and small buttons can limit the ability to exploit ICT potentiality making impossible to access to certain on-line services. This transforms the ICT from an opportunity to an obstacle difficult to exploit.

To cope with this type of problem, ICT applications must be able to meet some minimum requirements that include:

  • a reasonable cost of the information technology including communication systems and the access to Internet;
  • take into account the possibility that the user of the technology may have minor disabilities (such as reduced dexterity and sensory perceptions) that may make it difficult to use them. This could be overcome if the elders were actively involved in the production of ICT tools;
  • the interaction with the user through the adoption of various forms of language as that of the signs, Braille and other.

Moreover, can be useful to involve elderlies during the design process of on-line services to ensure the choice of user centred solutions. Unfortunately, there is the risk that economic interests and structure of power may manipulate user opinions imposing top-down solutions.