Europe must keep its promises to older people under the SDGs

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EurActiv.com PLC.

Activity and social contact are important for healthy ageing.

[Viacheslav Nikolaenko/Shutterstock]

Today, 928 million people are aged 60 and over – by 2050 that number will grow to 2 billion. An ageing worldwide demographic presents new challenges requiring our attention both close to home and further afield, writes Mairead McGuinness.

Mairead McGuinness is an MEP with Ireland’s Fine Gael, part of the European People’s Party.

Europe and beyond is committing to “leave no one behind” in the outcome of negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Older men and women and people with disabilities were excluded from the SDGs’ predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals. But with the new goals, thankfully that is changing.

The commitment to “leave no one behind” is really important and is something I strive towards in my work in the Midlands-North-West constituency of Ireland. I wholeheartedly welcome this development.

The 2030 Agenda applies to all countries, including EU member states. When leaders of EU countries signed up to the SDGs last year, they were making a promise to their own citizens to implement the 17 goals domestically, as well as across the rest of the world.

The universal goals provide an opportunity to be coherent in internal and external policies and recognise the interconnectedness of our world and the shared challenges we face.

Population ageing is happening in every region of the world, and it is felt most acutely in developing countries. However, Europe has been experiencing the effects of an ageing population for some time and member states have been investing in responses.

Consequently, Europe has useful experiences to share beyond its borders. But it must be a two-way relationship – there is much to learn from other parts of the world where ageing populations are growing.

Income security in later life is a concern for older people globally. Making pension provision when we are young eases the worry of a lack of income in our later years. But that possibility requires that people have jobs and that governments provide social security for their citizens.

In the last parliamentary legislature, I chaired the European Parliament Committee of Inquiry into the demise of Equitable Life, where thousands of pensioners, including many in my constituency in Ireland, lost out on the investments they had made to secure their income in later life. I saw for myself how precarious life can become for older people without this financial security to fall back on once they stop working.

The impact of not having a regular income in later life can be devastating, with older people unable to access essential services such as healthcare.

The EU is in a strong position to play a leading role in global efforts on social protection to make sure incomes are secure in later life. In most EU countries, pensions systems have been shown to do more to reduce inequality than all other parts of the tax or benefit system combined.

Non-communicable diseases are placing increasing pressure on healthcare systems globally, and older people are disproportionately affected. People aged over 60 currently account for 71% of deaths from NCDs in low- and middle-income countries. Therefore, we need to invest in prevention, treatment, management and care for people of all ages.

Health promotion, active ageing and a lifelong attention to diet, physical activity and social inclusion are all vital to living healthier lives.

Apart from these very practical issues, it is also crucial to stress the importance of communities and keeping people actively engaged. Older people can become isolated and this can lead to ill health, both physical and mental.

Having friends and being socially active can be of enormous benefit. This is something which we should take into account when planning towns and cities and when considering service provision in rural areas. Loneliness and isolation can be prevented, but these issues are often forgotten.

Europe is rightly proud of the contribution it has made to global development as the world’s biggest donor.

But the EU itself must have the right resources and structures in place to meet the promises made to citizens of all ages here within our borders, as well as beyond.