Following the initial shock that was the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the European Commission defined resilience “as a new compass for EU policy-making”. This can be found in the Commission’s 2020 Strategic Foresight Report.Resilience is defined there as the “ability not only to withstand and cope with challenges but also to undergo transitions, in a sustainable, fair, and democratic manner”. Resilience, therefore is not simply an ability to be found in individuals. The definition explicitly focuses on how to build resilience institutionally at EU level.
The Covid-19 pandemic has painfully demonstrated the limitations of the current health and social institutional settings for older persons and persons with disabilities, as the Commission’s Foresight Report briefly recognises. The EU population is ageing and demographic challenges have aggravated during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the United Nations, the population of people aged 65+ in the EU will increase significantly, rising from 90.5 million at the beginning of 2019 to reach 129.8 million by 2050.
The Commission’s 2020 report also suggests that “demographic trends impact social and economic resilience as a whole”. This contributes to portray older people as an economic burden to the EU economy.
“Society has evolved quickly in recent years and seems increasingly to consider population ageing as a burden to social protection systems rather than to value older persons as assets for their communities”, states the European Older Women’s Network (OWN), one of AGE Platform Europe’s Members.
Older people are too often seen as inherently frail, passive, and vulnerable, reinforcing stigmatisation and devaluing their contributions to our societies. During the Covid-19 pandemic, there was an increasing amount of ageist comments in social media, where almost a quarter of Twitter posts referring to older people were considered as ageist, according to one analysis. These negative stereotypes tend to depict older people as unable to react to the impacts of a crisis – when in fact, the opposite is often the case. Many older people are actively involved in paid and unpaid work, caregiving, voluntary activities, and civic activism, among others. Examples during the last pandemic showed that many older people provided care and support to their family members; retired health care professionals also went back to work to help during the pandemic.
Another example of how quickly older people adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic is their relatively fast uptake of vaccination against the Coronavirus disease. According to the COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the highest median cumulative uptake of the primary course by age group in EU/EEA was the population aged 60+.
Alongside with past experiences related to the pandemic, older age constantly shows its resilience, e.g. adapting to the fast-changing digitalised world, coping with the evolution of health and care systems across the EU, acting against climate change and supporting intergenerational exchanges and solidarity. Measures taken by the EU and national governments should not only consider how to protect older people’s health – but also consider older people’s contributions an asset to European societies, and build upon their resilience.
Older women, for instance, have accumulated a lifetime of lived experiences and developed coping strategies as to adapt to their environments and realities. Despite that, their resilience is neither acknowledged nor supported.
“The cumulative disadvantages of lower labour force participation, the gender pay gap, interrupted employment patterns due to caregiving, and higher prevalence of part-time and informal work means that older women often receive lower or no pensions”, states Claudia Mahler, the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons.
They face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination due to notably their age and gender. Yet, older women continue to provide care and support to their family members. Older women have shown how essential their contributions were and still are to build up the EU’s resilience, notably in the health and care sector.
Last year, the European Commission launched its European Care Strategy that acknowledges the role of informal carers and recommends supporting informal carers, recognising that women constitute the vast majority of informal carers. In addition, the European Care Strategy also recommends providing fair working conditions for formal carers. It recognises the contributions of older people, more specifically older women, and seeks to support them. This strategy aims to strengthen the resilience of care systems within the EU by addressing structural barriers that impede individuals to develop their resilience. Although this is a positive step forward, it is time that the EU recognises older people’s resilience in other EU areas and policies. Many older workers saw their working conditions disrupted during the Covid-19 pandemic and had to change their retirement plans as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
If we want to build a resilient EU, we cannot continue to consider older people as passive individuals in need of protection, but as rights holders, who are able to cope and adapt to shocks. Older people have transferrable skills and knowledge that should be passed on to the next generations. EU policymakers need to ensure that the understanding and concept of resilience includes individuals and adopts a human rights-based approach.
AGE Platform Europe has teamed up with Population Europe and our research partners in the Horizon Europe 2020 funded project “FutuRes – Towards a Resilient Future of Europe”. Together, we will work to get a better understanding of resilience of and for older persons. We will examine ways to build a resilient Europe for following generations using a human rights-based approach. Alongside the project’s research, we will develop a Policy Lab where scientists will engage with EU policymakers to design resilience-building policies. For updates, follow our project Twitter account: @futu_res.