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The age of ageing: Barcelona’s growing elderly population

Like many major European cities, Barcelona is ageing fast. In the years ahead the city must grapple with many of the problems associated with an increasingly top heavy demographic: as the over-65 population burgeons, health and social services are stretched, the financing of pensions is challenged, and a growing number of frail and vulnerable people face competing over declining resources. Today’s elderly cohort constitutes a greater proportion of Barcelona’s population than ever before, and, perhaps most worryingly, face an increased likelihood of living alone.  But all is not doom and gloom, as the city enjoys an active, dynamic and engaged elderly population, the health and social sector rises to meet the challenges, and the labour market benefits from what are known as the ‘super-grandmothers.’

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14 August 2014 08:42 PM

by

Bryony Clarke

Barcelona (CNA).- Like many major European cities, Barcelona is ageing fast. In the years ahead the city must grapple with many of the problems associated with an increasingly top heavy demographic: as the over-65 population burgeons, health and social services are stretched, the financing of pensions is challenged, and a growing number of frail and vulnerable people face competing over declining resources. Today’s elderly cohort constitutes a greater proportion of Barcelona’s population than ever before, and, perhaps most worryingly, face an increased likelihood of living alone.  But all is not doom and gloom, as the city enjoys an active and engaged population, the health and social sector rises to meet the challenges, and the labour market benefits from what are known as the ‘super-grandmothers.’


The city of Barcelona currently boasts a life expectancy of approximately 86.2 years for women and 80 years for men: evidence of the city’s world class healthcare system and the healthy lifestyle of its inhabitants. Inevitably the ranks of retirees have swelled: according to the Municipal Services 2013 Survey, those over the age 65 constitute more than a quarter of Barcelona’s population. Of Barcelona municipality’s total population of 1,619,839 people in 2013 (that of Greater Barcelona goes beyond 3 million), 187,923 are over 75 years old (11.5%), and it is expected that by the year 2020 this segment of population will have increased by 3.8%, while the population of working age will marginally decrease.  Barcelona is simultaneously experiencing a low fertility rate: according to United Nations statistics from 2009, Barcelona’s birth rate was a fifth lower than Spain’s average, at 8.8 births per 1,000 head of population, while Spain stands at 10.8 births and the EU average at 10.9. This has led to an increasingly top-heavy population model.

The impact on public services

For any society beset with an ageing population, governments will face the challenges of higher spending commitments, combined with fewer contributors to social security schemes, a shrinking workforce and larger numbers of people in need of state support.

But in Barcelona, the social problems associated with the city’s ageing population and the impact of the demographic shift on the rest of society are today intimately and inextricably linked with the economic crisis. The cuts in public and private funding to the healthcare system, the freezing of pensions and general impoverishment of the population has had a strong impact on the lives of the elderly. The average retirement pay in Catalonia is 898.48 euros. As a result of the crisis, fewer elderly people are able to call upon familial support because of the cost, and most cannot afford to hire help at take care of them at home. Albert Sales, Lecturer in the Political and Social Sciences Department of the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) described how the lack of public and community support for Barcelona’s large ageing population “means an increased risk of social exclusion and isolation. The meagre aid policies and reduced non-contributory pensions are putting older people at risk of exclusion.”

83 year old widow Maria Luisa Pastor, who lives alone in an apartment in the Navas neighbourhood of Barcelona, described how services for elderly people have suffered in recent years. “I used to get an hour of help every week: someone would come to my apartment to cook, clean and help my ill husband wash and dress. I have applied for this service again, but haven’t been able to get anyone to come since 2011.” Maria Luisa also lamented how the waiting times for operations and appointments in hospitals have soared, and according to her: “even waiting for an ambulance can take an hour, and of course few pensioners can afford the private option.”

Fewer resources for home care

When ill or elderly people do require care and support, on many occasions the burden continues to fall on their families. According to Sales, it is “mostly daughters”, who are called upon, “who have to respond to the demands of the labour market and move forward with the tasks of childcare and elderly care simultaneously.”

The Dependency Law (in Spanish, Ley de la Dependencia), passed in 2006 by the then socialist Government of Spain, was supposed to improve the quality of life of individuals in a situation of dependency, due to disability, illness or advanced age, and alleviate the financial and time burden on their relatives. It was intended to give families financial help to hire home assistance. However, the budget for the Dependency Law was cut by 13% in 2011, and even before the economic crisis the service was already insufficient to cover all the necessary expenditures. The cuts have seriously hindered the application of the law, which is under-budgeted considering its ambitious objectives and challenges. Payments currently take some time to be processed, the eligibility criteria are very stringent, and inevitably there are long waiting lists. Nonetheless, the law represents an improvement of the situation 10 years ago.

Jaume Prat Picas, Director of the Maternitat-Sant Ramon Centre of Social Services has insisted that even in times of economic austerity, many of its services for elderly people have been preserved. “Despite the crisis, all people visiting social services are normally given telecare services, and many others, home care.”  However he did concede that aid related to the Dependency Law has been slowed down in recent years.

Living alone

A further troubling feature of Barcelona’s ageing population is the rise in the number of elderly people living alone: 26% of the over-65 population as of 2012. In the current economic climate, few of those who live alone can afford to make alternative living arrangements.

Prat Picas believes this situation is the result of changing social and economic structures, which have altered the family model. As a result, he argues that “sometimes elderly people suffer from loneliness, isolation and only sporadic contact with family members.” Many residential houses are privately-owned and on many occasions rendered financially inaccessible to those most in need of them, as subsidies/grants are scarce. Maria Luisa believes that “many people have to stay at home because they can’t afford residential homes or sheltered housing.” Living alone can be particularly hazardous for already frail and vulnerable people. “I had a fall in my flat three months ago in which I broke my hip,” she said.. “No one was there to help me. I had to lie on the floor for an hour before I could manage to move to call my daughter, who called for an ambulance.”

Maria Luisa now benefits from the Emergency Home Alarm service, established by the Red Cross and available for free to elderly or disabled people who are in need of home monitoring. The person wears the emergency pendant around their neck and presses it in the event of an emergency. This then automatically activates their phone, contacting the monitoring centre on their behalf and summoning help.

Older and more active

Those of retirement age will often find themselves referred to as part of "the non-active population" by statisticians and economists. It is all too easy to fall back on the assumption that an increasingly elderly population can only be thought of as a drain on public resources and society. But in Barcelona, a huge number of pensioners are relied upon by younger family members. An increasing number of extended families are depending on the pensions of an elderly relative, meagre though they are. One in three elderly adults helps his or her family with cash transfers. Many others will assist in childcare, picking up the grandchildren from school for example, allowing young parents to continue working without being crippled by exorbitant childcare costs. 

As Sales explains, “older people are very active, in many cases out of necessity. Against the prevailing view that the increase in life expectancy is a burden on the pension system, a great deal of work is carried out by the elderly. Given the shortcomings that exist in policies to support families, parenting would be impossible without the grandmothers and grandfathers. The participation of many parents in the labour market would be impossible without the “super-grandmothers.”

Furthermore, older people are also more likely than other generations to be politically active, and to be involved in volunteering activities. As Jaume Prat Picas described, “older people can access any range of activities in the city and not only those tailored specifically for this group. Elderly people in Barcelona are currently involved in neighbourhood associations, alternative movements, civic centres – often activities designed for the general public.”

Residents of Barcelona will be familiar with the ‘Iaioflautas’ (the name translating to something akin to ‘grandpa tramps’) a left-wing grassroots political movement that emerged towards the end of 2011 and is formed largely of pensioners. The movement rapidly expanded to other Spanish cities such as Madrid, Valencia, Seville and Córdoba, and its members protest against the economic inequalities of today by recalling the same fervour of old political struggles from the past.  Only last month, the movement in Barcelona organised a mass demonstration in Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona to protest in favour of a referendum on the future of the monarchy.

A new age of ageing

In response to Barcelona’s burgeoning elderly population, Barcelona City Council has listed a number of priorities under the Municipal Care Plan. In addition to consolidating and expanding the most essential services, from residential homes, emergency shelters, home delivered meals and soup kitchens, the plan also outlines the need to provide a wider range of leisure and cultural activities for older people. Barcelona City Council has also developed the Radars Project, a project, founded in 2008, which aims to reduce the risk of social isolation and exclusion in order to enable older people to continue living at home. It provides activities and resources for the city’s elderly population, and the project has already been implemented in 7 neighbourhoods of Barcelona: Gràcia, Sarrià, Sant Gervasi, Galvany, Sant Martí, Les Corts and L'Eixample, where it has enjoyed considerable success.

Jaume Prat Picas emphasised that the city of Barcelona provides some advantages for its ageing residents. “The elderly population Barcelona may have the problems of any big city (isolation, lack of social relationships, difficulty in distances, and so on) but they also have a structure of services and benefits than other smaller cities do not have.”

In the years ahead, caring for the city’s elderly population must continue to be prioritised. As Sales observed, “our society enjoys the presence of a healthier older generation. Cities that are more pleasant for the elderly are the most pleasant cities for everyone.”

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  • Old people with Alzheimer's attending the Fundació Alzheimer Centre Educacional in Barcelona (by ACN)

  • A group of the so-called 'iaioflautes' protesting in front of Catalonia's main employers' association (by O. Campuzano)

  • Old people with Alzheimer's attending the Fundació Alzheimer Centre Educacional in Barcelona (by ACN)
  • A group of the so-called 'iaioflautes' protesting in front of Catalonia's main employers' association (by O. Campuzano)