Senior citizens make up one of the age groups traditionally most closely associated with problems related to financial and social vulnerability. In the descriptions of socioeconomic profiles of poverty, for example, it has been common until relatively recently to characterise this collective as historically being subject to a greater risk of poverty than the Spanish population on average. In the last two decades, however, various processes have taken place that have altered the welfare status of senior citizens, such as the extension of social protection systems and greater stability in their incomes, the reduced impact of the economic crisis due to the less fluctuating nature of contributory pensions and benefits, and the very process of ageing itself, which has meant that increasingly included within the statistical definition of the category of senior citizens – people aged over 65 – are people with high levels of economic activity.
1. Financial and material wellbeing
Of the various aspects that make up the map of social needs, it is the issue related to financial and material welfare that has been subject to the most significant changes in the case of senior citizens. The data for the last 15 years reveal an inversion of the traditional portrait in which senior citizens are at greater risk of poverty than the rest of the population. This increased risk, still present at the start of the economic crisis, gradually declined to the point where it became the reverse, with a wider gap that is now to senior citizens’ advantage. The reason for this dramatic shift in the poverty risk differential can only be attributed to the stability in the incomes of this age group, which is very dependent on the public pensions system, in contrast with the marked fall in the incomes of the rest of the population due to the high unemployment at the peaks of the crisis and to the general downturn in economic activity.
The traditional way of measuring poverty using relative criteria – setting the threshold as a percentage of the average income of the population – has helped to raise awareness of the fall in poverty among senior citizens. Their incomes have, in fact, risen at almost the same rate as prices due to the fact that no major changes have been made to the system for uprating pensions. However, it is important to note that there has been a continual rise in the average pension as a consequence of the gradual entry into the system of workers with more complete employment histories and entitlement to a full pension, which is compatible with the presence of very low pensions. In more recent years, however, this self-same income stability has increased the relative risk of poverty among senior citizens, given that their incomes have changed more gradually than those of the rest of the population, which rose as economic growth and employment picked up.
In keeping with this, there are no major variations either in one of the central characteristic features of the vulnerability of Spanish households, the difficulties they state they face in getting by to the end of the month. In the case of senior citizens, unlike society on average, there were no significant changes to this problem during the economic crisis and it has reduced notably with the recovery, though not at such a fast pace as among the rest of the population.
The reduced risks of poverty and of general financial difficulties are also allied with a lower incidence of the more severe forms of poverty, such as those connected with consistent poverty or problems of financial poverty and material deprivation at the same time in the same household. During the period of the greatest deterioration of the economy (2013), the percentage of senior citizens affected by this situation (3.9%) was a third of the proportion in the total population (9.7%). Even so, the rise in financial poverty among senior citizens during the most recent phase due to the reasons given and the improvement of other groups mean that the gap has narrowed, prompting doubts as to the real capacity of the system that ensures incomes in old age to provide coverage for this type of risk.
More positive are the results related to the chronic nature of poverty, one of the indicators that reflect most starkly the fact that social needs linked to the sufficiency of household income are not being met. Unlike among Spanish society, the risk of chronic poverty among senior citizens is today lower than it was in the middle of the last decade, though a certain rise can be seen once again during the economic recovery phase, linked to the aforementioned unlikelihood that the incomes of this demographic group will be able to continue at a pace similar to those of other income recipients during periods of growth.
THE ECONOMIC AND MATERIAL WELFARE OF SENIOR CITIZENS IN ‘EMPTY SPAIN’
One of the most common clichés in the interpretation of the social needs of senior citizens is that the financial poverty of those who live in rural environments is compensated for by better living conditions than those of senior citizens who live in urban areas. The material deprivation data refute such an assessment, however, by revealing that the material deprivation problems this collective face are also greater in rural areas than in more densely populated areas, though the differences are reduced when the welfare indicator considers solely the relative level of income.
One of the most important determining factors that explain the differences in the level of senior citizens’ social needs is access to housing. In meeting these needs, two crucial circumstances come into conflict: the greater level of home ownership than among other age groups and countries, but also senior citizens’ traditional problem of maintaining them in satisfactory condition. The data of the Living Conditions Survey reflect that senior citizens face few problems to do with excessive housing costs, with fewer than one in ten suffering this situation. However, these same data show that unlike among the rest of the population, excessive housing cost problems have been gradually increasing in recent times among the older generations.
The same has not occurred in relation to poor housing conditions, which, with the occasional interruption, have shown a clear tendency to improve in the last decade, affecting approximately one in ten senior citizens. One positive fact is that the problems of keeping the home warm in winter months, the consequences of which have a more severe impact on senior citizens’ health than among other age groups, are fewer than those faced by the rest of the population and, moreover, they are on the decline.
3. Health and lifestyle habits
With regard to health problems, it should be noted that the life expectancy of senior citizens has increased over the last two decades: after France, Spain has the second longest life expectancy among this group, with 19.1 years for men and 23.1 years for women aged 65 according to the National Statistics Institute. At the same time, however, the percentage of senior citizens diagnosed with a chronic illness has also risen. This is the situation of almost 70% of people aged over 65. In contrast, among the total population, among whom chronic health problems have remained relatively stable, they affect fewer than one in three people.
The high incidence of chronic illnesses among senior citizens in Spain does not, however, mean that most cases lead to incapacity. The people in this age group who have severe limitations amount to 10% of the total, a figure that is virtually half that of a decade ago. As detailed in the Health Report in this collection, there is still a high percentage of senior citizens with needs for care not met by the System for Autonomy and Dependency Care. Even though there has been a considerable improvement in the meeting of needs in the last decade, one out of every two dependent senior citizens – around 15% of the senior citizens have limitations of a sufficient degree to require the attention of the system, something that is true of 33% of people aged over 80 – does not receive this care. In many cases, they are people who have not applied to be evaluated as dependent, but others have and their assessment has not yet been completed.
One last positive fact is the reduced proportion of people who have had to stop taking medication for financial reasons. Even so, among one segment of senior citizens, healthcare spending has a severe impact on their consumption capacity. Almost 13% of senior citizens in the first income quintile have to spend more than 40% of their income on this type of expenditure.
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