Estonia’s ailing elderly leaning upon family

Please note that the article is more than five years old and belongs to our archive. We do not update the content of the archives, so it may be necessary to consult newer sources.
Photo: Mihkel Maripuu / Postimees

As revealed by a study covering 60,000 Europeans, economic recession is significantly affecting the health of people aged over 50.

Last Thursday, a study of Europeans aged 50 or more was presented in Brussels, containing data on health, work life, income and social networks for elderly in 16 states in post-crisis Europe; showing that, for instance, many of the elderly have been forced to keep on working.

In the decades ahead, Europe is facing various economic and social challenges, the states’ average debt burden being close to 90 per cent. Reducing the debt will take dozens of years; at that, while assessing the size of debt, the demographic imbalances caused by the ageing population have not been taken into account. Due to the latter, the hidden debt load is far larger than the one we can see.

Low education hazard

«Demographically speaking, the amount of dependants will increase in most countries of Europe. There will be more and more elderly to care for,» said Liili Abuladze, junior research fellow of the demographics institute of Tallinn University. The elderly in South- and East-Europe being at low wealth levels, they lack the buffer needed for economic shocks. In Eastern Europe, the health of the elderly is worse than in other regions of Europe. At that, the effect of economic downturn on health and welfare was greatest in areas of the steepest decline. Those worst affected by economic downturn were single women with poor health, and low education and income.

An important indicator assessing economic options is percentage of spending on food. Here, the situation is especially problematic for the elderly in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean countries. Namely, the elderly in Portugal, Poland and Estonia spend over 40 per cent of their income on food.

Over 70 per cent on Estonian, Hungarian and Polish elderly never eat out, followed by the elderly in Louth European states. In Sweden, Austria and Switzerland, only 20 per cent of the elderly do not eat out. In addition to economic reasons, this pattern may also be caused by cultural differences. «Indeed, in Estonia or Southern Europe, people are perhaps more accustomed to eat food prepared in home or grown in the back yard, than in other regions,» thinks Ms Abuladze.

Due to crisis, numerous elderly have continued working even into their retirement years. Also, as income diminished, liquidity of assets has been increased by people. The economic downturn has negatively impacted elderly people’s health, especially in areas with higher unemployment. In addition to that, the unemployed amongst the 50+ age group reveal remarkably higher depression risks.

More than 40 per cent of unemployed elderly in Switzerland, Portugal, Czech Republic, Hungary and Estonia show four of more symptoms of depression. According to Ms Abuladze, all kinds of contentment indicators tend to be low amongst Estonians; this being especially severe in Poland with a whopping 55 per cent of unemployed elderly showing multiple symptoms of depression. 

The least depression symptoms are detected among the elderly in Holland. Holland also being the only country with lower depression levels among the non-working than the employed. The latter being the more remarkable that in Sweden and Denmark, sharing the second ranking in this category, the depression levels of unemployed elderly is more than three times that of the Dutch peers.

As people age, sickness risks rise. Higher education levels, development of technology and altered behaviour serve to curb the increase of the ranks of the disabled. «The disabled elderly with higher education levels are more likely to have friends,» claims Ms Abuladze. Herewith, it is vital to plug into social networks and receive help offered by circles of friends.

Estonians are family centred

According to the study, the elderly with smaller circles of acquaintances have poorer health – especially in mental aspects thereof, as well as signs of depression.

It also became evident that the disabled in Austria, Hungary, Estonia and Portugal are the most family centred – partly pointing to a need to develop care services. «The importance of the closeness of partners and children, in the social networks of the elderly, is great indeed,» assures Ms Abuladze.

In most countries, citizens would rather prefer not to support family members financially. In Austria, Estonia, Germany, Poland and Hungary, however, the possibility to be supported economically by family members is significantly higher than elsewhere.

The bulky book, introducing the study results, came into being by cooperation of 67 scientists from 14 states. There were 60,000 respondents from all over Europe.

In Estonia, the study was coordinated by Tallinn University’s institute of demographics, primary results analysed by senior research fellow Luule Sakkeus and junior research fellow Liili Abuladze.