Terra Incognita: Europe’s senior citizens

The way of life, physical and mental health, and financial and family circumstances of senior citizens are the core topics of the European Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) study, launched last year. Thanks to support from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) an Austrian group was able to join this long-term, international multidisciplinary research project at the start of 2003.

The survey, due to run for a minimum of four years, will involve at least six academic disciplines*, and will be based on interviews with people aged 50 and over. The results will be analysed to provide EU-wide comparisons with the focus on health, mobility, employment, income and savings data. The same people will be questioned on social and economic matters bi-annually, to permit observation of the ageing process over time. Because the interviews will be conducted in a number of European countries, the survey will also enable comparisons to be made between European social networks.

Social policies for an older continent

“Due to the growing share of the elderly as a proportion of the population, financial security and health care provision have become burning social and political issues,” noted Professor Rudolf Winter-Ebmer of the Department of Economics at the Johannes Kepler University Linz and the Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna. “Among other things, SHARE will help us to see how Austrians’ saving habits will be affected by pension cuts – whether people are putting enough aside for voluntary retirement provision. It will also be extremely interesting to see what part employment and taxation play,” he added. “Moreover, time series data will make it possible to spot trends, so it will be easier to assess and adjust social welfare systems.”

Particular importance is attached to the international comparisons. This is because of the similarity of the problems associated with ageing populations, and the increased learning potential from the different responses at national level. For instance, Austria and Germany have taken a lead in cushioning family and financial difficulties caused by patients’ need for home nursing care by establishing public home care insurance schemes. In view of the growing cost of pensions and health care country level cost-benefit analyses should be a productive approach.

Complex ageing process calls for complex research

SHARE will reflect the multidimensional nature of the ageing process by using multidisciplinary methods. Explaining the need for this, Winter-Ebmer said: “Not only can the impact of phenomena like ’retirement shock’ on those concerned vary, but the aspects of life affected can differ, too. A comparison of the physical and mental health of respondents who carry on working after retirement with those who stop from one day to the next could tell us a lot about the importance of the social structures and networks that surround them – and it is just such issues that SHARE addresses.”

Researchers from eleven countries** and six disciplines are currently participating in the pan-European research network. Austria has come on board in time to influence research design. However, because membership came too late for EU support under the Fifth Framework Programme the Linz based research team is receiving its funding from the FWF. The project will fill a gap in Austrian social research, as there is a shortage of information about the elderly. “At a time of pension reforms, health care restructuring and changes in the labour market it is becoming increasingly important to know about the behaviour and quality of life of senior citizens,” Winter-Ebmer said. By backing such projects the FWF is making a significant contribution to research of great relevance as a basis for social policy decisions.

* Demography, medicine, economics, psychology, sociology and statistics

** Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland

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Prof. Rudolf Winter-Ebmer PR&D

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