“As we get older, our rights do not change. As we get older, we are no less human and should not become invisible,” says Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
Tutu, now 83, is concerned that national statistics and development policies often ignore the needs and conditions of older people. The United Nations defines this as those over 60 years.
In a message to the Global AgeWatch Index 2015, the champion of human rights and icon of anti-Apartheid struggle adds: “I want to tell the world that I count, that older people everywhere count, and that people of all ages should be included in the Sustainable Development Goals.”
This year’s Global AgeWatch Index is the third in a series prepared by the advocacy group HelpAge International with inputs from scholars and partner organisations. It was released on 9 September 2015.
The report ranks 96 countries according to the social and economic wellbeing of older people. Even though this covers over 90% of the world’s older people, 98 more countries are left out of the Index — because they don’t have enough information specific to this age group.
“Millions of older people are invisible, living their lives in countries where information on the quality of older age is missing from international data sets,” said Toby Porter, Chief Executive of HelpAge International.
The new report has crunched data about 901 million older people, measuring their wellbeing in four key areas: income security, health, personal capability, and whether they live in countries that provide an enabling environment for the aged.
When assessed on all these factors, Switzerland comes on top as the best place for older people to live, closely followed by Norway. The top 10 countries are all in Western Europe or North America, except for Japan (which is No 8).
Sri Lanka’s place
Sri Lanka is placed in the mid region of the Index, at No 46 among 96 countries. It is ranked higher than all other South Asian (SAARC) countries: Bangladesh (No 67); Nepal (70); India (71); Pakistan (92); and Afghanistan (96, at the bottom).
Sri Lanka has done well in creating an enabling environment for its older people. Indicators for this include social connectedness, physical safety, and a sense of civic freedom.
We are not doing so well where personal capability is concerned: employment rate among our older people (50.3%) is below the Asia Pacific regional average of 55.1%.
Health of older people also poses some challenges, despite free healthcare from public hospitals. The Index says the average Lankan of 60 years today can expect to live for another 20 years — 16.2 years of which are likely to be in good health.
But there are quality issues: for example, many face problems of psychological wellbeing and a lack of counseling support.
In some respects, though, things are getting better. The Ministry of Health has asked all registered clinics and hospitals (both public and private) to have disability and age friendly environments, says the Sri Lanka country commentary accompanying AgeWatch Index 2015.
“This year Age Demands Action campaigners in Sri Lanka will rally to call for separate hospital wards for older people,” says Dayal Perera, Director of Programmes at HelpAge Sri Lanka who wrote the commentary.
The biggest concern for many older people in Sri Lanka is income security. Only 17.1% of those over 65 in Sri Lanka are receiving any kind of pension, leaving a large majority vulnerable.
What is to be done? The government already spends around 1.5% of GDP on public sector pensions. Pension reforms and innovation thus become a policy priority.
Enhancing pension coverage is not going to be easy for millions who work in the informal sectors – such as farming, fishing and trading. It calls for collective efforts by the state, civil society and charities.
This is one result of a country getting older before it gets richer. In the SAARC region, Sri Lanka has the highest proportion of older people, and therefore the first to face this challenge.
Sri Lanka Census 2012 counted 2,520,573 people who were over 60, which was 12.4% of the total population. There are more older women (56%) than men, partly because women live a few years longer.
When the census was taken, more than three quarters of the older people (78%) were aged between 60 and 74 years. This means most are still active and potentially productive – if only they have opportunities.
The percentage of older people will keep rising. By 2031, one in five Lankans will be over 60, and by 2041, one in four according to projections.
We need right policies and strategies for this demographic shift – about which we will discuss more in the coming weeks.
Global AgeWatch Index 2015
Census of Population and Housing 2012: Key Findings
Population Ageing, Policy Responses and Options to Extend Retirement Coverage: Case Study of Sri Lanka (IPS, 2007)
Beyond Twenty Million: Projecting the population of Sri Lanka 2001-2081
Sri Lanka: Addressing the Needs of an Aging Population (World Bank, 2008)