Shuffling through Friday’s (02 October) newspapers, there were quite a few stories about children. This was expected given that yesterday was National Children’s Day. Front pages were splashed with pictures of beaming children, minsters distributing gifts to children in the arms of their proud parents, and full page advertisements for insurance for youngsters.
But what many seem to have missed, was that the 1st of October is International Day of Older Persons as well. Sadly, this is a grim reflection of the realities faced by senior citizens; the forgotten generation.
The elders of today and tomorrow
The only newspaper that carried an article on the older the generation was the Daily News. Titled ‘Use of experience of elderly to develop economy – SB’, the article highlighted how the elder population is growing rapidly. By 2041, the Social Empowerment and Welfare minister, S.B Dissanayake expects a quarter of the entire population to comprise of seniors. That is just 26 years away.
Currently, the elder population stands at 12.4% of the total population. This is a substantial number even once compared to the elderly population in all of Asia. This is projected to reach 21% in 2025; an 8% increase in just 10 years.
By 2041, that figure will rise to 25% – this means one in four Lankans will be a senior citizen. If you are just over the age of 30 years today, the chances are that you will be part of that group.
What’s more interesting is that by 2041, the elderly population will outnumber those under 15 years. Yes, there will be more senior citizens in Sri Lanka than young people!
Once this happens, the Social Empowerment and Welfare Ministry has already decided to classify senior citizens as ‘younger elderly population’ – who will be within the age range of 60 to 74 years. Those above 74 years will be known as the ‘older elderly population’.
That’s not all though. Among the elderly generation the women outnumber the men. The UNPFA Population Census and Housing report reveals that there were 289,000 elderly women than elderly men. Life expectancy has generally been higher for women than men.
The good news and the bad news
There is both good news and bad news about our ageing population.
The good news is that most of our people have access to free health care, so we tend to live long.
The bad news is that our society and economy are not making the best use of older people in our population who remain healthy and active well beyond 60 years, officially considered the threshold of being ‘old’.
Returning to the fact that there will be a greater percentage of elderly women, we are going to end up with an elderly population that is much more dependent. According to the government census report 2012, 71 per cent of employable women are economically inactive in Sri Lanka. The reason for this can stem from society believing that a women’s place is in the homes so women are restricted and suppressed, or it can stem from the fact that employees prefer hiring men because women a require special leave (maternity leave), are more vulnerable to harassment and therefore require more care and so on. But what all this means is that elderly women will not be in a place to confidently contribute to economic development.
As bleak as this may sound, work is being done to facilitate contributions by the elderly population.
In Sri Lanka, once you become a senior citizen, you retire. If you did a pensionable job, there will be a monthly pension payment (currently available to 17.2% of those over 60). For all economic productivity purposes, the older people are overlooked. The official statistics systems don’t even gather data about older people by different age groups.
To be sure, there are some welfare systems in place to help the most needy elderly. But there is so much that the elderly are capable of giving back to the country.
It’s not all bleak though. Minister Dissanayake says the new government intends to provide facilities for the elder generation to contribute to national development. Currently, only 1 out of 4 in the elderly population is economically active; most are not participating in the economy.
Providing the elderly with the opportunity to contribute to the economy will not only benefit the country but it will give them more independence and freedom.
We who are still young could then expect to have a long, bright future ahead of us.