Opinion Editorial by Ms. Ritsu Nacken, Representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Sri Lanka, in commemoration of the International Day of Older Persons, 1 October 2017.
Ageing is an issue close to my heart. I come from the country with the highest percentage of elderly people in the world. By 2050, almost half of the population in Japan will be above the age of 60 years. The lessons we have learned as a country are plenty; and the learning continues.
In Japan, it is customary for the eldest son’s wife to take care of the grandparents. My mother was such a wife. As a working mother herself, she had to travel over 8 hours by train to care for my paternal grandmother who was unfortunately paralyzed. This caused a lot of strain on our family, and as the daughter, I had to juggle the duties at our home when I was 15 years old. This is a common trend in many families in Japan, and such situations often result in abuse, neglect, suicide, or even murder of the elderly, due to societal obligations of keeping with traditions and customs, and lack of affordable care services. This also often hinders opportunities for women to actively contribute to the workforce and to enjoy equal rights to fulfill their potential.
But ageing does not need to be like this. It should not be seen as a burden. Ageing is a triumph of development. It is an indication that people are living longer with better nutrition. It is an indication of better healthcare. And it is an indication of better education and economic well-being.
By 2030, it is projected that one in five people in Sri Lanka will be above the age of 60 years. This is 20 per cent of the population that can play a vital role in society. The elderly can contribute to society as educators, workers, volunteers, caregivers, and as sources of knowledge and historical memory. They are also important leaders; often playing a role in conflict resolution within families, in communities, and even in emergency situations.
But they eventually need caregiving, a responsibility that often falls on their families, particularly women. But with declining fertility and increasing urbanization, traditional family support networks may not be the best solution, similar to my situation in Japan. This is why options such as social protection systems through increased Government, private-sector, and community engagement is necessary. Such systems cannot be put in place overnight, and therefore, Sri Lanka must plan now to ensure the right policies are in place to enable such elder care systems that can provide the necessary social protection for the projected 4.7 million elderly people by 2030.
It is important to be prepared to reap the benefits of this demographic shift. And to do so, first and foremost, we need to take a positive approach towards population ageing. Ageing can be an opportunity to envision a society with a new reality and a new mindset. Rapid economic growth may not be a realistic vision as population ageing comes with low fertility and population decrease. But we could shift our focus and work further towards a more sustainable, inclusive and equitable society.
It is also important for Sri Lanka to invest in its youth, now. First, investing in youth is the right thing to do, but moreover, healthy and productive young people are needed to support the current elderly population. Young people need to have access to education and employment opportunities, and also to quality sexual and reproductive health services and information, in order to achieve their fullest potential. This will enable them to actively contribute to the economy and thereby support the dependent population. In addition, when we invest in the current generation of young people, we are investing in the future generation of the elderly. If young people take care of their health, and acquire knowledge, skills, and experience that prepare them well for their retirement age, they would need less support from society. This is why some countries invest in developing personal financial management skills of the younger generation, particularly women, who usually live longer, but are often more at risk of poverty.
It is also crucial to develop and implement policies and programmes, which address the needs of the most vulnerable older persons. This includes the elderly with disabilities, mental health challenges, those living alone, and elderly women that head households. These segments of the elderly population are the most vulnerable, and are often subject to discrimination and abuse.
Experience from other countries shows that it is critical to create an environment where there are many options for affordable care and support for these vulnerable people, including community-based care and elderly homes. Social stigma on institutional care should be eliminated because it is sometimes the only and best option for the elderly and their families. Needless to say, effective regulatory framework and quality of care standards need to be established to avoid potential abuse and neglect in elderly homes.
As Sri Lanka ventures on its journey forward in line with the Sustainable Development Agenda, it is imperative to envision 2030 as a Sri Lanka with an ageing population. It is imperative for the government to set up policies and programmes to effectively prepare for an aged society. And it is imperative to realize that population ageing is not a burden, but a triumph of development.