Saturday, October 5, 2019

Let’s commit to invest in our elderly…this International Day of Older Persons

Anuja Gulati

Consultant, Population First

Population ageing is an inevitable consequence of the demographic transition experienced by most countries across the world. Declining fertility and increasing longevity have resulted in an increasing proportion of elderly persons aged 60 years and above. As per the 2011 census, India had around 104 million elderly persons – 53 million females and 51 million males. The number of elderly in the 60+ age group is expected to increase to 320 million by 2050, constituting 20% of the total population. Given the nature of demographic transition, such a huge increase in the population of the elderly is bound to create several societal issues, magnified by sheer volume.  A majority of the people at 60+ are socially and economically poor. Elderly women are more vulnerable on all fronts compared to elderly men. Nearly three out of five single older women are poor and about two thirds of them are completely economically dependent.

The elderly are more vulnerable due to poor health. A high proportion of the elderly reporting poor health are the oldest old (Age 80+), poor, illiterate and widows. A recent study[1] shows that a significant percentage of the elderly have acute and chronic morbidities. Morbidities are more prevalent in elderly women compared to elderly men, especially in urban areas. The study also showed that nearly two thirds of the elderly reported suffering from at least one chronic ailment like arthritis, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, etc. They also lack access to health care facilities. 

The vulnerability of the aged is aggravated by urbanization and a recent shift from the joint family system to nuclear families. This has a huge impact on the psychological and emotional health of the elderly, leading to neglect, lack of respect and sometimes abuse and exploitation.
Family has traditionally been the primary source of support for the elderly in India. The elderly depend primarily on their families for economic and material support. In spite of the strong preference to live with families, one in ten elderly women lives alone. With nuclearization of families, the traditional support system for the elderly is dwindling, making them even more vulnerable. Social isolation amongst the elderly is another critical issue of concern.

The profile of elderly indicates low level of educational attainment particularly amongst elderly women. Over half the elderly report not having formal education with a higher proportion, almost two thirds amongst women.

Work participation among elderly men in India is as high as 39% as against 11% amongst women. Although work participation amongst women is low, they contribute to family chores enabling other adult family members to work. A majority of elderly (71%) work due to economic necessity and not by choice. This is particularly true of elderly women. There is a close link between current work participation and poverty and illiteracy.

Older women are particularly disadvantaged, facing structural, social and economic inequalities throughout their lives. The experience of widowhood in Indian society is generally associated with many deprivations and has many implications for the health and well-being of older women. Further, certain traditional widowhood practices result in situations of violence and abuse and pose a serious threat to their health and well- being. Widowhood is one of the leading factors associated with poverty, loneliness and isolation, as a widow suffers indignity, often losing her self-reliance and respect. Many widows are ignored by both family and society, including their own children and are left to fend for themselves.

Poor health, age related morbidities, income insecurity, illiteracy and physical and economic dependencies are factors that tend to make the elderly, especially elderly women vulnerable

Recognizing the vulnerabilities of the elderly, the Government of India drafted the National Policy on Older Persons and has initiated and implemented several programs and schemes for social, economic and health security of older persons.  However access to these schemes and programs can be improved.

On this International Day of older persons, it is important to focus immediate attention on creating an enabling environment and decent living for the elderly, especially women. For this, it is suggested that Government, Multilateral agencies and Corporates invest in:

·                     Undertaking studies to understand increased morbidity and disability amongst elderly women, despite their longer life expectancy.
·                     Mobilizing greater resources for geriatric care, especially care of elderly women.
·                     Developing health promotion programs with outreach facilities and other services such as medical insurance to meet the long term care needs of elderly women.
·                     Addressing financial insecurity amongst the elderly women by formation of Self-Help Groups (SHG). These SHG’s would be formed with an objective of improving their livelihood and enabling them to become economically active through small loans and other required support.
·                     Ensuring convergence between various government departments for improved access to services and schemes for the elderly
·                     Promoting and assuring the participation of elderly women in the process of development.
·                     Amending laws that discriminate against women with regard to property and inheritance rights, providing housing support for elderly women who are property less and creating employment opportunities for them free of discrimination.
·                     Developing training programs to build life coping skills of elderly women.
·                     Providing services for older disabled women and disabled women who grow old.

[1] UNFPA India (2012), ‘Report on Status of Elderly in Selected States of India, 2011

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