Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Old age, new issues

The current debate on the ageing population of Singapore and elderly care is quite timely. Between 1980 and last year, the number of people aged above 65 more than doubled to 291,000 here. By 2020, their number will be 575,000.

This problem is not limited to Singapore. Look at some of the statistics. By 2050, there will be two billion elderly people in the world — compared with 600 million today.

Singapore, which in a way is banking on the growth of Asia's two biggest economies, China and India, also needs to take into account the profile of the ageing population in these two countries. China's ageing population is the largest in the world. China will have 174 million senior citizens aged over 60 in 2010, and the number will peak in 2030 when the national population hits 1.5 billion. Similarly, about 80 million Indians — more than the entire population of Britain — are over 60 at present. This figure is projected to touch 100 million by 2013 and 198 million by 2030.

What do these figures tell us about the future of Asia? And how are these countries dealing with it?

Old age was never a problem in India. Old people always commanded respect in Indian society. Old-age homes were alien concepts and elder abuse was considered a Western problem.

Not any more. Over the years, as life expectancy increased from 41 years in 1951 to 64 years today, and after more than 1,000 old-age homes sprang up in India, neglect of parents has become an issue, so much so that the Indian government is considering making it a legal obligation for children to take care of their aged parents.

Unlike Singapore, most of India's senior citizens do not have any social security. Over 40 per cent of them live below the poverty line. On top of that, India does not offer any healthcare support system for the aged.

Add to that the sudden rise of the 300-million-strong post-liberalisation middle class. It has compounded the problem, as young people get uprooted from villages and small towns to the gleaming industrial parts of the metros, aided by an increasingly prevalent consumerist value system, lack of space in urban homes, the rise of the nuclear family and the rising cost of living in cities.

Neglect and financial and health insecurity are only a part of senior citizens' problems. Another, less talked-about, aspect is aged parents abused mentally and physically by their children. Since such abuse is not well defined in Indian society, they are hardly reported. In Mumbai alone, according to a newspaper report, there were 192 crimes against senior citizens in 2002, many resulting in death. That is, one suspects, just the tip of the iceberg.

The Indian government did not wake up to this new "old" reality until 1999 when it introduced the National Policy for Older persons. But many experts feel the policy failed to take off due to its lax implementation.

Realising the enormity of the problem, the Indian Government is considering a Parents and Senior Citizens (Welfare and Maintenance) Bill that will make it obligatory for children to care for their parents and grandparents, with a penalty to be paid if they default in their duties.

The Indian government is also planning to set up old-age homes for the destitute in each district, and will have beds reserved for them in district hospitals.

Likewise, China is also said to be creating welfare schemes for its soaring numbers of elderly.

For a country like India, Singapore is a good model, with its Maintenance of Parents Act and a Tripartite Committee on Employability of Older Workers, along with its four pillars of social security.

Some argue that legislation will not work especially in a country like India where the rule of law is not as strong as it is in Singapore. Legislation may not eliminate the problem, but is surely a major part of the solution.

As the number of "Dinks" (families with double income, no kids) rises in today's globalised economies, there is a need to create more social awareness about this problem. The Singapore debate on the elderly, therefore, becomes important as whatever steps Singapore takes in this regard will be keenly watched, and even emulated, by other Asian countries.

Singapore, too, will have to watch the Asian senior citizens scene as their ranks will swell to 705 million by 2025, fuelling a multi-billion-dollar boom in businesses catering to the elderly, such as healthcare, travel, leisure, learning and assistive technology.



monideepa said...

Good post. I wouldn't take the view that elders were always treated with love and respect in the past in India. Often enough, their children paid them lip srvice while praying for their early demise in their hearts. Much of the abuse went unreported. The state of widows of Bengal who were banished to Kashi to beg or survive as prostitutes is well documented. What old people need most is financial and social security.

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Moni. I agree that there have been distortions in the value system vis a vis the elders but what I have myself seen and read is that elders have been treated with respect. And when they have been not, it was largely due to poverty (the reason elders were mistreated). I remember the old lady from Satyajit Ray's movie, Pather Panchali, who was always at loggerheads with Apu's mother.

The case of widows is a different story altogether.

But the main thing is, old people need financial and social security, which you have rightly underlined.

Sharique said...

There is a movie called "Children of Men". I saw that yesterday and read your post today. I just cannot explain in words the emotional scene in the movie when people see a child, the only one to be born in 18 years on this planet. I can only hope that this current situation doesn't translate to become that movie!

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