No country for elderly: Challenges of ageing

Published in The Asian Age (

No country for elderly: Challenges of ageing

Mala Kapur Shankardass
Created 2 Oct 2014 - 00:00
On 1st October this year, the world will observe the 24th International Year of Older Persons with the theme “Leaving No One Behind: Promoting a Society for All”. The world is ageing at a remarkable pace and the pace of change is that in another 35 years, by 2050, the older generation will outnumber those under 15. It is time for celebration as population ageing is a triumph of development, made possible by technological advances, better health care and hygiene, economic prosperity, declining fertility rates, lower infant mortality, and higher life expectancy. As UN data indicate not addressing the interests of older people is ignoring 20 per cent of the global population, i.e., 1.4 billion in another 15 years, with most of them living in the developing world. China and India have the highest proportion of the older people living in the world.
It is true that today older people make endless contributions to their families, communities and society. They contribute as family care givers, as workers, consumers, volunteers and taxpayers. Yet there are enormous challenges of population ageing that need to be faced. Overcoming age discrimination, which is rampant in societies, as well as ensuring income security and adequate and good health care, are important challenges. Studies from across the world indicate exponential rise of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and dementia, which disproportionately affect older people, who are also ignored in prevention and treatment of infectious diseases such as HIV, which target in general younger people.
Also, older people need decent work as much as the young along with lifelong learning and skills development. While societies prepare themselves to take care of the young, they forget that the old need equally if not more emotional and psychological care, especially when affected by frailty and chronic diseases.
With population ageing, countries need to pay more attention to the vulnerabilities of old age and make resources available to meet the needs of older people. Their rights need due consideration which not only need promotion but support across their whole life course. It is observed in all countries that lifetime inequalities of education, income, employment, health and gender are likely to increase with age, and thus these require a development approach rather than a welfare centric one. Reviewing the global ageing index indicates that many countries are not doing enough to support the well being of their ageing populations. For countries it is not enough to only collect data for younger age groups, for appropriate policy reforms and ageing well, age-disaggregated data is a must.
In terms of the global ageing index, it is observed that even though ageing is happening at a rapid pace in Africa, as such the world’s youngest continent in terms of age structure, many older people face economic and social hardships. Majority of the older people live in rural areas with very little access to services, markets, pensions and regular incomes.
In Asia, where there is uneven demographic transition but rapid ageing in all three sub-regions — East Asia, Central Asia and South Asia — the social economic implications of ageing are diverse and countries have very different rankings in the ageing index.
India which ranks at 73, comparatively low to many countries has low health care and lack of facilities and services to meet the growing needs of the older people. Indian government response in general has been slow and poor towards ageing till recently with the reforms in the social protection system and the Food Security Bill as compared to China, with rank 35 and Thailand, at rank 42.
While Europe fares better than Asia in the ageing index, it nonetheless experiences issues of pensions and rising poverty among the older people. Many European countries require significant effort and political will to meet the challenges of population ageing. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there has been significant progress in meeting the needs of the older people but the disadvantages accumulated at earlier stages of life remain a challenge, which require urgent and appropriate interventions to reverse them. However, with better pension systems they score better ranks in the ageing index. In North America and Oceania, many countries have good ageing ranks as they have been able to address a number of issues through national debates and public policy.
In general, countries which have introduced non-contributory basic pensions and are able to offer free or subsidised health care for older people are faring quite well in meeting the challenges of ageing. Also countries which are able to address cumulative disadvantages got from earlier life are in a better position to ensure better old age for their people. Some countries have sound and progressive social welfare policies across the life course and these certainly provide huge benefits in old age. How governments manage old age issues is a big challenge which can not be ignored in this century.

Mala Kapur Shankardass is an associate professor of sociology, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi, with specialisation in gerontology.


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