Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 28 September 2008





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Help ever - Hurt never

Give them back what they gave yesterday:


Viji Jegarasasingam
- Secretary, Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare
Interviewed by
Dhaneshi Yatawara
[email protected]
 Mrs. Manel Abeysekara,
Consultant  - Gender and Development/Former Ambassador to Thailand, Germany, Switzerland, Austria
* The topmost problem in old age is isolation

* Expect dignity, care and active participation

  * A Commission for Elders will be practical and efficient

* Care means not money but companionship



World Elders' Day falls on October 1. Have we forgotten that today's benefits and luxuries are the results of their hard work? Are we forgetting the blood, toil and tears shed by our forefathers to build a better future for us?


1.In your point of view, what are the problems elders mostly face?

Economically, culturally, and socially they have their problems. At present due to urbanization, nuclear families and migration of women, elders are left alone sometimes with the additional task load on to them. So at times they are exploited. The traditional ways of taking care of parents, elders by family members are getting eroded. In early days women of the families used to take care of their family elders since they stayed back at home. But with the current economic pressures women have also become income generators. As a result, the parents tends to get isolated.

Feeling of loneliness. That is bad psychologically. Elders are also a part of the human spectrum. So we also have human rights like children, youth, women and family. Since the elders are close to their end of life that unwanted feeling, feeling of having no work and they do not mean to anybody is a very sad state I would say. Some parents have slaved to bring their children to high positions. And at the end they are left alone. When you say care what they need is not money. They need companionship.

2.How do you see the present situation?

I have a mixed feeling. 50% of families are duty conscious and take care of their parents. This situation, we see irrespective of different social strata. It all depends on one's social back ground, support from your spouse etc as well. If the environment is not conducive the children may find it difficult to take care of their parents, though they are interested in. I was present when the 386 cases we received were being produced before the Maintenance Board. Alarmingly, some children did not even want to know that their parents are in need of certain things! And some parents were also very adamant. At times they were so adamant that they insisted payments from one particular child while another was willing to pay.

Well I can't say I'm happy about the situation. They should be reintegrated into the society. We do now have preparations for old age. But the retirement age has been extended as I see. But personally I believe people should not block youth from their advancement in their service. But on the other hand people who have been in different services must have an income generation path. We do not have insurance schemes that would benefit the elderly. There should be specially tailor-made schemes. In other countries retiring age is not 60 but higher. When I was serving as Ambassador for Thailand most of the Scandinavian Ambassadors were in their 70s'. That is their system. But here the employment is difficult and youth should not be blocked. But on the other hand elders must be engaged in some activity and feel occupied as well. We have Elders' Charter and we are party to many conventions but we need to put these laudable ideas into practice. And the respective Authorities, line ministries find problems with inadequate funds to cater even to the neediest.

3.What could be the cause?

We have forgotten the values and our bounden duties. As all religions teach we need to help any one in need. And people do not know what are their priorities. And women living longer than men, contribute much to these problems at old age. Next, most of them do not have a proper monthly income, such as pension or property. Certain laws deprive women of land or property. In addition, these women feel insecure. So, even coping with their daily requirements - i.e. nutritious food, cooking, medicine, residence, health issues becomes difficult. They face many mental and physical disabilities as well in old age. Inaccessibility to information is also a problem since they won't get the details of services provided to them. And the generation gap! So the parents should know how to forge the parents-children link. They lack support economically, socially and even for religious matters. Some families are economically at a very bad shape. This is also a cause. And some do not fully understand their commitment. We can see these during our counselling sessions.

I don't think it is intentional. But like all other areas our country has a good legislature. For instance, a charter is a declaration so it does not relate as to how to deliver that right or privilege. The legal system should support it. Some try to define growing old gracefully. I do not believe in that. Call elders as elders and not as senior citizens. There is no social stigma in it. It is the question of looking at elders in a positive way. We have had very good welfare systems since pre-independent era. And since the benefits the health sector got as a result people are living up to their ripe old age. But statistics are one thing. If practically no one is benefited it amounts to nothing though how perfect we will be in our statistics.

4.How is the present different from the past?

As I said earlier, we have lost the extended family unit. So the support network to look after the elderly is no more. As the life expectancy is going to increase we will have a much higher percentage of elderly population in the future. Actually our mothers and grandmothers were working on these lines. From 1996 onwards we have security schemes for self employed persons. So like a Government servant they can get a pension. Farmers and fishermen were also in this category. The scheme was for people below 59 and now we are planning a schedule for the people above 60 too to get included into the scheme. And we have a program for Government servants above 45 an awareness program on retirement. So that we encourage people to have a plan after retirement till about 70 - 75 years. But it would be best for any person to have more relaxed time after 65.

There is a big difference. There was an extended family system in the past which is not there

now. Caring for elders was more of a family matter. If a family is unable to take care of the parents it was a feeling of shame. All religions cater to that feeling. Because of the social and economic situations that feeling has gone off. People are thriving to exist.In that context it is not easy to expect children to care for parents. Today's elders are mostly engaged with grandchildren and have less time for relaxation. Of course, it is wonderful to be with the grand children but with old age one need more time to relax. That is retirement. We must remember that grand parents need to be reciprocally cared for.

5.Is this state of affairs unique to our country?

It is little bit common for South Asia. Comparatively we are much better. But compared to western countries we are short of human resources to look after them. But where the war situation has affected it is mostly the elderly who suffer. Youths somehow escape. But elders may have no choice. We are trying to promote a universal pension scheme where everyone will get an equal amount. This way the rich may not come to get that small amount and only the needy will be interested in. So hopefully some amount will be left to provide further benefits.

Unique in the sense that we are equal in low birthrates and longer lives to that of developed countries but in terms of means to serve the elderly population we are poorer than them. In our case though we are statistically same we don't have money to have the welfare facilities. We should be able to plan to use whatever the money we are having to the neediest and the most urgent. More appropriately. The Ministry of Social Services is doing a great job but they lack the material as well as the human resources. That is why I have always recommended Commissions. Some are afraid of commissions! But we can lessen the burden on the Ministry. They have wider responsibilities and all these areas may not receive the proper attention. But if the Commission is set up and given the authority it can look into the specific matters assigned to them. This can be put in to practice like the Human Rights Commission which is very much localized. So Elders Commissions when localised is more easily accessible to them.

6.As you see, what is the situation in other developed and developing countries?

Because one needs to spend lot of time to look after an elder, we need more trained

human resources. In the developed countries they have it.They have experts, doctors, trained nurses. Still we not have that facility.But we are on the process of training volunteers to look after the elderly people. First and foremost, we make them realize how much they can improve their personality. But in developed countries they are more isolated. And certain people live with their pet cats and dogs who are well trained and quite expensive.

For example in Germany the elders get as much attention as children. The women are mostly involved in the two areas of looking after children and elders. Germany is famous for its Foundations. And they support these groups. Though I have not served in Australia the services rendered to the elders there is excellent. There are so many facilities given to the elders. For example in our country except for Government drug stores only very few pharmacies give medicine to elders at a lower rate. The transportation becomes a problem due to physical problems that come along with old age. So there are more areas need to be concerned. Caring for an elder is not a favour done to them. It is giving them back their service which they gave us in their younger days. We need to have a proper planning and an allocation of funds. We have plenty of resources and we need to implement them properly.

7. Do you think our elders' knowledge and expertise is used to the maximum in benefiting the society?

50% yes. It depends on how smart you are. We have 10,000 elders committees around the country. And we have a Committee here as well. I am the chairperson. And all the other members are retired, but still working. So they are contributing a lot for the betterment of others.

We must keep in mind that in future the work force will not have many youths, so the elders have to step in if the work needs to be done. For that we need a good data base.Since women live longer than men the older generation will be more of women. In the case of women they will be left as widows. So that has to be taken into consideration as well. Elders will only a payment by which their needs can be met adequately. Officers must look into ways and means to employ elders since they have the expertise in the field they were working in.

8.What is your view on Homes for Elders?

That should be the last resort. We do not promote unless the safety and health conditions of the parent is considered. We always encourage the parents to be in their home environment. But if a parent is living alone and no one is there to take care of, then we will accept it. But some parents like to live among a peer group. But we are focusing on building up hospices. These are not elderly homes. But keep in mind these places cannot be used to easily get rid of elders.

Elders homes should be the last resort. But I have seen some do enjoy the company of other elders. It all depends on the nature of the Elders homes. They should not feel unwanted.

9.How can we make these peoples' lives happy?

Mostly elders need dignity, care, independence and active participation in family and social lives. They love to be consulted even on very simple things in the family. This is because they were very well taking care of their families and children and as such it is natural they expect the same care in return. All concerned parties need to be involved. No one can be excluded of the family - Parents, children, grandchildren etc. On the other hand elders must also know how best they can be useful citizens to the society. How best they can spend their money, how best they can get involved with the family matters and how to use their expertise to benefit others.

There are more women elders than men. And in our economic situations they are paid less in many jobs and in addition she is forced to give all her money to her husband! This happens usually in the South Asia. Woman of a family give more than she get - she is the last to eat. So she would have lot of difficulties and disabilities during her old age. And in the future we have to look at a work force where majority are elders. Don't think that you are doing a favour to an elder. They should be retrained in areas they are skilled.



Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
LANKAPUVATH - National News Agency of Sri Lanka
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