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People over 60 years: A powerful vote bank

The national census in 2012 counted 2,520,573 persons who were over 60 years, which was of 12.4% of the total population. Of these older persons, 56% were women.

When the census was taken, more than three quarters of the older persons (78%) were aged between 60 and 74 years. This means most are still active and potentially productive.

However, the census also found that only 25.6% are economically engaged, and 55% of those who are productive are self-employed. Unfortunately, the significant contribution made by a large number of women over 60 years who are engaged in unpaid household work is not counted as 'productive work.'

At a time when the country is preparing for a general election, all political parties must remember that older persons represent a very large number votes: nearly one out each six voters in Sri Lanka is now over 60.

Aging population

As such, political debates and election manifestos need to address the particular needs of this important demographic group.

For too long, older persons have been depicted by the media and others as a 'dependent' group. It is true that advancing age is accompanied by some vulnerabilities but categorising all older persons as 'unproductive' or 'dependent' is inaccurate and misleading. Both the State and private sector entities need to change this mindset to tap the full potential of an ageing population.

Sri Lanka does have an excellent written charter and policies on ageing and older persons, but lacks a mechanism for their proper implementation. Older persons' concerns are relegated to the Ministry of Social Welfare, and to a smaller extent, the Ministry of Health. This indicates that older people are seen purely as a 'welfare issue.'

In contrast, many other countries are using different policy options and models to keep their ageing populations active, productive and independent. We need to learn from these experiences, and fast.

We, therefore, urge political parties to commit to phasing out discriminatory policies and to adopt new policies and measures to improve the quality of life of older persons by engaging them to live active, productive and independent lives. This is matter of human dignity which also makes economic sense.

The following suggestions have emerged from stakeholder consultations in the recent past.

Hold mainline ministries accountable and allocate adequate resources to enable the older population to live active and productive lives with dignity and ensure policies and laws for proper care, self-fulfilment, independence, participation and protection of the more frail among them. Ensure a mechanism for evidence- based information system to indicate the accountability of all line ministries.

Ensure income security through extended or voluntary retirement age in keeping with increased life-expectancy, pay special attention to increase opportunity for self development, earning, saving and adequate pension schemes, access to loans and self-employment opportunities and guaranteeing a quota within the employed sector for older workers. Strengthen laws and policies for the right of older women to hold and control family assets.

Health and well-being: Ensure access to healthcare for older people through trained geriatricians and geriatric care staff with allocated wards in all key hospitals. There should be special emphasis on vision care, and reproductive health of both older women and men, regular health checks through the entire public healthcare system. Make sure that medication for older people is available in all hospitals; assistive devices are available at a low cost or free-of cost for the needy.

Living space and care options: Develop partnerships with the private sector to develop affordable and quality living spaces and care options as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) mandates that suit lifestyles of older persons.

Inclusive education: Ensure the use of human resource capacities of older people through inclusive education that caters to all ages to improve their knowledge and skills. Set in motion, promotional schemes to encourage skill and knowledge development of older women and men.

Transportation: Ensure that public transport as well as roads are age-friendly and disable-friendly through easy access, safety and security. Use innovative skills of children, youth and higher academic and vocational institutions to design old-age friendly modifications and retrofitting. Simple changes such as ramps and handles can make a big difference and does not cost much money.

CSR

Safety and security and access to buildings, toilets: Engage the private sector to develop housing and building models that promote access with special safety features.

Protection against violence: Strengthen and implement existing laws and policies to protect older women and men against violence and exploitation.

Participation: Ensure participation of older people in decision-making at various levels to respect their knowledge and experience. Make sure that older women and men are represented in various forums of decision making.

The percentage of those over 60 is set to grow as Sri Lanka's population ages. By 2030, around 20% of Lankans " or one out of every five " will be over 60. Our society as a whole has a limited window in which to prepare for this inevitable demographic transition.

Right attitudes, policies and practices by everyone can ensure healthy and productive ageing. Political commitment is vital to make this happen.

The writer is the Director, Centre for Social Concerns. She holds a Masters degree in Social Work and was the Sri Lanka Country Director for Kinder not Hilfe, a German-based organisation.

She served as Training Adviser at the Asia Training Centre on Ageing (ATCOA) of HelpAge International based Chiang Mai, Thailand, and was Training Team Leader in Humanitarian Practice Training under RedR UK for South Sudan and Kenya.

 

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