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
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
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.
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
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 â€" or one out of every
five â€" 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
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.