The future we want

Over the past two years this newspaper has been invited to highlight the centenary birth anniversaries of at least ten people; the majority of them being women. That is 1,000 years lived, thousands of life experiences and enough wisdom to last several lifetimes. It is also a clear sign of what is being recognised the world over: people are living longer and the population of the aged is rising. Systems therefore must be put in place to deal with this.

In a message to commemorate International Day of Older Persons, which was observed at the beginning of this week, on October 1, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon drew attention to this. He revealed that by 2050, “the number of older persons will be twice the number of children in developed countries, and the number of older persons in developing countries is expected to double.” Some persons reading this column right now will in fact in 37 years, all things being equal, be a part of that demographic.

As the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) rapidly approaches, the UN has begun consultations for what it calls the post-2015 Development Agenda. And though the plight of older persons was not specifically addressed in the eight MDGs, one would expect that the post-2015 agenda will include such policies and programmes from which they can benefit. In his report, ‘A Life of Dignity for All’, based on the post-2015 agenda consultations, Mr Ban refers to the needs outlined by people around the world, including the elderly that include food, water, sanitation, shelter and access to basic health services among other things.

Without a doubt, as Secretary-General Ban predicts, the growth in the population of the aged will have a tremendous impact on countries and individuals as well. What are we doing now to mitigate that impact? At the level of the UN, there has been a call for the adoption of policies that promote social inclusion and intergenerational solidarity. This is in recognition of the fact that older people have a significant contribution to make to society and should be given the opportunity to do so.

At the level of the country, there are calls in some places for more funding and greater attention to illnesses that affect the elderly, like Alzheimer’s and dementia and chronic non-communicable diseases. Care for the aged is another huge issue as well as housing, liveable pensions, transportation and access to services.

In Guyana, we have a situation where services to the aged are so stretched there is barely enough to go around. The old age pension, which was increased this year to $12,500 per month, is still a very paltry sum. If this is the only income available to older persons, which in some cases it is, then they are basically facing starvation. Earlier this week, we heard ominous rumblings about the state of the National Insurance Scheme (NIS). Thousands of our aged who paid into the scheme throughout their working life, now depend on it for a monthly pension as well as certain other services, such as the spectacles subsidy. The NIS is in dire need of a transfusion if not it will collapse taking many of our seniors with it.

Access to shelter, transportation and sanitation for the aged is non-existent. Basic health care is available across the board, there are no special programmes for older folks and no special attention paid to dementia and other such illnesses.

The social/welfare services sector as it stands now appears to be already overwhelmed with what is currently on its plate. Provision needs to be made now for the thousands more Guyanese from all spheres of life who will cross the line from middle-aged to elderly in the next few years. And it must be done now and by the people in authority who are very likely to be part of that group. Persons need to look at the way the average older person has to eke out a living and ask themselves if that is the life they want to be living in another 10, 15 or 20 years. International Day of Older Persons was observed this year under the theme ‘The future we want: what older persons are saying’. Is anyone listening?

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