Dealing with ageing: Asia and the Pacific to lead the way

Facing infirmed old age in penury. Dying all alone. These are fears that may be more real than many would care to admit.

The Asia and Pacific region is home to over half of the world’s population aged 60 years and over. Thus, today’s (October 1) observance of the International Day of Older Persons has a special significance for our region.

Asia-Pacific is at the forefront of the global phenomenon of population ageing: its number of older persons is rising at a pace unprecedented and a scale unmatched by that of any other region in the world. While this demographic transition took 100 years or more to occur in Europe, countries in our region are now going through this process within the span of three decades or less, giving them less time to address its impact.

The number of older persons in Asia-Pacific is estimated to triple from 415 million at present to 1.25 billion by 2050. Older persons will constitute up to 25 per cent by 2050, from only about 10 per cent now.

These changes are occurring as a result of major social achievements, such as increasing life expectancy, declining levels of mortality and fertility, population ageing. However, the steady increase of older age groups in national populations, both in absolute numbers and in relation to the working-age population, is emerging as a new development issue for many countries in Asia and the Pacific.

Population ageing has profound and far-reaching social, economic and health-related implications for a country’s development process. This is due to the increasing demand that the population of older persons will place on health care, family and social support systems, and social security. The implications are accentuated when population ageing occurs in countries, which are not as advanced as the developed countries were, when they reached comparable levels in the demographic transition process.

Timely policy responses are needed for making the vital social and economic adjustments to respond to on-going demographic changes. Delaying those responses would be even more costly than introducing them in good time. Without addressing the needs of older persons, the Millennium Development Goals, particularly those related to poverty and health, will not be achieved.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) serves as the intergovernmental platform to strengthen regional response and enhance government capacity to design and implement policies that empower and protect older persons. ESCAP advocates the following top priorities for collective action:

Tackling poverty in old age: Older persons, particularly women and the ‘oldest old’ (persons aged 80 and above), tend to be poorer than the younger population. The majority has to grapple with economic insecurity in old age. Some countries in the region have made significant efforts to extend pension coverage. For instance, India’s new pension scheme aims to include informal sector workers. China recently began implementing a subsidised contributory programme for farmers. Long-term solutions must include a process of ‘universalisation’ of social protection, including old-age pensions.

Adding life to old age: Societies that already face rapid ageing are now recognising the urgency of life long preparation for active ageing. Providing the space and time for everyone, over the course of their lives, to engage in some form of physical exercise and to have access to affordable, nutritious food is a major public policy decision that will save enormous human, social and financial costs.

Enhancing health care and social services for older persons: Few health systems in the region have been adapted to address the health care needs of older persons. Governments need to orient national health systems to the changing demographic profile.

Addressing negative social attitudes towards old persons: Not so long ago, veneration of old age, elders and their wisdom and values characterised most Asian and Pacific societies. However, this has been swept aside by a new premium on being young, quick and slick. Cases of abuse and neglect of older dependants are emerging, as are discrimination and violence against older persons.

They can be employed in a range of useful voluntary jobs — for example, as senior advisors, road safety wardens for school children, or as health and sanitation teams that keep public spaces clean. The mass media certainly has a role in fostering a more positive perception of older persons by highlighting their wisdom and value to society.

Home to the largest proportion of the world’s population of older persons, the Asia and Pacific region should lead the way in treasuring this social capital. It needs to demonstrate ways of building societies characterised by intergenerational caring, active ageing, and older persons’ continuous involvement in the life of their communities.

Today is the 20th International Day of Older Persons — let us mark the advancement of Asian and Pacific societies by working to ensure that the years of life gained for each and everyone are truly worth living.

(The writer is under secretary general of the UN and executive secretary of ESCAP)

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