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POPULATION: Developing Countries Must Focus on ‘Positive Ageing’

N. Janardhan

DOHA, Jun 3 2009 (IPS) - The success of the global fight to eradicate poverty is largely contingent on welfare policies related to swiftly ageing populations, particularly in the developing world where a majority of old people live below the poverty line, say experts.

A combination of social, economic and demographic factors has led to the neglect of the elderly, thus making this “one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.” In particular, these changes have characterised the lifetime of the current generation of elderly – which are in turn impacting the relations of the elderly with their children, relatives and communities.

These and challenges related to the changing family structure and the role of the government and non-government sectors in addressing them were discussed at a seminar organised by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development.

Speaking on the sidelines of the seminar titled “Family Support Networks and Population Ageing,” which was held in collaboration with Northwestern University and the United Nations Programme on Ageing, Richard Wilkins said discussion of the subject was timely because of the “on-going economic crisis that has particularly been harsh on the elderly sections of the population.”

There is increasing evidence of societies with economic challenges brought on by contracting markets devaluing life, Wilkins, managing director of the International Institute for Family Studies and Development, told IPS.

The problem has reached critical proportions because ageing and poverty have been simultaneous processes.

Citing the example of some of the Scandinavian countries, where a large number of deaths in the 55-plus age group is linked to euthanasia, Wilkins explained that such a trend in the developing countries could prove to be a huge social crisis.

Among the primary reasons for the phenomenon of rapid ageing in the developing countries, especially Latin America and Asia, is a demographic transformation due to lower fertility rates and declining death rates.

The elderly in the developing countries are particularly vulnerable because unlike in the developed world, ageing has been a rapid process, leaving little time for the governments to design policies to tackle the challenges.

For example, fertility rates in developing countries declined sharply and rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s, while mortality rates have consistently contracted since 1940s.

While lower death rates are positive indicators of improving health standards, especially in relation to “infectious and parasitic diseases,” the elderly in the developing countries are now exposed to other chronic and degenerative diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, diabetes and heart ailments.

Another dimension of the ageing population phenomenon is the extra strain on women. According to the UNFPA, “this usually means that the burden falls squarely on the women [wives and daughters] in the family who begin then to simultaneously supply child care and support to older members of the family. Many of these women, the majority of whom are not trained to provide elderly care, do so at the expense of their own physical and emotional health and well-being.”

In addition, rural-urban migration patterns are putting a massive strain on family structures. While family is the first source of support for elderly in all societies, the changing socio-economic factors and cultural values – like increasing divorce rates and mushrooming nuclear families – have put pressure on governments to take up the responsibility of protecting the elders.

According to John Knodel, however, it is unfair to expect resource-poor governments in developing countries to take up this responsibility. Instead, he recommends “efforts to strengthen family-based support systems should be encouraged like in the case of Thailand.”

Knodel, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and Bangkok- based Chulalongkorn University, told IPS that Taiwan’s pilot project with daycare homes for the elderly is also an experiment that should be monitored carefully for its impact and replicated – if it yields a positive outcome.

But, since not all families can provide the required level of support to the elderly, it is important to evolve a combined approach involving “families, communities and governments,” according to Jose Miguel Guzman, chief of the population and development division at UNFPA.

In some developing societies, Guzman said, “the older generation has to take care of the younger generation either due to financial reasons, or housing shortage or because of the increase in the number of working couples.”

As a step towards addressing these issues, Guzman stressed the work that UNFPA has already spearheaded in capacity-building efforts – especially in organising regional training institutions, encouraging South-South cooperation and synergising the activities of national, regional and international organisations.

In suggesting the way forward, Wilkins said that developing societies must adopt the concept of “positive ageing,” which focuses on socio-economic provisions such as “health, housing, financial security and respect for human rights” of the elderly.

In particular, Wilkins recommends that people and governments in the developing countries must stop being reactive and start adopting proactive policies. “International cooperation, information exchange and inter- generational dialogue and support mechanisms” would help build a stronger society that is capable of tackling problems of ageing populations and guarantee their welfare.

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