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7 October, 2019 11:19:51 AM

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Plight and predicament of the elderly

The youth in general are losing the age-old custom of respect and are also becoming less concerned about the older person
Syed Mehdi Momin
Plight and predicament of the elderly

The World International Senior Citizens Day came and went on October 1. Lots of inane platitudes were uttered by civil society leaders yet the plight of the elderly continues to worsen.

Senior citizens in Bangladesh who amid his government’s yearning for human resource development in the country, is being given a raw deal in virtually all spheres of life. Many people here often proudly say that the elderly here are treated in a much better manner compared to Western countries? Really? The meager allowance for the elderly is but one example of the hollowness of the claim. While there is some level of respect, rise in materialistic values has taken away the real reverence that our society once had for the elderly.
Unfortunately, for all our talk about ‘respecting age’, we regard wrinkles and grey hair with a measure of horror. When we talk of our demographic challenge, it is inevitably about ageing. Who will bear the cost of longevity? Do we have the institutional structures in place? What is the burden of caring for the elderly?
The youth in general are losing the age-old custom of respect and are also becoming less concerned about the older persons. Prevalence of nuclear families, lack of cross-generation interaction, less social interaction with older persons, age discrimination, lack of social security system in Bangladesh, can be cited as the most important reasons for the miserable condition of many older persons. The age-discrimination is a core concern in all societies. Discrimination against people on grounds of age in Bangladesh is growing at a steady pace.

Bangladesh’s youth bulge — the large number of citizens below the age of 30 — is often the subject of political and social commentary. This is understandable since this demographic is not only a source of opportunity for the country but also a potential ticking social time-bomb. But what about the elderly? Are we paying adequate attention to this segment of the population who, by and large, contributed to their families and society in their heyday of physical and mental liveliness, but who are often left feeling marginalised by society in their advancing years?

Persons aged 60 years and above are considered as senior citizens, although the retiring age from any profession as decided by many countries ranges from 59 to 65.

The elder population is a fast-growing segment of Bangladesh society nowadays. Every year, approximately 80,000 new older persons enter the group of the older persons who, in general, constitute a socially and economically vulnerable group with the basic needs remaining unmet in many cases. By 2050, it is estimated that the number of people over 60 will be approximately equal to the number of children under 14. The number of people over 75 is increasing faster than any other group.

The average life span of Bangladeshis has increased a lot in the last few decades due to improvement in medical and social services, which has also witnessed decrease in child mortality. About 6 per cent people of the country were above 60 or of higher age in 2006, and it is presumed that the number will go up to 17 per cent in 2050.

Due to physical limitations, millions of the older people across the world pass through chronic poverty, untreated illness, homelessness or inadequate shelter, violence and abuse, lack of education, little or no access to law, fear and isolation. The older people may face difficulties in the following key areas: physical and mental health; community care; social care; housing; transport; employment; income; education and leisure; utilities and consumer protection; access to information; and decision-making. The older age can result in decreased mobility, impairment of sight, hearing and weaker muscle strength, as well as greater vulnerability to heat and cold. Minor conditions can quickly deteriorate into major handicaps that overwhelm older persons' ability to cope with. They have difficulty accessing services, and are less able or less willing to flee quickly or to protect themselves from harm in hostile situations. For instance, older persons have more difficulty accessing distribution points and carrying heavy supplies, while the loss of eyeglasses or walking canes can render them dependent on others.

Thee constitution clearly declares in article 15(D) that the Government should introduce social security programme for the insolvent elderly population. However the only visible support to the older persons is the earlier mention 'old age allowance' (Boyosko Bhata) of Taka 165.

In Bangladesh the elderly have to visit different government offices for various purposes. The norm here is to have senior citizens visit these offices in person regardless of their health or physical condition. No senior citizen counters exist at these offices, or if they do they are non-operational. This is far from the values taught in schools: to respect, to help and to facilitate senior citizens. Officials should be trained to be patient while dealing with senior citizens. Their attitude shows that either standard operating procedures don’t state how to deal with senior citizens or, if they do, they are not taught, followed and monitored in practical life.

Family members who have to shoulder the responsibility of care-giving should educate themselves about an elderly person’s specific needs including psycho-sociological, dietary, physical, mental and emotional requirements. Awareness about a condition and its related issues can help them understand the patient’s behaviour, such as aggression, and seeking professional counselling on how to deal with these issues can make care-giving easier.

It is a shocking fact that many elderly parents being abused and abandoned by their children and it is not just an urban phenomenon. In rural Bangladesh too extended family system is eroding, with the younger generation increasingly heading off to cities with their spouses and their children to start a new life – without their parents or grandparents. And there are the financial issues. Those who have worked in government service or for reputable private companies receive pensions, but a large majority of the population still work as farmers or day labourers. Once they are too old to work, they are forced to rely on their children or extended family for support which is often not forthcoming.   It is a fact of life that everyone wants to live long but no one wants to grow old.

Old age is viewed as an unavoidable, undesirable, problem-ridden phase of life that we all are compelled to live, biding time  until our life exits from life itself. Perceiving old age with fear is actually a rather recent phenomenon.

In earlier days, when life was simple and values counted for more, those who reached a ripe old age held an enviable place in society, where they could really relax and enjoy their twilight years, secure in the knowledge that they still commanded attention, respect and affection, and that though they were well past their prime, all that they had given their best for are still important and so were they.

It is when one loses this sense of importance whether in one's own eyes or others that life becomes a problem.  And it is a diminishing sense of importance– whatever the reason–that plays havoc with the lives of elderly.

When one enters the final room of life called the old age, there lurks a terrible feeling or redundancy in every corner of the room.  This begins right from the time when one retires from productive service at a not-so-old age, and when the next generation grows up, moves away, emerges from gestation.

Irrespective of individual status or achievement, senior citizens have the right to expect to be held in esteem and treated with consideration and dignity because of age alone.  In old age people always are interested in communicating their practical experience to the coming generations to face the realities of life.  What shines towards everything they had to say is an exiting attitude towards life. The wisdom they have is a product of experience that comes from years of trying and failing; trying and succeeding; getting involved discovering the various aspects such as in job; raising kids; knowing what causes happiness; knowing how to keep business, considering oneself lucky to care for others.

In my visits to Europe something that really impressed me is that at many shopping malls there are small battery-operated carts for senior citizens parked at the entrance. They comfortably sit in these carts, move about to do the shopping and then park the cart back at the entrance when they are done. Then they are allowed concessions on many purchases. At many places there are separate windows to serve senior citizens. Recently a friend of mine went to Istanbul, Turkey. He said that the respect the Turkish people show to elders (not just their relatives) is very moving. Just to give an example he narrated an incident which really touched me. Lots of people travel in the thickly packed fast-moving buses. These have few seats but large standing space. On many occasions people gave up seats for the senior citizens. When such culture and such facilities will develop in this country to give some respect, some consideration to senior citizens in the twilight of their life?

The writer is the Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent and can be contacted at: syed.mehdi@theindependentbd.com

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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