Are we ready to be elderly friendly?

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Bangladesh is facing a quiet crisis of a rising elderly population without having an infrastructure to care for them. This applies to all sectors. While the family network is at bay, the social network is weak, the formal care system hasn’t grown up at all. Bangladesh can’t take care adequately of any vulnerable population segments. The Elderly fares the worst in this hierarchy of neglect.

The problem of a high number of elderly is caused by many reasons, including ironically, improved socio-economics. Better health care means longer lives but longer lives also mean people live chronologically longer than their economic life. Since Bangladesh does not have a properly funded social welfare system there will be competition for inadequate resources affecting the elderly.

The issue is also complex because difficulties of the elderly are linked to class and economic ability.  It’s not just willingness to look after the elderly that is an issue but also the capacity to do so.  The rural-urban divide is also an important factor in determining the response to the problem. Hence, the complexity of the situation determines the state of the elderly.

Housing, income and elderly care are the three main issues that affect the elderly. As incomes rise, people live longer but with population growth, competition for income is also higher. The elderly are not economically active after 65 years but there is no social welfare system that helps them survive.

Traditionally, they would depend on the family but the rural situation of today doesn’t allow maintenance of families and their elderly members. Reports suggest that in both urban and rural societies the elderly are considered a burden.

Although around 7% of the population are considered elderly but the number is very high given our population closer to 10-12  million.. This change in population characteristics will have serious consequences on society as well as on the overall socio-economic development indicators of the country. Such a large population that has low access to services and experiences a poor quality of life will impact on national claims of development.

While tradition says, society looks after the elderly, reality today is different. Rapid changes including economic capacity have depleted extended family and community care systems.

Ageing and associated suffering is also class based.  The rural and urban poor live without income and on charity whether collective or family.  One source of their care system are the shrines of Bangladesh which run informal care networks including a place to sleep and donated food. Its suggested that majority of the 5% of the “destitute’ population are elderly.

The urban counterpart may well be worse off as they have no family, clan or community network to sustain themselves. Their children’s capacity to look after them is also hugely limited.

But the general perception of the elderly as a burden is increasingly rising as families change and affordable surplus declines. All the countries go through similar trajectories of care for the elderly but the difference is in the role and capacity of the formal care system run by the state.

Government programmes designed for the aged in the rural areas are mainly in the form of pensions which are very inadequate. Other needs whether health, care and recreation are ignored. As expected the urban middle class is better off but not all and this advantage is limited to the white collar workers. Currently, only 10 persons per Union are given taka 100 monthly but no universal pension net exists.

There are many needs to be met but that can begin to happen only when we overcome our denial of the fact that we have a problem.  Bangladeshis are still insisting that they are a traditional family bound society which they are not anymore and the socio-economic realities are dictating this condition.

The issue is socio-economic disparity. If one is poor, suffering will be high whether young or elderly. So the fate of the elderly is not outside the reality that affects the majority. However, they are the most vulnerable of them all after children and investment in children has a potential future income but not in the elderly.  So it’s possible to ignore what they face. Unless social and economic value measuring exists, this situation will not change.

Family can do the least, society can do some more and the state the most but at this point all are delinquent when it comes to caring for the Elderly.

  • Are we ready to be elderly friendly?
  • Issue 13
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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