According to the findings of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), there are around 2.5 million people in Sri Lanka who are above the age of 60 years. It’s projected that by 2030, 1 in 5 people will be in this category.
With the purpose of generating a social discussion on the issue, the UNFPA recently organized a Generation-to-Generation dialogue on the theme ‘Ageing Population in Sri Lanka and its Policy Implications’ at the Cinnamon Grand, Colombo. The event was graced by UNFPA Regional Director for Asia Pacific Bjorn Anderson, who was in country on a five-day mission.
Addressing the gathering, Anderson said that the organization is committed to ensure that the discourse on ageing shifts from focusing on the cost and burden of ageing in Sri Lanka.
At the dialogue, a thematic report on Population Ageing in Sri Lanka, jointly published by UNFPA and Department of Census and Statistics (DCS), was disseminated. The first copy of this report was presented on October 1, to the Minister of Social Empowerment, Welfare, and Kandyan Heritage, S.B Dissanayake, at the National Event marking International Day of Older Persons.
The panel, discussing the report, comprised of the Author of the Report, Dr. Sunethra Perera – Head of Department of Demography, University of Colombo; Ms. Ritsu Nacken - UNFPA Representative in Sri Lanka; Dr. Harischandra Yakandawala - Director (Medical) of the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka; Dr. Shiromi Maduwage - National Programme Officer, Elderly Care, Ministry of Health and Ms. Piyumi Fonseka - Journalist, Daily Mirror, Wijeya Newspapers Sri Lanka. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Amara Satharasinghe - Director General, Department of Census and Statistics (DCS).
“The ageing population in our country is an achievement of humanity. We have invested a lot in education and health systems to achieve this status amidst much struggle, since the post Independence era. The age at which a person starts receiving retirement benefits is the cut off age. This is the age at which we recognize a person to be old. In Sri Lanka, we all know that this cut off age is 60.
The proportion of the Sri Lankan elderly population is the highest in South Asia. Nevertheless, this issue isn’t limited to South Asia. Even Singapore is intending to focus on this issue in their next development plan. The falling fertility rates and decreasing mortality rates in the country has caused a rise in the elderly population.
Sri Lanka is conducting population and housing census once in ten years. The last census was conducted in 2012; therefore the country has to wait until 2022 to survey its demographic profile. Considering the fact that the waiting period for another census is too long, our department has decided to conduct a mini census once in two years.
When a country is working to achieve sustainable development goals, all the groups of the society, including the elderly, should be taken into consideration. If the current authorities don’t take the right precautions, the ageing population will be a huge burden to the country,”said Dr. Satharasinghe.
“As Mr. Satharasinghe said, population ageing isn’t a problem, but an achievement and a celebration of humanity which comes with a range of opportunities. We need to embrace those opportunities. It demonstrates that people of a country are happier, healthier and generally having their living standards. We need to discuss the demographic shifts, causes and implications. Finding holistic and pragmatic policy solutions is an integral aspect of this process.
Health and active ageing can’t be achieved through a single initiative. It requires a range of policy shifts and actions. UNFPA is committed to being part of the effort to ensure that the discourse on ageing shifts from focusing on the cost and burden of ageing. UNFPA supports countries to recognize the enormous contribution that older persons can make in sustainable development,” said Anderson.
“We have already set up policies and recommendations on how to address the ageing population issue. But, to our disappointment, all the recommendations are pilled up in cupboards. I believe that it’s high time for us to act. Programme planners should make the policy shifts and recommendations in a more practical way. There is a suggestion to increase retirement age. But, it can’t be done overnight because it requires a lot of research.
The Health Ministry is currently in the process of collecting data to observe the readiness of our health system to face the ageing population issue. A lot of preparations should be made in the health sector. We have already taken measures to increase facilities in hospitals in terms of human resources and infrastructure. Recently, we introduced a national policy for the senior citizens.
At the moment, the country doesn’t have a special group of medical officers to treat elderly patients. Not only doctors, we need more human resources in many categories. The Health Ministry has identified what should be done and what’s being done at the moment,”Dr. Maduwage said.
“There is a lot to learn from Japan on how Sri Lanka should address the ageing population issue. The definition of older people has changed in Japan now. As such, the people aged above 65 years are recognized as the elderly in Japan. It was 60 few years ago.
At present, the population of ‘older persons’ in Sri Lanka is 26%. It is projected that this percentage will rise to 40% by 2040. The fertility rate has been around 1.4 in Japan, causing the ageing to accelerate.
One of the best reforms made by Japan was introducing long term care and insurance for the elderly. Just like in Sri Lanka, in Japan too children, particularity women, were supposed to take care of their old parents. With the time, we realized that the system wasn’t sustainable and a different system should be set up. A new position named ‘care manager’ was introduced, so that decisions could be taken when caring for the elderly.
“The first step is to create public awareness about the positive aspect of ageing. I think we also need to set up mechanisms in order to address ageing related issues including feminization of ageing and employment. We need to see whether we are ready to face implications that would rise due to population ageing. The authorities should consider improving geriatric services in the country,”said Perera.
“As the country hasn’t recognized positive impacts of ageing, I think it is a burden for the country at the moment. There should be a separate programme by the Government targeting older people of the country. While there is an increase in Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) among the elderly, there is concern regarding the older population suffering from mental disease.”
“The media has a strong and pervasive impact on views regarding older people. It is a reality that increasing ageing population poses challenges to the society, but at the same time we shouldn’t forget the unique opportunities that it may provide.
Ageism is a social disease fed by stereotypes. These stereotypes matter because people act on the stereotypes and the assumptions that are harbored about older people. I believe that the elderly are severely under-represented in many types of advertisements and in other media.
There is scope for the media to assist in the breakdown of these stereotypes. There is a need for the media to actively break down stereotypes, particularly those to do with health and victimization. Further, there is a need for the media to show more respect to older members of the community and to provide images and messages which strengthen the contribution that older people make to Sri Lanka. Media and marketing companies, including film, news, television and publishing, can increase the prevalence and diversity of older adults represented in their offerings. This visibility will send a strong message.”