No country for the old

Published: May 15, 2015
The writer is author of the book Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

The writer is author of the book Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

Some of the more outright atrocities against the vulnerable, such as physical or sexual incidents of violence against women or children, are often highlighted by our media. However, other vulnerable groups, like the elderly, who also suffer from severe forms of neglect, are deemed less newsworthy. The myriad range of issues facing the elderly in our country hence continues to elude public attention.

The elderly population is rising globally, and Pakistan is no exception. In fact, we are already amongst 15 countries which have more than 10 million older adults, and the number of our elderly citizens is projected to grow drastically in the coming decades.

Pakistan faces mammoth challenges in looking after its aging population. Despite the prevalent myth of traditional family values, and respect for the elderly, the fact remains that taking care of the elderly puts an enormous financial and physical burden on their family members. A large number of elderly people are thus often trapped, isolated, become victims of neglect and are vulnerable to abuse.

Much of our aging population lacks financial independence. Entities like the Employees Old Age Benefit Institution (EOBI) provide minimal pensions to a minuscule proportion of the elderly. According to recently released figures, there are around 525,000 EOBI pensioners, two-thirds of whom are receiving merely Rs3,600 on a monthly basis. While the private sector also provides gratuity, provident or pension schemes to retiring employees, the majority of those who have toiled their entire lives in the informal sector get no such benefits. It is thus not surprising that a vast majority of the elderly population does not have any financial security once they stop working.

Given the lack of widespread health insurance coverage, much of the elderly population also has to rely on earning members of their family to bear the cost of their health expenditures. Moreover, geriatrics as a specialised area of medical training is not given due attention in Pakistan. Hospitals do not have specialised geriatric wards, nor is geriatric care given much importance when making public health budgetary allocations. Treatable health issues which accompany old age thus end up causing unnecessary suffering and debilitating dependence amongst our elderly population.

Besides sporadic concern by healthcare professionals, there are no reliable statistical figures available or comprehensive research studies which document health and other related problems facing the elderly. There is not much encouraging evidence available of concrete efforts being made by the present federal and provincial governments to address the lingering concerns of the elderly.

The federal government is yet to pass a legislation to try and improve the state of elderly citizens, despite the formulation of the Pakistan Senior Citizens Welfare Act back in 2007. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) is the only province to have passed legislation to ensure the welfare of senior citizens during this past year. There were reports of the chief minister of the province having instructed the social welfare department to prepare comprehensive welfare schemes for senior citizens. The aim is to set up retirement homes for older citizens who cannot afford to live alone, provide older citizens who are registered with the government monthly stipends and to enable people over the age of 60 years free travel in public transport, free medical treatment, as well as free entry to parks and libraries. However, there is not much information available about the actual implementation of this provincial bill. It is imperative that more attention be paid to the actual implementation of the laws put in place to safeguard senior citizens’ interests in K-P, besides building pressure on other provinces to follow suit.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th,  2015.

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Reader Comments (2)

  • Toticalling
    May 15, 2015 - 11:18AM

    Comparing increase in old with western countries and giving the numbers tells us only half the truth. In Pakistan, the % of older people is in fact decreasing because there are more births. In western countries it is a different story. Since people have less and less children, the old are over 20% of the total population in many countries and the their numbers is increasing. They say that in some countries like Germany and Italy, every 3rd person will have to support the old within next 20 years.
    Although old are financially not poor, they have other problems. They are left to themselves and are lonely and their offspring do not have any contact with them. I have heard many say that they are so happy when their offspring visit them, but that is rare. Recommend

  • S.R.H. Hashmi
    May 16, 2015 - 12:10AM

    I can confirm what ‘Toticalling’ says about visits from their offspring being rare for elderly Westerners. During my student days in UK, many times I read newspaper advertisements saying that such and such person has come to England from Australia on holidays and would like to meet his or her parents last known to be residing at such and such address ten, fifteen or even twenty years back. Obviously, they had not been in contact with parents all these years and since they happened to be in UK, they saw no harm in seeing their parents if they were still alive and could be traced without too much difficulty. And an Asian doctor told me that a girl who had her sick and dying mother admitted in the hospital had instructed hospital staff that if something untoward happened – like if her mother died – during the weekend, she should be informed only on Monday. Obviously, she did not want the bad news to spoil her weekend. Perhaps this one was an extreme case but the strong ties that we see in Pakistan were rare in UK though even Pakistani society is now fast catching up with the West at least in the cities due to many reasons like economic pressures, limited accommodation and fast depleting family/neighbourly ties, with families preferring to live within their own shells. The television and computers have played a significant role in this societal change while disappearing playground for children have substantially altered their living pattern.

    Apart from financial hardship and other age-related problems, one big misery for the elderly people is loneliness. I think those who have reasonable means could be helped a lot by any public-spirited builder like Malik Riaz who could construct some basic, barrack-type accommodation for them, with community hall, mess and other necessary facilities, spread the cost of amenity buildings on the cost of dwelling units and sell these units to people at no-profit, no-loss basis. The elderly people living there could form an association and finance and manage their own affairs. Such an arrangement could give the old people peace of mind as well as company of others of their age-group, to share their problems, joys and sorrows with.

    Is anyone listening?


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