This story may perhaps not surprise many Lankans any more but the sense of tragedy at the heart of it remains fresh: recently in the wee hours of the morning, an old woman was abandoned at a temple in Colombo by her family in the hope that she would be provided basic food and shelter, which they could no longer provide for her. Such sad stories have become more commonplace and will only increase in the face of Sri Lanka’s rapidly ageing population.
"Sri Lanka is one of the fastest ageing countries in the world", The Human Development Unit of the World Bank stated last year. In 2000, the proportion of Sri Lanka’s population aged over 60 was 9.25%; this figure is projected to reach a staggering 28.5% by 2050.
Not only is the number of aged people in Sri Lanka on the rise, the elderly also face significant problems amid the changing structure of family life. Traditionally, parents were cared for by their children as they grew older. However, although many of the older generation have struggled hard in an effort to educate their children, many such children today migrate overseas or move to bigger cities to well paid jobs, often leaving their parents behind. Traditional measures of care for the elderly are gradually disintegrating and in the face of a rapidly ageing population this will prove a debilitating problem for the country.
Lack of companionship, loneliness, vanishing immediate health care and the sense of not being able to contribute positively to society, are some of the main problems facing the elderly in Sri Lanka at present. Not only will the country face difficulties economically if it fails to harness the wealth of skills and knowledge of the elderly, their basic human rights will also go asunder. Elder women will be disproportionally affected because of their comparatively higher life expectancy to men.
Although institutions such as the St Mary’s Home for the Elderly, Colombo, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor offer first class accommodation and facilities to their residents at no cost, those staying at this residence are some of the lucky few. However, a reliance on homes for the elderly is unsustainable and undesirable, "there needs to be a symbiotic relationship between the generations", says Manel Abeysekera, a key figure in the NGO Forum on Ageing (NFOA), a consortium of organisations which aim to protect and ensure the welfare and care of elderly people in Sri Lanka. ‘That is why the NGFO is working towards implementing structures which will allow elderly people to live comfortably in their own homes , receiving medical and domestic care while staying connected socially and culturally to the communities in which they reside’, Abeysekera explained in an interview with this newspaper.
The NGFO has implemented many of what Abeysekera calls "useful mechanisms when the crunch comes". One of the main initiatives has been the training of affordable care workers in Carer Training Courses. These courses offer training in the administering of medicine, nutrition, techniques for moving the bedridden and helping with prevention of basic ailments like bedsores. So far one course has been held for the training of carers through the NGFO. However, lack of funds will delay the next training course for this vital service.
In addition to the Carer Training Courses, the NGFO affiliates hold classes on retirement issues and leisure pursuits as well provide legal and medical help. Abeysekera also sees future benefits in developing a system whereby the elderly can work in offices, such as, making tea or doing light cleaning. "Feeling useful and needed is so important for the elderly who may feel isolated and unwanted". In the coming years almost 30% of the population will be over 60; the younger generations will struggle to provide for such a large proportion of the population if they do not work, Absysekera advocates the reintegration of the elderly as an essential component of the future workforce.
The looming ageing of the population in Sri Lanka poses economic difficulties for the country if their skills are not harnessed. The demographic shift also raises the question of how the rights and dignity of older people will be maintained. The older generations have toiled hard to provide for their children and their country and as Abeysekera declares: "We have utilised their talents, we can’t throw them out like sucked lemons!"