by Juan L. Mercado

“Grow old along with me / The best is yet to be,”  Rabbi ben Ezra says in the 1850 sonnet. That is not so here, reveal studies presented at the “Philippine and Global Perspective on Aging” at University of San Carlos in Cebu.

The elderly—60 years and above—constitute the fastest growing  group  today, Socorro Gultiano of  USC Population Studies Foundation said.  The number of middle-aged (39-49) and “near old”  (50-59) folk is rising. Most are women. They’ll  be the largest population cluster in a decade from now.

Within this group, the poor get the short end of what really matters: life spans. Infant mortality rates among poor families crest at 40 percent. But within the high walls of well-to-do enclaves, they’re down to 15 percent. Yet, “life is the threshold at which all other hopes begin.

Schooling makes a crucial difference. Infant deaths crested at 32 out of every hundred born of mothers stuck with skimpy elementary schooling. It is different with mothers who reached college. Their infant deaths were tamped down by a third. Poorer and less educated women also bore more kids: five compared to two in richer homes.

Life spans for Filipinos have been on the upswing. Male life expectancy in 1970 was 57 years and rose to 66 in 2013. Women tend to live longer; their life expectancy, which stood at 61 years old in 1970, climbed to 72 in 2013. Good enough? See that in an international context. The “UN Human Development Report” states that 2013’s average life expectancy for Thais stood at 74. It was 79 years for Cubans and 81 for Singaporeans. In next-door Hong Kong, it is 83—and rising. )

Given this age-structural transition, policymakers need to play closer attention to the “double burden of disease and malnutrition,” Gultiano suggested. “Majority of the children,  who will become young adults, come from the poorer homes. Whether most of them will actually survive to old age is the question.”

Sure. There’ve been greater strides in the length of remaining life among Filipinos who turn the corner of 60 years in age, UP Population Institute’s Grace Cruz told the conference. “But there is a substantial gender gap.”  More elderly women than men wheedle away “their remaining life in functional difficulty or inactive state.”

Longer life spans, over the last four decades, benefited the youngsters more than the elderly. And “the female older people” squeezed more  advantage “than their male counterparts” did. Health gains translate into “longevity gains.” This is most marked in the sharp dip in infant mortality rates over the last 25 years.

In 1990, 57 kids out of 1,000 live births died. That slumped to 23 in 2013.  Yet,  that dip will not be enough for the Philippines to meet its commitment under the Millennium Development Goals’ 2015  target of 19 deaths per thousand births.

Consistently, the research data revealed “improvement in functional heath status.” You see that in the shrinking numbers of those afflicted with at least one difficulty—e.g., walking, feeding, dressing and bathing. “Functional health status improved across all age groups. Overall, elderly women will spend more of their twilight years in disability.”

How do you explain this shift?  More Filipinos are staying in school longer, Cruz said. Smoking and drinking rates have slumped too. There has been a beef-up of government services, as mirrored by the doubling in the numbers who hold a senior citizen card.

Cruz tacks on a number of caveats: Richer and better-educated oldsters “have higher and better awareness of senior citizens privileges.”  Also, “health insurance coverages remain low.” This is most  apparent among older women.  A mound of “unmet needs for health services” persists.

Recent laws tried to close the gap for the poorest of the elderly.  Republic Act No. 9336, for example, allocates 1 percent of government agency budgets for seniors. RA 9994 mandates automatic enrollment of seniors in a financially strapped PhilHealth program. Hence, there is a need to further sharpen targeting of services. “That would be vital to ensure that limited resources will prioritize the poorest.”

Young married Filipinos value children as “investments” or “insurance” who’ll  care for them when they grow old. As it turns out, many of the elderly find themselves strapped as major breadwinners even as their strength is ebbing, Office of Population Studies’ Alan Feranil notes.

When parents work overseas, the elderly are all too often roped in as surrogate parents to their grandchildren.  (In 2013, there were 1.8 million Filipinos who worked abroad. Their remittances grew by 8.5 percent.) Still, far too many of the elderly are abandoned by their children hard-pressed to support their own families. Many OFWs “become strangers to their  children.”

Feranil earlier co-authored a study  on “Dietary patterns and depressive symptoms among Filipino women.” “Diets influence the biology underpinning depressive illnesses” among Filipinos, the study reports. This raises concern as more shift  “from traditional to western diets, typical of a country in nutrition transition.”

From the Research Institute for Mindanao Culture, Dr. Ma. Teresa Sharon  Linog analyzed the “prevalence of malnutrition and other preventable risk factors” among the elderly in Cagayan de Oro City. Among other things, she reported that poverty resulted in high nutrition risk among 53 out of every hundred respondents.

Wives give more of the limited food to their spouses. Majority have “two or three medical” concerns, including teeth loss and oral lesions. “Deterioration of mental health is increasingly marked.”

“Ang tunob sa karaang dili mapala,” a Visayan proverb says. The footsteps of the old can never be forgotten.


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