Grey Hair And Bifocals

by Juan L. Mercado

“I’ve reached the point in my life when, if somebody  tells me to wear socks, I don’t have to.” Scientist  Albert Einstein’s wry comment is relevant  the April  conference on  “Ageing in Asia Pacific: Balancing the State and the Family.”

Convened in Cebu City , this  20th biennial conference of the Association of Asian Social Science Research Councils considered  “myths about the elderly” to new scientific tools, like “ALE”.

ALE —  what?

“The concept of active life expectancy or “ALE” is relatively new in the Philippines ,” explains Grace Cruz of  UP Population Institute. With fellow researchers Yashushiko Sato and Josefina Natividad, she writes:  ALE is moving to  policy front burners.

Filipinos today  live  longer. “Former president Bill Clinton dubs us ‘junior-senior.’   My surviving classmates prefer to be called “mature”. In La Union, average life spans  exceeds 74 years. But it   only 55  in Tawi-Tawi.

In 2010,  there were  6.4 million senior citizens. Ranks of the “young once”  are surging.    “Lolos” and “Lolas”, plus a few  spinster aunts, “will  account for 7.8% of population when President Benigno Aquino’s term ends.

Come  2040  about  19.6 million of  what  Associated Press dubs “near elderly”.  There’ll be 141.7 million of us then.  Some will be  justices, physicians, church leaders, even  newspaper columnists.

But there’ll be many  in nursing homes, hospitals  —- or begging on the streets  and  clustered in slums. All ask when did those same steps  turn steeper?  And they’re likely to request: Speak louder please.

“Don’t complain about growing old,” Justice Earl Warren wrote. “Many people don’t have that privilege.”  But “success in adding  years to life does not necessarily  mean adding life to years”.   In fact, longer lives can peter out in poor health and in crippling disability.

Yet, little is known of ALE. What are differentials between socioeconomic groups? Anyone studied health transition patterns among older people?

Average lifespan of  men today  is 67 years while that of women is 72.   A prevailing myth is  the elderly are dependent on their children. Amaryllis Tiglao-Torres said. In fact, many of the elderly pitch in for children and grandchildren.  They double as guardians when a parent becomes an Overseas Foreign Worker. But  they’re marginalized in the job market and are vulnerable to disease. Government pensions are inadequate.

The percentage of elderly-headed household belonging to the poorest 10% of the population has been on the rise since 1997, says a separate study by Dennis Mapa and others.

The presence of a young dependent (aged 14 years old or below) increases the probability  that the elderly-headed household will become poor by about 9 percentage points,  estimates Mapa and team in a  paper titled:  “Determinants of Poverty in Elderly-Headed Households in the Philippines.  To tamp down poverty, policy must  country must include measures that will  “bring down the fertility rate to a level that is conducive to higher income growth.”

Swelling ranks of  elderly imply  a corresponding increase in the number with disabilities,. This future scenario elevates health, particularly health expectancy, as a central issue in policy formulation  for the  aging, Cruz notes in an earlier study:  “Active Life Expectancy Among Older Filipnos”.

The number of older people unable to perform once routine everyday  chores  —  from bathing, reading, using a cell phone or going on Internet  — has  implications at various levels.  Demand for buffed up government health budgets for one.  The Aquino regime has collected more revenues. But there are competing demands on the health peso  from the younger sector of the population. The young are also the majority.

“The burden of care for the elderly —  financial and non-material  support, —  will have to managed by the family”, Cruz foresees. Traditional  family  structures, are changing  rapidly. A  major factor is overseas  as well as rural-to-urban movements. “Labor  migration eroded  the ability of the family to  care for its older members.”

Women  are traditional caregivers  for the elderly. Often, older people  take on surrogate parental roles for grandchildren whose parents have left for overseas employment. Demand for women OFWs outstrip the jobs for men.

Poverty cripples a family’s ability to care for its  elder members. Out of every 100 Filipinos, 34 scrape below the poverty line. Thus, older folk working despite their  advanced  years and wobbly health status.

“Filipinos are generally known for their strong filial obligation. (But) poverty can erode the middle generation’s capacity to provide economic and health assistance for the older generation’. Savings in the bank  determines level  of “inter-generational support”. The less-endowed are less likely to be involved in kin support.

Both  number and proportion of healthy years relative to total remaining life years dwindle  with age for men and women.  Functional impairment is a reality.  These  result in significant  life  style restrictions. Unless policy measures are enacted, the elderly will skid into social isolation, poor  nutrition and overall decrease in quality of life.

Specially urgent will be measures to address needs of women who’ll  spend longer periods in disability before death. As Emily Dickenson wrote: “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.”


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