Syed Mehdi Momin
How many of our readers are aware of the fact that the allowance for the elderly citizens of the country (boyoshko bhata) amounts to Taka 500 (around six USD) a month per person? Actually, it was just Tk 300 until a few years back. In today’s Bangladesh isn’t Tk 500 for a person per month a pittance? In these days of high prices of essential commodities what this meagre amount can purchase for a person? Isn’t it a mockery? A person needs food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Can the allowance meet even a small fraction of the needs? Then why it is there for? Well, nobody seems to have answers to these questions.
This paltry allowance is just one example of the hollowness of the lofty claim that our society is an ideal place for senior citizens. While there still is a level of respect, rise in materialistic values has taken away the genuine reverence that our society once had for the elderly. When experts talk of Bangladesh’s demographic advantage, it is always about the youth. On the other hand, whenever there is talk of demographic challenge, it is inevitably about ageing. Who will bear the cost of longevity? Do we have the institutional structures in place? What is the burden of caring for the elderly? These are the questions that often arise in discussions about senior citizens.
Prevalence of nuclear family structure, lack of cross-generation interaction, less social interaction with older persons, age discrimination, lack of proper implementations of social security systems in Bangladesh, can be cited as the most important reasons for the miserable condition of many older persons.
The elderly population is a fast-growing segment of Bangladesh society nowadays. Every year thousands of new older persons enter the group of the older persons who, in general, constitute a socially and economically vulnerable group with the basic needs remaining unmet in many cases. The average life span of Bangladeshis has increased a lot in the last few decades due to improvement in medical and social services, which has also witnessed decrease in child mortality. About six per cent of people of the country were above 60 or of higher age in 2006, and it is presumed that the number will go up to 17 per cent
The constitution of this Republic clearly declares, in article 15(D), that the government should introduce social security programme for the insolvent elderly population. Yet the only visible support to the older persons is the earlier mention 'old age allowance' (Boyosko Bhata) of Tk 500.
In Bangladesh, senior citizens have to visit government or semi-government offices for various purposes. The norm here is to have senior citizens visit these offices in person regardless of their health or physical condition. No senior citizen counters exist at these offices. Even if they do, they are virtually non-operational. Officials should be trained to be patient while dealing with senior citizens. Their usual attitude shows that either standard operating procedures don’t state how to deal with senior citizens or they are not taught, followed and monitored in practical life.
Family members who have to shoulder the responsibility of caregiving should educate themselves about an elderly person’s specific needs including psycho-sociological, dietary, physical, mental and emotional requirements. Awareness about a condition and its related issues can help them understand the patient’s behaviour, such as aggression, and seeking professional counselling on how to deal with these issues can make caregiving easier.
It is a shocking fact that many elderly parents being abused and abandoned by their children and it is not just an urban phenomenon. In rural Bangladesh too extended family system is eroding, with the younger generation increasingly heading off to cities with their spouses and their children to start a new life – without their parents or grandparents. And there are the financial issues.
Of course, many in Bangladesh do try to look after their parents, grandparents and other elderly relatives as much they can within their means. In fact, many of us take them as a blessing for us. Unfortunately, this sense of respect for seniors evaporates when we are outside our homes. We rarely think about the problems they might have whether we are standing in a queue or shopping or travelling.
Those who have worked in government service or for reputable private companies receive pensions, but a large majority of the population still work as farmers or day labourers. Once they are too old to work, they are forced to rely on their children or extended family for support which is often not forthcoming.
It is a fact of life that everyone wants to live long but no one wants to grow old. Old age is viewed as an unavoidable, undesirable, problem-ridden phase of life that we all are compelled to live, biding time until our life exits from life itself. Perceiving old age with fear is actually a rather recent phenomenon. When one loses this sense of importance whether in one's own eyes or others life becomes a problem. A diminishing sense of importance– whatever the reason–that plays havoc with the lives of elderly.
Irrespective of individual status or achievement, senior citizens have the right to expect to be held in esteem and treated with consideration and dignity because of age alone. They have full right to independence, privacy, and choice of persons with whom they like or live and associate with; they also have the right not to fear abridgement of those rights because of advancing age.
Old people irrespective of retirement from service should also be cared for medical treatment from a person who has knowledge with compassion.
Senior citizens must have the right to manage their financial affairs, as well as the right to complete information and full disclosure of possible consequences from those through whom they seek assistance with the management of those affairs.
Senior citizens should have the full right to choose how and with whom they spend leisure time, as well as the right to choose considerate assistance when they move or travel.
Loneliness is pervasive in this digital world of today. There is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. Some may prefer being by themselves throughout their lives. But others may find themselves suddenly alone. Such people should be noted and taken care of by the society.
We should extend all possible help that any senior citizen requires. Becoming a senior citizen should not necessarily mean retirement from active life. Senior citizens can and in many cases do contribute to the society. Experience of senior citizens is wealth without any measurement criteria.
Syed Mehdi Momin is Senior Assistant Editor at The Business Post