"Never before in the history of mankind have so many people lived for so long."
Now that's the kind of grand statement that has to be read twice before one fully grasps its meaning. It simply means that there are more old people today in the world than there ever was. This is one of the greatest benefits of development. Thanks to better medicare, sanitation and awareness, most people will survive into old age for the first time in human history. This is good news for mankind. But it's bad news for the old people. Development has allowed them to experience old age, but it is insufficient to guarantee them a life of dignity and security. Two-thirds of the old people live in developing countries and the trouble is they become old before they become rich. The result is they live a life of dependence, deprivation and isolation.
Studies have shown that the old are the poorest people in the world. It is easy to identify the houses of older people because they are often the most dilapidated. They are unable to work. Laws discriminate against them. They cannot get insurance cover, they cannot get loans. Unlike in the west that has welfare benefits and well-run old people's homes, traditionally, in our part of the world, children are the safety net for aging parents. And yet, old people are today trapped in a changing world. Nuclear families are replacing joint families. Children migrate from the villages, cities, even country. Old values, systems and arrangements are breaking down. Unfortunately, new ones are not yet in place. There is no state care. There are no benefits like subsidised medicines or tax breaks. Old age homes are woefully inadequate. The result is that millions of old people are falling between the cracks, unknown and unseen. Except by their children perhaps. But in many cases, children are too busy in their worlds to see or care.
What makes it worse for old people is that they feel wronged, discarded. All through their productive years, they have sacrificed and contributed much to their families and to society. And now in their hour of need, families and societies turn their back on them. They are physically and psychologically dependent, but in this fast-paced, cruel world, there is no one to depend on. People are reluctant to allocate precious resources on them. Decisions are usually more economic than humane. Governments and societies prefer to invest in children—in the future, rather than in the past. The return on investment is more favourable.
How can anyone argue that resources should be diverted from children to the old? Certainly, investment in the old cannot be made at the cost of investment in the young. And so, the option seems to be to forget the old. It is this kind of divisive, compartmentalised thinking that aggravates problems. The solution lies in coopting the old into the development process. As much as they have special needs, they have special strengths that can be harnessed.
In today's world where youth and beauty are celebrated, wisdom and experience—the invaluable assets of the senior citizens—are increasingly devalued or even ignored. Every year, MNCs lower the minimum age for CEOs, favouring energy over experience. This is clever, but not necessarily wise. Daring is important. But so is caution. Speed is vital. But so is balance. Single-minded focus is crucial. But so is perspective. One to the exclusion of the other can be counter-productive. It is in everybody's interest to harness the strengths of both the young and the old.
In a country like India where there is so much unemployment, it is understandable that people retire at 60. But today's 60-year-olds are physically and mentally fit, in perfect condition to contribute their best for another decade.But when they are put out to pasture, they deteriorate rapidly, mentally, physically and psychologically. They feel useless, redundant, frustrated. The tragedy is that their most precious gift—wisdom—is laid to waste, when in fact families and societies could benefit immensely from it. The arrogance and impatience of youth often blinds them to what is their best legacy. Wisdom is gained solely from the alchemy of human experience, more specifically from the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, achievements and suffering, calamities and adversities that are inevitably packaged into every human life. It's only when you live long enough can you even begin to make sense of life. From the moment we are born, we literally hit the ground running. It's only when we can run no more, when we step out of the race, can we really see the race for what it is. So many youngsters would run better if only they had the humility to listen to wisdom.
Taking care of the old is a challenge that has to be transformed into an opportunity. Social exclusion of older people only impoverishes younger generations—we are deprived the benefit of invaluable knowledge, experience, skills, especially about life, environment, culture and above all, coping strategies in times of crises. As the recent Helpage report highlights, old people are well-equipped to be carers, resource managers and problem-solvers in emergencies because the knowledge they have of traditional survival systems, appropriate technologies and alternative medicines can be crucial. The design, delivery and monitoring of development programmes can be enhanced manifold by enlisting the expertise of the old. They cost the least. Many would give their expertise free. Even the needs of the poorest of the old people is not much—a little food, medicines, shelter, a change of clothes. But what they all want is appreciation, a desire to be useful. We would all be better off if we realised that we need them as much as they need us. (The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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