The perception of ageing and its impact on society has undergone a profound change over the last couple of decades. It, however, continues to trigger differing opinions based on the viewpoint from which it is seen. While biologists look at enhanced longevity as a triumph, the economists seem to have a more grim perception (from a fiscal point of view). Are these fears justified? Is this “silver tsunami” actually straining existing financial institutions? Evidence does not support such perceptions.
Primary worry: On face value, population does seem worrisome. An increasing population of older people translates into a rising dependency ratio. It also means increased expenditure on healthcare and pensions. The proportion of working population will continue to decrease leading to the unpleasant scenario of “some for many”. These issues have been debated and do have their merits. But are we ignoring certain other dimensions to develop an incomplete understanding?
An alternate argument: Older individuals tend to have greater savings compared to younger ones while at the same time tend to spend less, especially on consumer goods. This can contribute to lower inflation, and may even result in lower interest rates. This in turn can hasten technological development without causing unemployment. There is also a belief that ageing population will lead to increased expenditure, especially on healthcare. On the contrary, the dramatic rising costs of healthcare are more attributable to rising drug and doctor costs, and higher use of diagnostic testing by all age groups, than the ageing population.
An ageing population may provide incentive for technological progress, as some hypothesise the effect of a shrinking workforce may be offset by technological unemployment or productivity gains. Due to the aging population, many countries seem to be increasing the age for old-age security from 60 to 65, to decrease the cost of the scheme of the GDP. The increase in the number of older people, especially of the oldest old, will soon prompt the need for specialised services for residential and homecare. In this lies a potential workforce opportunity due to a greater availability of jobs. For the first time a demographic pattern has emerged with a middle aged couple likely to have more living parents than children. Along with a changing value system, this promotes a culture of mutual obligation with children more dependent on the parents for a longer time. Perhaps the answer lies in magnifying this symbiotic relationship of mutual obligation between the older people and the society at large.
There has been an increasing emphasis on age-friendly society and environment in the narratives of UN agencies. To develop an age-friendly society, it is a necessity it to be age-inclusive first. One of the methods proposed has been to increase the retirement age to enable them to continually contribute to the society. Retirement is a bittersweet term for most of the older citizens. For many people, retirement signifies a change from independence to complete dependence, from meaningful contributors to additional burdens on the societal structures. There are discussions about increasing the retirement age to 68 from the existing 65 years in the UK. Similar ideas are being floated in Europe, the most ageing continent, Japan and South Korea. While it may only seem like prolonging the inevitable, this move will enable many older persons to be more involved and it can only benefit the society. Moreover, it can also address to an extent the issue of the skewed dependency ratio. Other ways to promote their participation in society is by adopting an “old for old” approach.
Community care is predominantly family care, provided mostly by people in their late 50s and above to an older parent or a spouse and consists, therefore, of older people caring for older people. The Ministry of Culture has entrusted a civil society organisation to involve older people in social activities such as teaching underprivileged children. Involving them in similar activities under the ambit of corporate organisations will scale up the activities and also make them financially independent. The ageing population is perhaps the most untapped human resource today, and utilising their experience and wisdom is a viable economic solution.
Changing mindsets: The needs of the older persons are not always under the ambit of simple anatomy and physiology but are usually the result of a complex interaction of psychological, physiological and more importantly spiritual reasons. These problems are further magnified in Indian setting where social issues inflate and complicate existing issues. Thankfully, there have been noticeable changes in the mindset of the people over the last few decades. Looking through a financial viewpoint alone trivialises the enormous contribution which older people make in our day-to-day activity.
The idea of graceful ageing denotes the acceptance of the realisation that the body and mind need to slow down in tandem to make the hind years a true celebration of life. However, the present generation of older persons is witness to a tectonic shift in our scientific knowledge and development of old-age care as a discipline of health and welfare system. Expecting these people to silently fade into the sunlight is unrealistic and does not do justice to them. Let ageing be seen as a stage of life focused on the dissemination of wisdom and open to acquisition of newer skills.
Dr Dey is Professor and Head, and Dr Desai is Senior Resident, Department of Geriatric Medicine, AIIMS, Delhi. They can be reached at: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org