Friday, 25 May 2012


The Old and the New


MY AUNT recently celebrated her 85th year of being a citizen of this planet earth. I had a small party to celebrate this event.

She is, by all standards, physically healthy, but she is showing signs of that dreaded condition, senile dementia.

And as I watch her cutting her cake, trading jokes with her guests, I could not help but wonder: how long will she will be able to carry on doing these? I had taken care of my dad, my mom, my single aunts, will I add her to my list soon?

My thoughts focus on the phenomenon of aging.

Japan has the most extreme experience with aging.

It’s population of 65 years and older has reached 23.1% in 2011. That means roughly 1 in 4 of its citizens is 65 years and above! That’s translates to 29.5 million Japanese! 

Though the proportion is somewhat less than in Japan, increasing population of those 65 years and over is being experienced by many countries in North America and Europe.  That means in these countries, there is low birth rate (fertility decline )and low mortality (more people surviving to old age).

You see, even if more people survive old age but more babies are being born, the proportion  of older people to the total population would not increase.

Now, if the total population is declining due to low birth rate, then the proportion of the old will increase relative to the total population. That is what is happening to Japan and to the other western countries.

What are the societal consequences of rapid population aging? Because of very low birth rate, Japan has saved much national resources in terms of less expenses on the education of the young, their health care and their overall maintenance and welfare.

Ms Remy Pedrajas (right), who recently celebrated her 85th birthday, with first cousin and best buddy Mrs Elvira Pedrajas Hernandez, 85. Ms Pedrajas and Mrs Hernandez are both aunts of the author, Dra Emma P Valencia.

But these savings have been offset by the huge government outlay to take care of it’s geriatric population: huge expenses on health care because chronic diseases  need long-term expenditures, maintenance of functionality such as walking aids, hospital beds, and even caregiver expenses, most of whom are imported labor, and social security payments.  

And what does the government get out of this, in the long term? Almost nothing, because the geriatric population does not contribute very much to the workforce. Unlike when the government spends for the young, it is protecting its economy by protecting a potential labor force entrant. 

So while Japan may be enjoying prosperity now, it is projected that to maintain its current economic standing, it would need to increase its import of labor, because its local labor force is dwindling. 

That would then be a boon to labor-exporting countries, such as the Philippines.

Let’s then go to our particular aging experience.

Currently, our aging population or those 60 years and older (we have a lower cut-off here than other countries) stands at 6.9%, which means 1 in 14 is a senior citizen.

The Philippines’ aging population has been described as “low and slow” because although we have been experiencing fertility decline over the years (or less children being born), this decline has been slow compared to others, so that while there is a steady increase in the aging population due to low mortality rates, the denominator or the total population has not declined significantly.  
The writer, Dra Valencia (center) with relatives (seated from left) Lucy Pedrajas, Mrs Elvira P Hernandez, Ms Remy Pedrajas, Samuel Hernandez and Helen Hernandez-Cortes (standing). The picture was taken during Ms Remy Pedrajas’ 85th birthday party at Malindang St, La Loma, Quezon City.

At any rate, bottom line is although the increase in our aging  population is  slow, it is still inevitable. And serendipity, because of our particular demographics, we still have time to prepare for its eventuality.

That means putting in place at this early policies and programs that would benefit the elderly, in terms of maintaining their productivity, improving their health, and tapping their skills and experience to benefit the  younger generation, or what I call reverse intergenerational transfer.

This means, instead of mostly the young  helping the old, the old also helps  the young. To be able to sustain this relationship, the old should be healthy, happy and  productive.

In the Philippines, the Filipino elderly is still a moving force of society:  most children of OFWs are being cared of by their grandparents, and studies have shown that while in other countries, senior citizens are mostly recipients of support, the Filipino elderly are three times more likely than their counterparts to be both recipients and providers of support. 

And another thing which makes the situation of the elderly in the Philippines different from the rest is that only 5% of the elderly live alone; majority live with their children, or with a relative.  

So, I raise my glass to all senior citizens: “Salud”!

I look forward to more time to listen to beautiful music, and enjoy the beauty of nature in my senior years.

But I also look forward to more opportunities to helping and sharing my resources with others,  writing, teaching and mentoring, more learning years ahead of me. And if I need to look after my aunt, so be it, I’d gladly do it. 

Whatever life throws at my path, life is to be lived.  

And just like my mother, and God willing, I am not kicking that bucket for the next 30 years. 

(Dr. Emma P Valencia is a physician and a health policy analyst and researcher. She also writes essays and poems when she is not busy with her work on health. She lives with her 85 year old aunt and 7 dogs.)

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