Online Program Enrolling Now - Seton Hall - United Nations Institute for Training and Research
Online Program Enrolling Now - Seton Hall - United Nations Institute for Training and Research

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Missing: A UN Agency for the World’s Aging Population


Vietnamese woman
Nguyen Thi Phuc joined a club in her province, Nghe An, sponsored by HelpAge International and the Vietnam Association of the Elderly to push herself to get more exercise and feel less depressed. CAROLYN CANHAM

A few years ago in Ethiopia, a survey conducted for the government in the capital, Addis Ababa, discovered that 88 percent of a growing number of homeless older people as well as two-thirds of those living at home did not have enough to eat. A staggering 93 percent of all city residents over 60 had no access to a bath or a shower, and 78 percent suffered from chronic health problems.

The findings of the survey, made by HelpAge International, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with the assistance of local Ethiopian nongovernmental groups, are echoed  in many developing countries.

For the global poor — and women most of all — there are few if any safety nets: insignificant or no social security or other pension systems and little to no family support despite traditions that were supposed to honor the old. In the worst case, the last years of their lives are marred tragically by violence. In India, a study by HelpAge India in eight cities found “elder abuse” on the rise, especially within families. Hot lines have been set up for those needing help.

Older people around the developing world have been reporting intolerable pressures from family members, particularly in societies where extended families have given way to smaller households, and the elderly may be seen as a strain on household budgets. In Mexico, a program of cash grants for older people has been introduced to alleviate financial strain on caregivers.

Sadly, however, in numerous countries advocates for the elderly say that an older person’s financial assets, if they have any, can also lead to exploitation and confiscation by relatives. In addition, even in highly developed countries, such as Finland or the United States, people living well into old age are more and more likely to be forced to sell homes or deplete savings to augment pensions or social security. Such systems are severely strained as low fertility cuts the number of working-age men and women who contribute to government plans, leading to support in the US for continued high levels of immigration.

The fear of losing ground to demography is strongest in Europe and in Japan. In countries of the global South, the demographic trend may in fact prevent the creation of such programs at all, even if there is an abundance of working-age people now, because governments have often been slow or without the resources to plan ahead.

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India is one of many developing countries where communities built for the elderly rarely exist, because government policies assume that families will care for their older relatives. Even in China, where there have been efforts to provide homes and services for the rapidly increasing number of older people, authorities say they have a long way to go in most places in providing special equipment such as age-friendly accommodation, furniture and appliances, the latest walking aids or other mobility-enhancing tools. Living longer, older Chinese people are also asking for adult education and computer training so they can communicate with children and grandchildren in distant cities or abroad.

According to the UN Population Division, which produced a fact-filled wall chart on global aging in 2012, there are about 810 million people over the age of 60 in the world population, then at 7.1 billion. By 2050, there will be 2 billion older people, who will outnumber children from birth to 14 years of age for the first time in human history. By 2012, one out of every nine people had entered the post-60 age group; by 2050, the UN estimates, the proportion will be one in every five.

“The oldest old is the fastest growing age segment of the older population,” the UN Population Division reports, taking a global view. “By 2050, 20 per cent of the older population will be aged 80 years or over. The number of centenarians (aged 100 years or over) is growing even faster, and is projected to increase tenfold, from approximately 343,000 in 2012 to 3.2 million by 2050.”

There is actually good news to the background of this story. UN demographers plotting longevity report that life expectancy at birth in developing nations increased by 26 years between 1950 and 2010. The figure was lower, at 19 years, in the least-developed countries. Better health care and medical advances were responsible for saving and prolonging more lives.

Still, women, who will outnumber men for the foreseeable future, and in societies where they cannot inherit property or may even lose their marital homes and be cast into homelessness as widows, will stand to suffer most as they age. They are often prevented by custom from remarrying.

“At the world level, 81 per cent of older men are currently married, compared to only 50 per cent of older women,” the Population Division illustrated on its 2012 wall chart. “Sex differences in the proportion married are largest in least developed countries (85 per cent for men compared to 38 per cent for women), where the age difference between spouses is higher and widowers are more likely to remarry.”

Older people are not neglected by the UN, which has sponsored conferences and issued agency reports, notably by the UN Population Fund. But as the numbers of people from age 60 to 100 and beyond grow worldwide, the time is fast approaching when a more focused institutional response will be necessary — certainly for women, who are already the least able globally to cope with the hardships of old age and most in need of societal support.

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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