Sun, 28 May 2000

World population growing older due to better care

JAKARTA (JP): Of the approximately 580 million elderly people in the world today, about 355 million live in developing countries. By 2020, more than 1,000 million people aged 60 years and older will be living in the world. More than 700 million of them will be in developing countries out of which 29 million will be in Indonesia.

In developing countries, population aging is occurring more rapidly because of a rapid decline in fertility and an increasing life expectancy due to medical interventions based on the use of advanced technology and drugs. These interventions have provided effective means to treat and prevent many diseases that used to kill people prematurely. Also of importance is the fact that population aging in the developing world is accompanied by persistent poverty.

As such, population aging presents new and serious challenges for national and international public health. Population aging has also been projected to aggravate the magnitude of mental health problems.

This will happen because of the increasing life expectancy of those with mental disorders and an ever growing number of people reaching the age at which the risk of such disorders is high.

The emerging social and the public health consequences of aging, especially in developing countries, need to be taken seriously, in the majority of these countries poverty, as the lack of social security schemes, continuing urbanization and the growing participation of women in the workforce all contribute to the erosion of traditional forms of care for older people.

Responding to the health challenges five years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a program on healthy aging. Living longer offers many opportunities for personally and socially fulfilling lives, but it also presents individual and societal challenges related to quality of life in old age, including independence, social interaction, health care and community involvement. In order to respond to these challenges, countries have to develop sound and affordable policies that perceive aging as a natural process which continues throughout the life span. Effective community based programs need to form an integral part of such healthy aging policies.

National policies need to aim at cost effective public health interventions to improve the quality of life in old age and such results have to be widely shared among countries. The idea is to have more people reach old age in good health and who are capable of contributing to society, intellectually, spiritually and physically.

In recent times, there have been voices raised warning of a gray dawn and of the breakdown of welfare and health systems under the weight of the increasing number of older people, too old to work and too ill to manage on their own. What the United Nations hopes to foster is the notion that older people are a gift to society. But like all gifts, if they are not appreciated and used, they become a burden.

An international plan of action on aging was adopted by the UN in 1982 to promote training and research as well as the exchange of information and knowledge in order to provide an international basis for social policies and action. In preparation for the inevitable consequences of a dramatic increase in the elderly population, an institute was established in Malta in 1985.

Eventually what has to be highlighted is not the panic but pride of being older citizens. (Mehru Jaffer)