Old and useful



 Santo Koesoebjono and Solita Sarwono*)

 WASSENAAR, The Netherlands (JP): All over the world more people are reaching the age of 65 years, while senior citizens are living longer. An aging population is a global trend that will spare no country. Indonesia will face the consequences of this trend in the near future. By the mid-21st century one out of every six people in the country will be 65 years of age or older. The aging population is the result of the twin processes of declining births and declining deaths. The size of the new generation is becoming smaller and the average life span is becoming longer, yielding a growing number of people in middle and later ages.

 Around the world this year, the number of people aged 65 and older is 418 million or 7 percent of the world population. This number will more than triple in 2050, reaching 1.5 billion or 16 percent of the world population. Aging varies by countries. The aging population is well-advanced in most developed countries, with 14 percent now 65 years and older; whereas in most developing countries the same age group has only reached 5 percent.

Among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Singapore has the highest proportion of senior citizens, namely 7 percent in 2000 and 26 percent in 2050. Its projection for 2050 is comparable with that of many developed countries.

 Currently, 5 percent of the population in Indonesia are “elderly” and this proportion will triple in the coming 50 years to reach 17 percent. But if one defines elderly as people who are 60 years of age and older, considering the common retirement age of 55 years to 60 years, the percentage of elderly in Indonesia will be much higher. This year alone Indonesia is hosting almost 16 million elderly (7.4 percent) and in 20 years this number will increase to almost 29 million (11.3 percent of the population) according to projections from the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Demographic Institute of the University of Indonesia.

 The contrast between the current and future demographic state of a country can be visualized by comparing the present population of less and more-developed countries. Children and youth up to 15 years old are well- represented in developing countries, whereas the presence of “65 plussers” is common in the developed Western European societies. Maybe there are lessons to be learned from Western countries in coping with the consequences of aging.

The aging population has crucial societal, economic and political implications. It poses important public policy challenges in pension regulations and schemes, health care and housing. Governmental and non- governmental, profit and non-profit organizations should prepare well ahead of the advent of a graying society. Societies will witness the rise of multigeneration families. Senior citizens walking and playing with their great grandchildren will become a common sight. Are they really just a burden?

 The main consequences of an aging population are the needs for financial resources, specialized manpower, the means and facilities for care services and the knowledge about the physical and mental state of the aged.

 How will the family, community, younger generation and government respond to this problem? Can children take care of their parents in the future? Traditionally, adults are obligated to take care of their elderly parents; while elderly parents are also expected to assist in the care of their descendants. This is especially true of elderly women, who on average live longer than men.

Modernization as manifested by rising urbanization and shifting economic activities from agriculture to manufacturing and services, have, however, induced many adults to leave their parents’ home to work elsewhere. What happens then if their parents need help? Transportation costs may hinder frequent visits by the children. Moreover, they cannot leave their work at any desired time.

The elderly will depend increasingly on friends and community-based care. Non-governmental organizations at the community level can play an active role in providing care and in creating activities for the aged. At a community health center in Jakarta, for example, a doctor organizes a monthly get-together for senior citizens, to maintain their mental and physical health. Activities consist of light physical exercise, group discussions on current societal issues and trips to places of interest. The involvement of relatives/family members in these local organizations is desirable and essential.

Contrary to general assumption, not all senior citizens need continuous care. Many are still in good health and wish to be involved in productive and social activities, with or without payment. In developing countries, many are even forced to continue working as they have little or no pension or savings. Almost half of the Indonesian elderly continues working. Local non- governmental organizations can help in setting up a workshop for the elderly and in stimulating their participation in productive activities.

In contrast, workers in industrialized western societies are obliged to stop working when they reach retirement and to live on their pension. Non-profit organizations are mushrooming, providing activities varying from dancing and aerobic clubs to establishing companies managed by senior citizens. In England and the Netherlands, an agency assigns retired people to provide temporary voluntary assistance to enterprises in developing countries.

But is the younger generation willing to put aside an increasing part of their income to finance the state pension scheme and old-age care system?

The average number of children for every woman is now around 1.5 in Western Europe. Many couples have no children. Young people will be then having to pay for the care of the elderly who are not their parents. One of the world’s most rapidly aging populations is in Japan, where in 1997 every retired person was supported by 4.4 working people. This ratio will change drastically in 2005 with one retired person versus 1.5 working persons.

In Indonesia, every senior citizen is now supported by 14 people at a productive age and this ratio will become one to four in 2050. Fewer people will have to put aside a larger amount of money for the care and pension of the elderly. This shift in ratio could put a strain on the solidarity between generations.

The smaller number of children per family reduces the possibility of parents living with their children. And fewer children means more economic, social and emotional responsibilities on each child for the care of their aging parents.

Parents, meanwhile, have their own social network and may not like to move in to stay with their children. The solution differs by socioeconomic categories. Not all families can afford to have a big house and employ domestic helpers to take care of their parents. The idea of having elderly people living in an old-age home may therefore not be fiction.

Governments need to develop education and information campaigns to create awareness and promote this non traditional prospect. Is the government prepared to look seriously into the impact of the aging population? It is a task of the government to develop a plan for a pension scheme, alternative housing and medical care for the elderly.

The funding of these activities is a burden for the budget of most developing countries. Yet it would be wrong to postpone this action since the effects of an aging population will be more urgent, while it takes a long time to develop a sound and acceptable pension scheme.

 It is evident that the government cannot supply all these provisions; the participation of private initiatives and non-governmental organizations is required. Financial resources, people in caring professions and special equipment are needed for the care of the elderly. At the same time, this care is a source of employment opportunities and stimulates production.

New research has to be stimulated to develop aids to assist the elderly to function in their daily lives. The mushrooming of new products that were not available some 40 years ago proves this. For instance, Japanese companies have recently developed a device to track straying senior citizens by a satellite-based global positioning system and a cellular phone network.

Moreover, new jobs and specialization in careers are created to meet the demands of the elderly. To name a few: specialists in gerontology, dieticians, physiotherapists and occupational therapists. They also feel an appeal to the political side of life by promoting their interests. Organizations for the elderly recommend that senior citizens take part in supervisory boards of pension funds.

Far from being a burden, all this shows that the elderly stimulate the rise of new economic activities. Also, by taking care of their grandchildren, the elderly contribute to the family economy through reducing the cost of child care. Elderly members of society are still consulted in dealing with social affairs.

By the middle of this century senior citizens will be a familiar feature in all societal activities and daily life. The allocation of funds for the care of the elderly and for their continuing participation in societal activities is essential and part of a natural process.


*) Santo Koesoebjono is economist-demographer.

Solita Sarwono is public health educator, psychologist and medical sociologist. Both are based in the Netherlands.


Published in: The Jakarta Post, June 19, 2000, Editorial and Opinion

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