In the sweltering heat of Karachi, a bearded Abdul Qayyum perspires profusely as he waits his turn in a queue outside a bank to pay a utility bill. With the line moving along very slowly, beads of sweat trickle down his forehead and onto his shalwar kameez. Despite the wrinkles on his face now gleaming with sweat, nobody from inside the air-conditioned offices came to Qayyum’s rescue.
This is not a one-off incident.
Similar scenes are also witnessed at the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) offices or the passport offices, where officials rarely go the extra mile for senior citizens, treating them with the same standards as they do other, younger and healthier citizens.
In Pakistan, the norm is to have senior citizens visit these offices in person regardless of their health or physical condition. No senior citizen counters exist at these offices, or if they do they are non-operational. This is far from the values taught in schools: to respect, to help and to facilitate senior citizens. “When we were young, we read about how a sophisticated society acts and treats its senior citizens, but now, I realise that life is quite different from what I read in my school books,” says Mrs Nasim Dilawar, a senior citizen from Lahore.
Mrs Dilawar too is enraged at the treatment meted out at governmental and other offices. “It is quite disturbing, because to see how such government organisations treat senior citizens. It is obvious from their attitude that they think they are doing us a big favour,” she says. “Officers should be trained to be patient while dealing with people our age. Their attitude shows that either standard operating procedures don’t state how to deal with senior citizens or, if they do, they are not taught, followed and monitored in practical life.”
Dr Mohammad Tariq Bucha, Vice President of Senior Citizens Foundation of Pakistan (SCFP), DHA and Cantt Chapter, Lahore, believes that Nadra, passport offices and banks do have senior citizen counters but that overlooking senior citizens has become ingrained in the officials’ attitude. He suggests that the government must implement laws that benefit the elderly and provide them with amenities.
“In 2011, the SCFP formulated a draft bill that entailed providing facilities to the senior citizens; the bill is at present with the government of Punjab. However, the only law present for senior citizens is the one that people themselves follow by helping the elderly in the name of humanity,” argues Dr Bucha, adding that the government has been neglecting the needs of senior citizens and hasn’t undertaken substantial efforts to redress the situation.
Dr Bucha believes that making designated counters for senior citizens in pension offices and other organisations will not help unless a cultural change is instituted in favour of senior citizens by the government. “Abroad, officials consider it their duty to serve the senior citizens while here it is considered a compulsion. This is the difference between Pakistan and other countries,” says Dr Bucha.
The SCFP representative believes that globally, it is the government’s regulations and policies that provide benefits and services to senior citizens — a trend that is unfortunately absent in Pakistan. “Our mindset is such that it considers senior citizens as redundant. People have become indifferent towards the senior citizens and generally do not care about them and their needs,” argues Dr Bucha.
There is of course much to improve upon.
Javed Jaffery, a senior citizen from Karachi, points to a lack of infrastructural facilities for senior citizens. “People who use a wheelchair face difficulties in commuting. Moreover, builders should keep in mind the difficulties that physically challenged or senior citizens may face and incorporate them in their infrastructure’s blueprint.”
Mrs Dilawar also believes that the media must highlight the issues that senior citizens are facing. “I have seen proper ramps and lift facilities in offices, wedding halls and shopping malls, etc. but there is much more to be done. We are quite underdeveloped if compared with other countries,” says Mrs Dilawar.
When asked about notions of “respect” accorded by Pakistani society to senior citizens, Dr Bucha argues that while there is some level of respect, rise in materialistic values has taken away the real reverence that our society once had for the elderly.
Dr Bucha believes that the government must at least ensure that everyone working in government organisations facilitates senior citizens in carrying out their tasks. “The media too isn’t playing its due part in stressing upon the need to take care of senior citizens. Instead of placing small news items in print and running a news ticker on television, the media should create awareness regarding what senior citizens actually need. This social issue requires immediate attention as it is only putting the elders of the society under stress.”
Amidst the humdrum of the everyday, senior citizens remain adamant that change will only come about if and when the government takes a proactive step forward. “Senior citizens have years of experience as they have gone through thick and thin in their lives. They must be given the respect they deserve,” says Dr Bucha.