FOR all the cultural emphasis on respect and consideration for our elders, the state itself extends little by way of assistance to its senior citizens. With the signing of the Senior Citizens Bill, 2021, by President Arif Alvi, that shortcoming is being addressed to a certain extent. The legislation, which applies to Islamabad Capital Territory alone, includes a number of welcome initiatives. It stipulates the setting up of a Senior Citizen Council to formulate policy proposals and the establishment of old age homes for the indigent, deserted and homeless among the elderly. ICT residents 60 years and above are now eligible for senior citizen cards, which will give them free access to museums, parks and libraries. They will also be entitled to concessions in medical and dental services and diagnostic and laboratory facilities, as well as to subsidised medicines. Given that medical expenses are a major concern for those of advanced years and have a profound effect on their quality of life, the new legislation goes into appropriate detail on this score. Financial assistance will be given to the deserving among this age group, and they can avail of 20pc subsidy on air and railway travel. The legislation can also help where the elderly have transferred property on condition that the transferee provide them the basic facilities of life, but find this condition not being met. In such cases, a competent court can, if the transferor so wishes, declare the transfer void.
While one hears much about Pakistan’s ‘youth bulge’, there is rarely a mention of citizens in their twilight years. Even health professionals specialising in geriatric medicine are few and far between, and it is about time that changed. With average life expectancy in this country increasing from 51 years three decades ago to 60.9 years today, the cohort of over-60s is expanding steadily and the state must take them into account while formulating policy. The general expectation is that families themselves will take care of their elderly, and many do. But economic pressures are increasing, even more so as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, with more and more families getting pushed into poverty. Increasingly, one hears of desperately sad cases where old parents are abandoned by their children and left to fend for themselves in dire conditions. Here the state must step in and ensure that senior citizens can live out their remaining years in dignity, rather than feel themselves to be a burden on their families.
Society should also change its ageist outlook that can lead to poorer mental health among the elderly. Being on the ‘other side’ of 60 should not preclude opportunities to travel, learn new skills and lead a rewarding life. This ICT-specific legislation is a good template for the provinces to follow suit and lend their senior citizens a helping hand.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2021