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Senior citizens: A phase of life

January 26, 2013

Man is like a tree which remains green, shady and bears fruit for mankind as well as fodder for cattle, so long as it is maintained and protected from biotic factors. With the passage of time, it is likely to deteriorate and finally when it becomes hollow and its roots too weak to hold it, it falls down.

A man is usually considered old when he reaches the retirement age of public servant which was 55 years before the Partition and later, was fixed at 60. That is to say that a person who has passed 60 summers of his/her life is deemed to be old, but this is not true. Ageing is a development process that begins from conception to birth and up to the end of life. It is growing and maturing through the different phases of life.

According to the report UNFPA Demographic Prognosis for South Asia the proportion of older population in Pakistan declined from 8.2 per cent in 1950 to 5.3 per cent in 1985. By the turn of the century it had increased to six per cent. It is expected to exceed nine per cent by 2025 and increase further to 18 per cent up to 2050. The government needs to be aware of the growing number of older people and of the need to address the various problems that arise with ageing.

Being a retired public servant aged 80 years I have come across many people who too have reached the stage of senior citizens and are facing multiple problems of livelihood, health and housing. What worries them more is the financial burden of their children who are unable to support them at this phase of life. It is very unfortunate that in government services, the people of extraordinary ability are sent home at the age of 60 without recognition of their potential and who are actually needed by their juniors to assist them, whereas the people who are needed no more by the department are given extension after extension. As a result the senior staff members of the departments engage such meritorious retired persons privately to help them unofficially; anyhow these people with experience, erudition and professional proficiency earn their livelihood by the grace of God.

Regrettably, till now there exists no social protection system for the elderly, nor has any official policy ever been announced by the government to address the concerns of senior citizens. A Senior Citizen’s Bill, aimed at making provisions for the welfare of the elderly, is still pending with the government since 2007, as stated by Ms Adeeba Aslam, country director of HelpAge Inter-national, a non-governmental organisation working on social protection of the elderly, in August 2012.

This bill provides for many privileges for elderly people, such as: 20-50 per cent discount in road, train, air and sea transportation as well as concessions in private sector and fixing of quota; free entry to public parks, museums, zoos, cinemas, theatres, public libraries and other public places; 10 per cent discount on telephone, electricity, gas and water charges provided the bill does not exceed Rs1,000 per month; eligibility for one time for Haj under a fixed quota (without the usual balloting) with the permission of one accompanying attendant, if needed; and a 50 per cent concession in income tax where the annual income does not exceed Rs400,000.

It is really very painful to say that the senior citizens of Pakistan have not yet benefited from the provisions of this bill for reasons known only to the government. Once this act is implemented in its true spirit 90 per cent of problems of the senior citizens would be solved. The government should try to create job opportunities for these older people some of whom have done excellent work in the prime of their lives in consonance with their qualification, experience and professional record.

Recounting the virtues of old things Francis Bacon said: “Old wood is best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read”.

According to an African saying, “When an old person dies, a library is destroyed”. The contribution of these older people is laudable as carers, advisors, mediators, mentors and bread winners. The government can make use of these old people who are like pure gold, and take proper advantage of their experience and expertise. These people only need their recognition and identification as well as encouragement by the government. In the end, I would quote UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s message for the International Day of Older People (2011):

“In the current fiscal environment, we must be vigilant in ensuring that provision of social protection, long-term care and access to public health for the elderly is not undermined. On this international day of older persons, I call on governments and communities everywhere to provide more opportunities for their ageing population”.