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«Ageism – towards a global view A series of 3 seminars. Seminar 1 Age Discrimination in 5 continents: real issues, real concerns Wednesday 31st May ...»

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International Federation on Ageing Conference


30 May – 2nd June 2006.


Ageism – towards a global view

A series of 3 seminars.

Seminar 1

Age Discrimination in 5 continents: real issues, real


Wednesday 31st May 2006

Region: Asia

Paper: Discrimination of older people in Asia

Presenter: Mr. Edward Gerlock, Awareness & Advocacy Officer,

Coalition of Services for the Elderly Inc, Phillipines.


There was an old man who lived with his son, daughter-in law and grandson. His son and daughter-in-law didn’t want to keep an old physically incapable person in their home and considered him a burden. Finally, the son decided to rid himself of the problem. He took his old father in a basket and set out for the jungle. His plan was to leave the old man there.

The grandson, observing his father said, “Father, please be sure to bring back the basket.” Why?” asked the father.

“Because I will need it when you grow old,” replied the grandson.

(Bangladesh Folk Tale) ____________________________________________________________


The present work is divided into six sections:

A. An Over-all View of Ageing in Asia;

B. A Search for Definitions in an Asian Context;

C. A Background of Factors that Influence Discrimination;

D. The Image of Ageing in Asia;

E. Forms of Discrimination;

F. Asian Approach to Banish Discrimination.


Demographic change in Asia is remarkable for its speed. The improvements in survival and the declines in fertility over such a short period of time are unparalleled in other regions of the world. (Linda Martin, Population Council of New York). Even more remarkable are the growth rates of the elderly population and the concomitant increases in the sheer size of elderly populations. Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore with growth rates of over 4.0 per cent per year will have double the number in less than 17 years for their older populations. In 2050, China is projected to have 100 million in the oldest-old category, followed by India with 47 million. Worldwide, according to the UN, older people will increase from 200 million in 2000 to 2 billion in 2050 – with 60% of the older population in Asia.

The implications of such a rapid and compressed transition from young to old is that developing countries of Asia find themselves “ageing” on top of a very large population base, unlike the slower, long-term ageing of smaller populations in developed countries. While it took some countries in Europe a little over 100 years for their population to double during the 20th century, it will take some countries in Asia just 25 years or even less in the new century (ESCAP 2001). The impact of rapid ageing has repercussions in virtually all areas of government and society, including health care, employment, social protection and economic growth. The suddenness of demographic change combined with already alarming rates of poverty and shrinking resources underscores the need for innovative approaches to increase the participation and social integration of older persons.


For all societies, the meaning of ageing is determined not only by physiological but also by socially constructed factors. The ageing process is a biological reality which has its own dynamics, largely beyond human control. However, it is also subject to constructions by which each society makes sense of old age. These social constructions take many forms.

In many parts of Asia, chronological age has little or no importance in the meaning of old age. Other socially constructed meanings of age are significant such as the roles assigned to older people; in some cases, it is the loss of roles accompanying physical decline which is significant in defining old age in these societies. A participatory rapid appraisal (PRA) conducted by HelpAge in Laos states, Older people lack confidence in their abilities. The team often found older people were reluctant to acknowledge that they were able to do anything.

Because of failing health and weakness, older people are not able to continue to work to the extent they did when they were younger. Often this has led to older people believing that they are a burden to their families and that they are not productive….ageing is characterised for older people by becoming more and more of a burden on their family and the community.

The concept of family is likewise subject to socially assigned meanings. It is common for a distinction to be made between “developing: countries where the extended or joint family is said to be the norm, and the nuclear family structure would be that of the “developed” world.

These simple formulations tend to overlook the complexities of family structures organized in all societies to provide care and support through the life course. However, it is again the socially-constructed meanings assigned to the concept of family which are important since in all societies, the “family” is seen as a foundation of social and cultural values. The changing structures of families over time and the different roles and meanings assigned to them are of primary interest in understanding their place in sustainable social structures. Thus, the Director of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment of India writes, The society is witnessing a gradual but definite withering of the joint family system as a result of which a section of the family, primarily the elders are exposed to emotional neglect and lack of physical support. As such, the position of a large number of older persons has become vulnerable due to which they cannot take it for granted that their children will be able to look after them when they need care in old age, especially in view of the longer life span implying an extended period of dependency and higher costs to meet health and other needs.

(Macao Plan of Action, 16-18 July 2001) Community is the third of the key elements whose meaning needs to be considered. Again, different societies construct the meaning of community in different ways. “Community” has been assigned a range of meanings. At one end of the spectrum is the community of locality and neighbourhood. At the other are “communities of interest” which transcend locality and are linked by common intellectual, social economic and other interests. For older people, the primary focal point is the sense of place in a physical community which is the neighbourhood or other locality which for many, may be the extension or even substitute for family. A member of a community-based program in an urban poor area of Manila remarked, “Before, we were just old people in our houses taking care of the grandchildren, but now that we are organized in this place, we have become a community of older persons.”


David R. Phillips, professor of social policy at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, has proposed that “older persons in the Asia-Pacific are an interim generation.” They have grown old, but are often without substantial personal resources because they are part of emerging, rather than mature economies where they may well suffer if state and family resources are not available. Older people in Asia are caught between a variety of forces in society, such as the economy and the environment.

a) Minimal state provision with continuing dependence on individual or family support, insurance or savings for care; few countries or individuals have established personal or state pension systems.

b) Uncertain family support: In many societies in the region today, numerous structural factors and those said to be associated with modernization may render it difficult or even impossible for families to care for their older relatives. Reducing family size with fewer children, practical factors (such as small accommodation units and distance from parents due to work and migration), economic reasons (lack of finance) and many others including intergenerational disputes, often act in combination to render the traditional three generation

residence difficult or impossible. The main features are:

• Smaller family size and even smaller in the future with Total Fertility Rates generally under 2.0

• Increasing work outside the home by both partners in the family

• Migration – regional and national – for employment which reduces availability of children to act as carers

• Small size of accommodation units in most Asia-Pacific countries especially associated with high property prices making space unsuitable for 3 generations

• Conflicts and clashes of lifestyles between young and old family members

• Extended longevity and potential increase in physical and mental disability requiring specialized care and facilities • “Westernization” and the growth of the nuclear family It is widely recognized that family sizes today and especially in the future are likely to be much smaller. There will be fewer children to care for increasingly long-lived parents. The long-term impacts, for example, of the one-child policy in China and the exceptionally low fertility rates in places such as Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore might lead to a potential 4family structure. In this, a single child can have up to six direct adult relatives as a responsibility. (De Peng and Guo Zhi-Gang, Population Aging in China, 2000)

c) An unfriendly environment in many cities and the countryside where many older persons life. The situation is not improving although there are exceptions in parts of Japan, Singapore and a few pockets elsewhere. Environmental improvement needs inter-disciplinary, intersectoral and inter-departmental planning and action, a tradition lacking in most countries.

(Expert Group Meeting on “Sustainable Social Structures in A Society for All Ages,” Addis Ababa, May 2000).

The Coalition of Services of the Elderly (COSE) has been working with older people in the Philippines since 1989. For the first time in Philippine history, in addition to street children, one begins to see “street elderly” – begging at traffic lights, sleeping in the parks. This, in a society (like most other Asian societies), in a culture that has traditionally held older people in high regard. The government (again, as in most other Asian societies) places prime responsibility for older people in the family – and, often through the media stresses traditional values: “Respect the Elderly” flashes on the TV screen as a public service announcement.

Yet, along with Dr. Phillips, COSE believes the underlying causes of the crisis in elderly care are not primarily cultural (Filipinos still do respect and care for older people) but structural.

More than any other country in Asia, percentage-wise, the Philippines has more overseas workers – which may approximate 15% of the total population (including legal and illegal migrants). The overseas workers are predominantly a) young, and b) female – the traditional care-givers of older people. (An added complication is that many are professionals who work as domestic helpers for a much higher income abroad than they might attain at home in their own profession.) In this regard, the Philippines would be similar to many of the other labor-exporting countries in the region (with whom they often compete) such as Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Laos and Myanmar).

Secondly, the Philippines has experienced a massive rural to urban migration in the recent past. Whereas in 1965, the population was recorded at 75% rural and 25% urban, the Dutch agency, Cordaid, in a recent study, placed the urban population at 68% -- almost a reverse in less than 40 years. Travelling north, one can see 70 and 80 year olds, both women and men working in the fields in the Ilocos Region. Urban slum areas (comprising one-third of the total population of Manila) are filled with not only elderly but younger people attempting to survive in the “informal economy” or totally unemployed (12% unemployment and three times the number underemployed).

During the same period of the massive rural to urban migration, life expectancy has also increased dramatically. A person born in 1950 would have expected to live 46 years; a person born in 2000 would expect to life 65 years and most likely one born in 2050 (given present trends) might expect to live 76 years.

The consequences of the rapid structural changes are that a significant portion of the population finds itself in highly congested circumstances either dependent on remittances from abroad or dependent on uncertain employment with little time for older people.


What Do Older People Think of Themselves?

It is clear that a major challenge in many countries of Asia is to undo or alter the often negative stereotypes of older people among the general population and especially the very poor self-image possessed by many older persons themselves. It is sad to note that poor public and self-images of older persons are frequently identified in research. (Phillips, D R.

and Yeh, A.G.O., eds. Environment and Aging, University of Hong Kong).

In a study commissioned by HelpAge on the situation of older people in Bangladesh, entitled Uncertainty Rules Our Lives, older people defined “old” according to limitations which affected their ability to function in daily life using terms such as loss of memory, ill health, dependency, physical limitations that hamper the ability to work.... it was suggested to researchers that “when a man loses power, authority and respect in a family, he could be considered “old.” It was clear from discussions with poor older people that they view old age with anxiety.

Today, they feel their lives are too fraught with difficulties or survival, uncertainty and suffering to be enjoyed. Many widows appeared particularly despondent and feel they are a burden to society and some even prayed for death.

Some quotes attributed to the respondents in the study:

–  –  –

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