Political Prioritization, Redistributive Economy Needed to Stem Slide in Older Persons' Living Standards, Experts' Meeting Told

United Nations Population Fund
Contact: in New York:
William A. Ryan

The ICPD+5 review process

Political Prioritization, Redistributive Economy Needed to Stem Slide in Older Persons' Living Standards, Experts' Meeting Told

BRUSSELS, 7 October 1998 -- Global recession has caused sharp declines in the living standards of elderly people and heightened inequality based on wealth, age and gender, experts on ageing were told today. To redress this inequality, political priority must be given to meeting the needs of the old and a commitment made to a redistributive economy, according to speakers on day two of the Technical Meeting on Population Ageing.

The 6-9 October meeting was organized by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in cooperation with the Population and Family Study Centre (CBGS), a Flemish scientific institute in Brussels. Participants are reviewing the experiences and population policies of developed countries to identify lessons and best practices that can be adopted by their developing counterparts. The meeting will also appraise the implementation of the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and identify key actions to meet older persons’ needs, with a special focus on gender and poverty dimensions.

Speaking on older persons’ special needs, Kasturi Sen, a senior community medicine scientist at the University of Cambridge, told fellow experts that the drop in standards is being reinforced in developing countries by structural adjustment policies and the rising tide of privatization. Privatization has extended to the health and social services, and there are growing pressures to privatize pensions previously managed by the public sector.

"While these policies have affected vulnerable groups disproportionately throughout the world," Ms. Sen said, "they have had very serious consequences for groups such as pregnant women and elderly people in developing countries, owing to the complete absence of safety nets, such as pensions or social security coverage for the majority in the poorest regions."

Health care reforms promoted by major donors, including the introduction of user charges and market-led initiatives, have eroded public services, she asserted. Such policies have made older persons more dependent on their relatives. Public support for vulnerable groups must be retained.

Evidence from developing nations in many parts of the world suggests that the revenues collected as fees are too little and the cost of collection too high to justify the new policies, Ms. Sen said. As an alternative, policy makers should consider introducing credit schemes and small-scale, community-based health promotion projects to address the needs of the elderly. As examples, she cited the provision of sheltered housing and day services providing meals and help with shopping and cleaning.

Donald Adamchak of Kansas State University’s Department of Sociology called on governments, international organizations and donor agencies to develop indigenous programmes that directly help the elderly poor, focusing on income and food security and health services. Access to clinics should be increased and medical staff better trained in geriatric medicine.

Small business loans should be available to both rural and urban elderly, he said. Families should be helped to maintain their support for older persons. Governments or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should provide food banks and small salaries for those who coordinate village or community programmes of support for the elderly. Group living arrangements for single elderly could be encouraged, he suggested, with grants of small parcels of land to raise vegetables for sale, and with the help of volunteers.

Wednesday’s meeting also heard presentations of papers: on improving the quality of life for the elderly, by Penelope Coombes of Australia; on the changing role of the family and community in supporting the elderly, by Emily Grundy of the United Kingdom; and on a society for all ages -- options for the elderly, by Rosemary Lane of the Social Development Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In her paper, based on Australia, Ms. Coombes identified key factors that contribute to the quality of life of older persons. They include safety and security, economic vitality, access to good housing, community networks, user-friendly transport systems, clean air and water, and noise reduction.

Nikolai Botev of the Economic Commission for Europe spoke about older persons in countries with economies in transition. States in Central and Eastern Europe generally have a smaller proportion of aged people than the rest of the continent. Elderly populations are also skewed, with more than four women for each man at some ages. Life expectancy has dropped in some of these countries and living standards are far below those in other parts of Europe and North America.

Many of the region’s countries have gone through shock, but without any therapy, said Vladislav Bezrukov of the Institute of Gerontology in Kiev, Ukraine. He said the elderly are living without many of the services they need. Dramatic changes have been recorded in the Russian Federation. "Fertility is decreasing and mortality is increasing," he said.

Privatization and other new economic measures have been especially hard on the elderly, who are unable to take part in these changes, Mr. Bezrukov continued. Prices of food and other essential items are growing much faster than pensions, he noted.

Following their discussions on presented papers, participants went into three working groups on the following themes: demography, research and training; health care and services for the elderly; and economic and social security policy. After their separate meetings, the groups are due to hold a plenary on 9 October to consider their respective recommendations.

The current meeting is being held a week after this year's International Day of Older Persons, during which the United Nations declared 1999 the International Year of Older Persons. Ageing also is one of the main themes of UNFPA's flagship publication, The State of World Population 1998, entitled "The New Generations".

(For information purposes only. Not an official document.)

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