Old and abandoned

Both family and state have turned their backs on the elderly. A pension scheme to ensure financial security for all senior citizens is desperately needed, writes Nadia Fazlulhaq, Pix by Berty Mendis
  • “Our capacity is 95 elderly persons, and we have 330 people on the waiting list.” - Sister Irene Bernadette, The Little Sisters of the Poor, Darley Road.
  • “The children see the older people as a burden. Financial support from the state is therefore a must.” - Samantha Liyanawaduge, HelpAge Sri Lanka executive director

The number of elderly people in Sri Lanka keeps growing, but little has been done to ensure that the country’s senior citizens can live out their last days in comfort and financial security.

In 2006, the number of elderly persons in the country stood at 2.2 million, and the figure is forecast to grow to 5 million by 2031, representing 22 per cent of the total population.

The elderly placed in homes are largely left to amuse themselves. Family and friends seldom visit.

HelpAge Sri Lanka, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life of all senior citizens, completed a feasibility study last year on a pension scheme that would provide for all elderly persons (over 70 years), regardless of background, income or status.

HelpAge presented the study results and a proposal to the Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare. The proposal was submitted to the Cabinet, which turned it down. According to HelpAge Sri Lanka executive director Samantha Liyanawaduge, at least a quarter of the country’s population will qualify to be categorised as elderly in 20 years’ time.

“By 2030, 25 per cent of the population will be elderly people,” Mr. Liyanawaduge said. “At present, there are nine persons to look after one old person. A few years later there will be only three persons to look after one elderly person. It is important to start initiating plans to ensure that elders will be financially independent. If Sri Lanka is to successfully tackle old age poverty, there should be a fundamental shift in pension policy.”

The HelpAge Sri Lanka proposal advocates a universal pension based on the national poverty line, which is Rs. 2,950 rupees a month. This sum can be supplemented with a small increase in VAT and excise duties to provide sufficient funds to finance a universal pension scheme. For example, VAT could be increased from 5 per cent to 5.5 per cent, thus providing sufficient funds to cover a pension for all persons over 70 years of age.

“I believe tax payers will be more than willing to contribute,” Mr. Liyanawaduge said. “Political commitment behind the pension scheme is a must.” Providing homes for the elderly is not the complete answer, Mr. Liyanawaduge said, pointing out that 70 per cent of the country’s elderly lived in poverty.
“Most of the elderly who live in rural areas suffer a lot,” he said. “They lack basic facilities, and their children are unable to support them. The children see the older people as a burden. Financial support from the state is therefore a must.”

The current pension scheme for government employees covered only a small segment of the senior citizen population, Mr. Liyanawaduge said. A pension scheme as proposed by HelpAge Sri Lanka would be acceptable to the whole family.

“The pension will benefit the family in three ways. The elderly recipients will be able to share their pension with their children, the families will no longer have to cover costs for caring for older people, and working adults will not have the pressure of saving for their old age,” he said.

Mr. Liyanawaduge said the mandatory Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) scheme had its disadvantages. On retirement, people tended to use up all their EPF savings, rather than invest the money to provide an income for the rest of their lives, he said.

According to the National Secretariat for Elders, life expectancy levels have been rising over the years. In 1946, life expectancy in Sri Lanka was 43 years, while in 1998 it was 60 years.

Meanwhile, the National Secretariat for Elders is drafting a five-year action plan that would include self-employment and home garden projects to support the elderly, according to secretariat official Indunil Rodrigo, who works for elders’ rights. He says only six per cent of the country’s work force were eligible for a pension.

“In this country the children are the elderly people’s main support,” Mr. Rodrigo said. “It is important therefore that the elderly do not end up being a burden on their children. We also hope to launch a programme to train people in care-giving. There is a demand for home-care services.”

According to a 2008 World Bank report, population aging is a universal phenomenon that is especially marked in Sri Lanka. The country’s population is among the “oldest” in the non-developed world, and Sri Lanka is one of the fastest aging countries in the world. Informal support, income support and healthcare are key areas to be addressed in looking after the welfare of the elderly, the report stated.
Mrs. V. Jegarasasingham, secretary to the Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare, said the universal pension scheme proposal, submitted as a Cabinet memorandum, was turned down because it meant increasing taxes.

She said self-employment for older persons should be considered, and that such self-employment would contribute to the economy, even in a small way. The Parliamentary Act No. 09 of 2000 for the Protection of the Rights of Elders included a social security pension scheme for self-employed persons, she said.

No place for the elderly

Overcrowding is a problem in almost all homes for the elderly in the country. Moreover, most of the inmates of these homes are not happy, despite the “comforts” and “distractions” provided.

According to the manager of the Sanhinda Sri Naga Viharaya Elders’ Home, in Kotte, the elderly people remain unhappy even when activities are organised to cheer them up. The main reason for their unhappiness is that they miss their children. “Most of the elderly tell us they want their children near them when they pass away,” the manager said.

Long waiting lists prove that the country is under-supplied with homes for senior citizens. The elders’ home in Darley Road run by The Little Sisters of the Poor has been receiving a steady stream of applications over the years.

“Our capacity is 95 elderly persons, and we have 330 people on the waiting list,” says Sister Irene Bernadette. She said the home receives frequent calls from families inquiring about accommodation.
She also observed that the less-privileged families tended to show greater concern for the older family members. “The poorer families come regularly to visit their parents and grandparents, while the better off rarely come to see their parents”, she said.

An official at the Lady Sareed Elder’s Home said families migrating to other countries often left the older members of the family behind, in the care of relatives or in homes.

The Sunday Times learns that there up to 13,000 senior citizens in Vavuniya, but only four elders’ homes in the Vavuniya area. These homes were working beyond capacity.

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