Giving the elderly their due respect

Centuries ago, Plato in line with Socrates had said that the real wisdom is in "knowing that you do not know" and such wisdom, according to them, is not gained before the age of 50. In the period of early democracy, during the 5th century, we see the practice that citizens over 50 years of age would speak first, and only after their say, younger citizens would speak. This was quite the established rule, followed out of respect for the elderly and to exploit their wisdom to manage state and societal affairs.  

In our society as well, we observed a similar culture where older people had the respect they deserved. Our society relied on their experience and wisdom. The cultural norms, social structure and social expectations had placed them in such a position that nowadays is ebbing faster than ever. Wrinkles in the skin, grey hair, a few missing teeth, trembling limbs, tremulous tones, forgetful minds, a bent walk, poor eyesight—all such indicators that were once considered deserving of proper care, attention and respect in the past have now become reasons for the older people becoming prey to our growing intolerance and insensitivity. We have to remember that such attitude comes at a price. It could very well be one of the crucial reasons for the growing depletion of our social harmony where we are losing the culture of treating age with respect and care.

In Bangladesh, more than 10 million people are 60 years or more. This is estimated to become around 21 million in 2030 and would reach 42 million in 2050. If we see this number in terms of the percentage of the total population, it might not alarm us. However, have we ever reflected properly on how the older people live their lives and what their future would be? Some studies suggest that the majority of the older people live in poor conditions and may belong in the bottom quintile of those living below the poverty line without proper policy and programming response from the state. Conventional discussions on poverty in general and ageing in particular have stressed mostly on economic and resource deprivation. This approach grossly ignores the fact that human beings do not want to survive barely on a subsistence level but live with dignity (also care and attention). Human beings in general endeavour to live a dignified life throughout their lives. Maybe we are going to see soon that the global society has adopted the right to die a dignified death within the human rights framework. Indirectly, this is already reflected in many of the human rights principles.

Interestingly, discussions regarding the extreme poverty of a specific section of the population, in this case the aging population, were sidelined because of overemphasis on GDP-led growth, where the assumption is that everyone is getting a share of such growth. The other tendency is to have a tick-box approach through which some token programmes are initiated to escape the accusation of doing nothing. Thus, the impact of such initiatives do not result in success to the level expected, keeping the extreme poverty persistent in our societies. Unless we understand growth as "growth in human capability" or human development, the quality of life of the citizens would remain an illusion and impossible to attain.

Nobel laureate economist Joseph E Stiglitz, one of the many economists who consider GDP not a good measure of wellbeing, says, "If we want to put people first, we have to know what matters to them, what improves their wellbeing and how we can supply more of whatever that is." For Amartya Sen, another prominent Nobel laureate economist, poverty is the end result of capability deprivation, where capability may refer to all the things that people may value to live a valuable, dignified and flourishing life. Extreme poverty in this sense may refer to an extreme form of capability deprivation. It would not be unrealistic to argue that we know little about the lived experience of the older people living in extreme poverty or what they value, or what they lack, or what constraints they live with. While poverty would be there in the world in different forms despite the progress we make, living in extreme poverty is a form of deprivation which must not exist in our society. This requires special policy attention to bring especially vulnerable people (e.g. the older people or the disabled) first and foremost in the policy and programming agenda.

The UN General Assembly adopted the resolution 46/91 in 1991 which sets the principles for older persons. It encouraged governments to adopt five principles in their policies and programmes to ensure or guarantee: 1) Independence, with access to basic needs and a safe and adaptable living environment; 2) Participation, with full participation in social life and in formulating policies and in their implementation with the ability to unite themselves; 3) Care, with access to services along with family and social care; 4) Self-fulfilment, with opportunities to develop their full potential; and 5) Dignity, with ability to live in dignity and security along with fair treatment regardless of age, gender, racial or ethnic background or other social status. Our national policies and programmes should have those principles reflected in them to bring changes in the quality of life of the older people. At the same time, an intergenerational approach should be encouraged, because ageing is not an issue only of the people who are ageing. The younger generation has much to learn and benefit from the wisdom and experience of the older people.

Maybe in today's world, more than poverty, the worst is the undignified life that people live. In many societies and communities of the world, older people are treated with utmost care, attention and dignity. And this is equally happening in cultures where resources are limited, which demonstrates that care, attention and respect do not require affluence as a pre-condition although the need for state intervention through social policies and programming cannot be undermined. It is just a question of the mind-set. Maybe we have to revive our past traditions that respected age and considered it an asset that benefits rather than burdens society.


Owasim Akram is a Doctoral Researcher of the Newbreed Doctoral Programme at Örebro University, Sweden. Email: [email protected] 


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