Some old people make me feel old. Allow me to explain this paradox: their zest for life seems to grow as they age; always first to experiment with new hobbies or captivate an audience with their delightful tales or dressing ever so elegantly at any occasion. I see these exquisite qualities amongst seniors most vividly during family gatherings and my holidays. This summer, I caught a train ride to the Swiss mountain village of Gstaad and was impressed to see an elderly couple dressed in full hiking gear; ready to embark on an arduous hiking trip that would take several hours.
This comes as no surprise since, according to Global AgeWatch Index, Switzerland was ranked number 1 in the quality of life and wellbeing of the elderly population based on an assessment of the basic services needed during this life stage. Now ageing is an experience we all share, but what does it mean to age gracefully? To many, it means living a quality life; a long, healthy, and happy one at that. Everyone deserves the right to live well at every stage of their lives and have access to basic welfare services, such as employment, income security, housing, social care, health care, and transport.
Policy-makers have been voicing the concerns of the elderly segment (people aged 60 and above), mainly because today, seniors are the world’s fastest growing segment. In 2017, the total global elderly population reached 962 million, in comparison to 382 million in 1980. The elderly population is still expected to grow by 2050, reaching almost 2.1 billion. Projections also indicate that by 2050, there will be more seniors aged 60 or over than youths aged 10-24 (2.1 billion versus 2.0 billion).
From a policy-maker’s perspective, this stark demographic shift has enormous implications on government work. With a shortage of workers who are of employable age, there will be less people working; thus reducing revenues generated from income taxes and also decreasing the overall country’s productivity. This will pressure governments to spend their finite budgets on expensive health-care services, pension claims, and infrastructure services (including daycare centres, transportation, and housing fitted for elderly populations) in order to provide to the elderly segment long after they retire.
Some governments have started experiencing this demographic shift since decades and so have designed innovative policies that cover a wide range of services for the elderly segment. Japan is an example of a hyper-ageing country, with a third of its population over 60 years old. In the 1960s, the government implemented a holistic welfare policy, whereby focusing on universal education services, preventative health care, daycare facilities with rich social and culture offerings, a pension system, and a robust investment plan to support these initiatives. Today, the Japanese population’s life expectancy at birth has been ranked number one for more than 20 years (83.7 years) and is also one of the healthiest and most affluent countries in the world.
How can we replicate such success stories for the UAE, especially since its elderly segment is burgeoning? Firstly, we should focus on employability as this greatly enhances income security in old age. The elderly have accumulated a rich collection of life experiences and the workforce can still benefit from their skills and knowledge. Offering training programmes for the elderly group is a way to upgrade their skills to fit modern-day workforce requirements. Also, workplaces can redesign jobs so that they are flexible in terms of time and workload. For example, the Singaporean government invests in reskilling programmes so that seniors find suitable, well-paying jobs as they age. This ensures employees can be financially self-sufficient and still receive key benefits, such as health care.
Additionally, implementing preventative health programmes would be crucial in lowering the rates of chronic diseases and disabilities amongst the elderly segment. Wellness programmes could focus on awareness seminars, periodical health screenings, healthy diets, reducing stress levels, and exercising in order to ensure people age healthily. Also, special educational sessions need to be offered to caregivers of the elderly, especially if they will be residing with their families at home.
More daycare centres need to be established in key locations in order to accommodate the elderly segment. That is because in countries with low birth rates, people will have fewer children, resulting in a lesser dependency on familial care and support as people age. Nowhere is this more prominent than in Japan. I remember during my last visit to Tokyo, I got a chance to visit a daycare centre for the elderly. At once, I noticed how it was built with such attention to the finest details, housing not just a health-care ward with a full-time medical team, but also a gym, a library, a garden, a theatre, a cafeteria, and rooms to hold educational and entertaining workshops on topics like Japanese calligraphy and tea ceremonies.
For those elderly people who will be living on their own, their homes have to be retrofitted with features to make them safer and more senior-friendly, such as fitting non-slippery floors, placing light switches low enough for people in wheelchairs to reach, and an emergency alert system that is connected to an ambulance or the police. Publishing a simple guidance for home contractors could minimise accidents.
Countries must comprehend the impacts of this growing segment and adjust current laws and policies to accommodate their needs. It is true that whilst these adjustments may be costly in the short-term, however, experience from other countries indicate that the costs and risks can be mitigated with the right interventions and early planning. Our elderly segment is a group that worked and contributed vastly to our economies and societies. They deserve honourable and rewarding living arrangements in their later years.
Sara Al Mulla is an Emirati civil servant focusing on human development policy and children’s literature.