Leaning against a wheel barrow filled with some foul smelling garbage 74- year -old R.A.L Perera was exhausted even though his working day was still young. Speaking to Daily Mirror he said that he had been cleaning the streets of Colombo for 6 years. At an age where according to country’s laws he should be enjoying his retirement–an impractical dream in the present day economic environment. “Prior to this job I was working for a milk manufacturing company. The cost of living is so high it would be impossible to survive if I do not earn an income through work,” he explained.
Walking down the streets of Colombo you could see many elderly citizens clad in orange T-shirts helping to keep the streets clean but there are so many others who need to work and live a decent life are unable to do so due to the country’s archaic retirement age of 55.
Like R.A.L Perera there are many able-bodied elderly who have to work out of necessity to keep body and soul together. However there are others too sick to work chucked away in elders homes.
Life expectancy is 76
According to sources from the Health Ministry, the average life expectancy in Sri Lanka is 76 years. This is an increase from the life expectancy of 70 years in 2005. Consequently, since the current retirement age is 55, a citizen would live 21 years unemployed after retirement.
Speaking to the Daily Mirror the media spokesperson for the Ministry of Health DM Wanninayake said that the life expectancy has increased due to the increase in the quality of healthcare facilities. He further said that there is at least one well- equipped government hospital with well trained doctors within a 3km radius of towns.
“There is 100% coverage in Sri Lanka for communicable diseases under the National Immunization Programme. The spread of many communicable diseases have been reduced by vaccinations and in 2013 for instance, there weren’t any incidents recorded of patients contracting malaria in Sri Lanka. Any incidence recorded was among people who had returned from abroad. The number of communicable diseases recorded has dipped and we have to now address the presence of non-communicable diseases especially among the elderly,” he said.
Wanninayake also said that the elderly that represents 10% of Sri Lanka’s population is expected to double by the year 2030 which would increase in a need for geriatric health care.
“Due to the increase in the elderly population, the need to establish a geriatric hospital in Sri Lanka is under discussion. However currently, to address the needs of the elderly we are conducting programmes to ensure that they consume good food, exercise for at least 30 minutes every day and reduce their use of alcohol and tobacco products,” he said.
When we visited an elders’ home in Colombo we found that diabetes, high cholesterol, dementia, Alzheimer’s, stroke and fractures were the predominant diseases that the elderly faced.
Statistics provided by the Labour Department show that although the labour force participation rate is increasing and the unemployment rate decreasing, there is an increase in the dependency ratio together with an increase in the elderly population. With advances in technology, both youth skills and the experience of the elderly are needed for development.
Dr. Harischandra Yakandawala
Former programme officer at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the chairman and founder of Village 60 Plus, Dr. Harischandra Yakandawala said that although the life expectancy in Sri Lanka is high, it is not a productive life expectancy.
“From my observations 60% of the individuals who are more than 40 years of age take medicine. By 70 nearly 90% of people take medicine. The life expectancy has increased because healthcare facilities have increased and there is treatments available for diseases,” he said.
Dr. Harischandra further said that there are no facilities to provide the registration of private healthcare services like elders homes although the elderly population is increasing and the demand for these services are increasing.
Dr. Harischandra also said that elders’ homes set up by the government and even those run by non- governmental organisations receive no concrete support and survive mostly from donations. “The government provides only Rs. 300 a month for each individual and Rs. 100,000 per month for renovation. Each person requires 90 meals per month and with medical facilities these funds are not sufficient,” he said.
Speaking further, Dr. Harischandra said that the retirement age should be increased so that the elderly remain occupied. Staying alone and unoccupied is one of the main reasons for contracting mental illnesses,” he said.
Mrs. V.B.K. Weerasinghe
The Commissioner General of the Labour Department Mrs. V.B.K. Weerasinghe said that the retirement age was set at a time when life expectancy in Sri Lanka was around the late fifties and early sixties. “The Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) Act which set the retirement age at 55 with an extension of five years in 1958 has not been amended since. But even thought the Act states that the retirement age is 55, many people do not retire at that age. It is not by choice that they do this. It is a necessity for them as they cannot afford the basic commodities if they remain unemployed,” she added.
Prof. Siri Hettige
Speaking to Daily Mirror, Professor Siri Hettige, Sociology Department of the University of Colombo said that this life expectancy in [Sri Lanka] is very high for a developing country. Increasing the retiring age would not have any significant consequences as many people remain in office well past their retirement age. There are politicians who can barely walk holding high positions at public expense,” he said.
He went on to say that people who retire are reluctant to give up income generating activities because if they do they would not be able to cope with the high cost of living today. Extending the retirement age would only have an effect on the public sector as most public institutions are over-staffed and unproductive. Also since the life expectancy is high and the fertility rate low Sri Lanka has no choice but to increase the retirement age. The Sri Lankan economy is not creating enough employment even though there is money floating around. The youth are leaving because the productive sectors are not expanding. Agriculture is stagnant and the industrial sector is not diversifying. Productive employment needs to expand to bring down the cost of commodities. This would diminish the need for people to work for a living once they retire,” he said.
Professor Hettige however added that different options should be provided and no room left for the mistreatment if the retirement age is amended. He suggested three options to be included in the retirement plan.
Individuals to retire if they are unable to work due to health issues or lack of physical well being.
Individuals to retire and engage in some other activity if they wish to.
Retire and work on a part-time basis.
He further added that introducing part- time employment and providing social protection for citizens once they retire would also serve as a plausible solution.
“The biggest problem in Sri Lanka is that there is no social protection for citizens once they retire. Many high- end companies employ the elderly for menial services like cleaning and it is disheartening to see the discarded elderly engaged in such activities.”
According to Professor Hettige in many developed countries the elderly engage in a lot of voluntary work. They run educational programmes and pass on their knowledge and experience to the youth. It is important to find ways to get the elderly employed and contribute to the well being of others as it is costly for a country to cater to the needs of the elderly. There are many activities the elderly can engage in without being employed and this would consequently increase the social benefits in the country. Speaking to the elderly who have retired from both the public and private sector we found that some of them were in favour of extending the retirement age, while others wanted an optional extension,” he said.