By Piyumi Fonseka
@Piyumi_Fonseka on Twitter
Ageing is inevitable. Did you know that Sri Lanka is the fastest ageing country in the South Asian region? The ratio of those aged 65 and above in Sri Lanka is increasing rapidly compared with the number of years it took for other developing countries in the region.
Sri Lanka has the highest ageing population in South Asia. They were an unprecedented 2.5 million in 2012, and this is still increasing. One in eight Sri Lankans is 60 years or over. According to projections by United Nations Population Fund, Sri Lanka, by the year of 2030, 1 in 5 people in Sri Lanka will be above the age of 60 years.
Apparently, we will soon have an unprecedented demographic situation where the elderly population will soon outnumber the young population. Is having more elder people in the country a factor that opens windows for new opportunities or is it a crippling challenge to an underdeveloped country like Sri Lanka?
Opportunities come with challenges. Ageing population in Sri Lanka will lead to many social, economic and cultural challenges to individuals, families, societies and the country as a whole. It is how the authorities choose to address the challenges and maximise the opportunities of a growing older population that will determine the future of Sri Lankan population.
Impact in old-age dependency and labour force
A report launched by the Asian Development Bank stated that the share of working-age population in Sri Lanka (those aged 15 to 64) in total population has started declining, and the absolute number of working-age population will also start dropping by 2030. The evolving living arrangements will need to be factored in as the government may have to bear a larger part of the burden of old-age income support, the report said. The change in age structure and an increasing number of older people in the population would result in a significant shrinking of the labour force and also increase in old-age dependency in the country.
It’s hoped that old-age dependency ratio would increase than the child dependency ratio by 2050. The worse scenario is that female labour force participation is just 36%. Eventually, female elders will be more of a burden to the society if they have no way of taking care of themselves financially.
Pressure on health system
Due to the rise in the ageing population in Sri Lanka, demands and the projected costs for health care of the growing number of elders will undoubtedly rise. As a developing country, having free health sector, this poses a huge challenge to the country in terms of public financing.
According to the Non-Communicable Disease Unit (NCD) of the Health Ministry there is an increasing risk of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in Sri Lanka. A national household survey carried out by the Ministry of Health in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2015 states that more than 90% of the Sri Lankan adults were estimated to have at least one of the NCD risk factors (73.5% with 1-2 risk factors, and 18.3% with 3-5 risk factors), with similar prevalence in males and females.
Around 70% of the disease burden in Sri Lanka is due to non-communicable diseases. Nearly thirty percent of total hospital deaths are due to cardiovascular diseases which are the primary leading cause of death in Sri Lanka during the past few years.
There are old-age income support schemes currently being operated at government level and non-government level including social assistance transfers, some of which are specifically intended for the elderly people.
However, a report of Human Development Unit of the World Bank on Sri Lanka’s ageing population issue outlined that the coverage of current retirement and pension schemes is limited to a minority of the working age population, the benefits are inadequate, and the financial sustainability of schemes questionable.
According to the finding of the report, pensions are received by less than one-fifth of the old people and only one-third of the labour force participates in pension scheme, with the vast majority of informal sector workers lacking coverage and considerable evasion among those in the formal sector.
The report also focuses on the fact that the civil servants are the only group that has reasonable levels of benefits and longevity insurance, but the costs may be unsustainable in the long run.
The report suggested that more resources have to be set aside for the support of the aged retired population and investment in pre-retirement preparation. In the informal sector comprising 70% employed, only 26% are covered by social security.
However, the experts opine that the country needs to develop a coherent policy framework to ensure that the elderly have access to income support. While workers in the formal and informal sectors have several pension schemes, a large number of elder people are excluded as they lack access to any financial support system.
While social norms still largely ensure that the family looks after their elders, the number of elders living alone has increased, albeit from a low level. This trend is in fact just as rapid as Japan experienced in the 1970s.
As the dependency ratio is expected to increase compared to the child dependency ratio by the year of 2050, the burden on those offering primary care might increase significantly. Despite Sri Lanka being a country which has adopted a culture where senior citizens are looked after by their respective families, recently a considerable number of incidents were reported regarding mistreatment and abuse of elders by their family members.
According to National Charter for Senior Citizens, Sri Lanka, lacks giving adequate attention to senior citizens. This is a matter of grave concern. As possible reasons, the document stated that the decline of traditional care- which derived from religion and culture in Sri Lanka- for senior citizens has diminished. This is due to challenging economic situations, competitive working cultures, changing values and expectations of women; who were originally supposed to look after elders in the respective families are now seeking employment. It had underscored middle aged women migrating to the Middle East in search of employment as one of the causes which has severely affected the caring system.