A few weeks ago, I happened to come across a booklet published in 1978 by the Government General Hospital, Madras, when it launched its outpatient geriatric service.

In the souvenir titled Geriatric Service - ‘Add life to years', the authors have addressed concerns such as the breaking up of joint families, the nutritional status of the elderly, the need for better social and economic support and similar issues

It occurred to me that over the years there has been little change, though geriatricians have been addressing these issues consistently. On April 7, we observe World Health Day and the theme this year is ‘Ageing and Health'.

B. Krishnaswamy, head, Geriatrics Department of the hospital, tells me that in 1999, the theme for World Health Day was ‘Active ageing makes the difference'. And, it was a significant year for India as the government launched its National Policy for Older Persons, recognising the need to address the issues of senior citizens.

In the current Five-Year Plan, the government has taken particular note to improve the lives of senior citizens and developed a specific programme, which will be rolled out at the hospital too.

The theme was chosen with the intent to focus on the fast-growing segment of the elderly population worldwide. This concern needs to be addressed, because within five years, for the first time in history, the number of adults aged 65 and older will outnumber children under the age of five, said WHO director general Margaret Chan in her address at a gerontology conference in Cuba last week.

The theme makes sense considering the statistics of the old versus the young population in our State. “In Tamil Nadu roughly 12 per cent of the population is over the age of 60 while the population of children below five is 10 per cent,” says K. Surendran, Surveillance Medical Officer, World Health Organisation. The ageing population places a burden on the healthcare sector. It is important that we promote good health and ensure they remain out of hospital for as long as possible, he adds.

Right next door, at the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital's geriatric outpatient department, one finds geriatric patients overflowing in the OPD, come rain or shine.

“Senior citizens' health problems are a major issue. If you have money but are in poor health there is no happiness,” said Dr. Krishnaswamy. “When we started the geriatric outpatient department as a twice-a-week clinic for two hours, we received hardly four patients over the age of 65. Now we get around 150 patients and we are finding it difficult to handle the huge inflow,” he said.

According to him, an elderly person who has a positive outlook sails through life. Once they begin to feel neglected they lose interest and their decline in health is just a matter of time after that. “In most cases their fear is cancer or stroke. If I ask them are you worried that you may have cancer or stroke, then I have voiced their concern.”

Even as the world celebrates active ageing I cannot but help recalling the many elderly persons who have tipped me off and encouraged me to write about issues that bother them. These issues include better road signage, and improved healthcare.

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R. SujathaJune 28, 2012

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