Leaving no older woman behind

How the lives of the elderly, especially women, can be improved significantly

Updated - October 01, 2020 02:02 am IST

Published - September 30, 2020 08:42 pm IST

Coimbatore 29/10/2011. As the world population touches the 7 billion mark demographers say managing the older population will be a challenge.   Photo:K.Ananthan.

FOR POPULATION 7 BILLION PACKAGE: Coimbatore 29/10/2011. As the world population touches the 7 billion mark demographers say managing the older population will be a challenge. Photo:K.Ananthan.

Perhaps one of the terrible aspects of COVID-19 is the harm it inflicts on older persons who face multiple and compounding threats, including being physically more vulnerable than others, at greater peril of the impacts of social isolation, and at significant risk from the likely long-lasting socioeconomic shocks of the pandemic. In the Asia-Pacific region, these impacts are particularly acute, adding to the challenge of grappling with accelerating population ageing. Women, who generally outlive men, constitute the majority of older persons in the region, but represent an even greater majority of the ‘oldest old’ population of 80 years and over.

A vulnerable category of people

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, elderly women in a majority of Asia-Pacific countries were facing significant challenges, exacerbated by the fact that many societies have been moving from traditional, nuclear family-oriented patterns to far more fluid, fragmented structures. The result has been that many older women, with a higher tendency to live alone, face poverty and are more likely to lack family and other socioeconomic support. The majority of older people do not have reliable and sustained access to a caregiver. Facing non-existent or only minimal safety nets, many have already slid into poverty during the pandemic or are on the cusp of doing so.

Also read | Post COVID-19 lockdown, protecting the elderly is crucial, say experts

The pandemic has brought into focus the urgent need for both governments and civil society to address the complex demographic shift of population ageing, with strategic solutions. To do so successfully, we need a life cycle approach to healthy ageing, with particular emphasis on girls and women, firmly grounded in gender equality and human rights.

To unpack this, let us consider a woman in her 70s in the small village where she was born and raised. As with so many of her generation, she was made to marry early, with minimum education. She had children early, pregnancies were unplanned, childbirth was risky. Her husband, many years older, died a while ago, leaving her a widow, unprepared to enter the workforce or properly fend for herself. Her children left the village for the city, adding to her isolation. This is the scenario many older women now face, with the added risks and effects of COVID-19. But imagine if, as an adolescent, this woman had been able to complete higher education; achieve gainful employment; marry as an adult and of her own choice; have healthy children and invest in their well-being; and enjoy a secure old age.

Plans in place

If there are better policies, more resilient social systems and gender equality, the lives of older people, especially women, can be improved significantly. This would also allow societies to harness the valuable experiences of older persons as they age. In fact, the commitment to advance a better world in an ageing society has already been articulated by the 2002 Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing. This agreement commends the development of evidence-based policies that help create “a society for all ages”. In addition, the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals underscore the basis of this approach to healthy ageing.

Also read | Coronavirus and home care of the elderly

We must collectively prioritise greater action, funding and implementation. Our mandate in the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) incorporates the need to enable and strengthen the self-reliance of older persons. The ICPD Programme of Action is our foundation, and our guiding principle. UNFPA is committed to helping governments in full partnership with civil society and communities. This is the decade of Healthy Ageing as well as the Decade of Action to achieve the SDGs. As Asia-Pacific, with the rest of the world, seeks to ‘build back better’ from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, let us seize this moment to transform the challenge of population ageing into an opportunity.

Björn Andersson is the UNFPA Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific

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