Ageing affects everyone. But when the elderly are tucked away or left behind in villages and monasteries and streets, away from the gaze of the younger lot living in towns, the ageing process and the elderly appear to become invisible.
Bhutan is beginning to see this change in its demography. What the society is not seeing or choosing to unsee is the lack of care and support to its elderly population. Somehow the rhetoric of being a country with a large young population that has grown socioeconomically shrouds the plight of those who nurtured the society’s growth.
We cite family values and culture and the customary practice of family members providing care to the elderly whenever we are confronted with the dilemma of institutionalising elderly care. We lament the eroding values and deteriorating social fabric and conveniently blame modernisation for social issues that are of our making. We claim to be a welfare state that looks after one another, where community vitality is cherished and compassion practiced.
Yet, the value of all these social and economic advancements the society has made so far would ring hollow if we have become a country that does not take care of its ageing population. Besides a reminder that we all grow old, the recent NSB study on the situation of elderly citizens in the country, asks important questions to a changing society that is in a rush to grow up but not old.
How justifiable is it for the present generation to let some of its elderly citizens struggle through pain, suffering, and poverty on their own? How is it not wrong in a society that rests on GNH conscience to remain oblivious of their contributions in the country’s development and neglect them when they are at a vulnerable stage of their lives?
These trends are neither justifiable nor right. But the dilemma the society is grappling with is also beyond morals. It is as much about poverty as it is about fragmentation of family norms. It is about deprivations – social, economic, spiritual and political.
We note that the 12th Plan draft has listed support for elderly care in terms of health services. While health is intrinsically connected to ageing, there is a need for policy makers and planners to consider the social aspects of growing old. The growing number of destitute elderly people in towns and villages is not only a manifestation of deteriorating family care but of poverty as well. Studies show that a significant proportion of elderly people lived in poor households. Poverty among households with at least one elderly member (70 years and above) was roughly 2.3 percent while about 5,560 households with at least one elderly person (60 years and above) were below the national poverty line.
This needs to be addressed. There is already a political will to respond to the needs of a growing elderly population. What appears to be lacking is the implementation of this will.
It is hoped that the Constitutional mandate to uphold family care and support system would not be used to not implement the pledge of providing welfare services to the elderly. We cannot risk letting the elderly fall through the cracks of political development.