He was no John Doe, he had a name, Joseph Anton. But none of his five children came to his aid when he lay dying in a shop front in Galle. According to a letter found on him at the time of death he had been suffering from cancer and had been receiving treatment at the Maharagama Cancer Hospital for a cancer in the throat, that he could not talk and was suffering from chronic kidney failure. It further indicated that he had been walking from Maharagama to his hometown in Kataragama for about a month. The letter attested to the fact that his wife had passed away and his five children refused to care for him.
This begs the question, what compels a father of five to make an over 200 kilometre journey on foot? The truth of the matter is that the population of Sri Lanka is aging and if a proper mechanism is not put in place to care for the aged many more fathers and mothers may die by the roadside in future.
According to a Human Development Unit, South Asia Region report titled ‘Sri Lanka Addressing the Needs of an Aging Population’, in slightly more than two decades, Sri Lanka’s population will grow to be as old as Europe or Japan’s is today, but its level of income will be much lower. It would take spectacular growth for Sri Lanka to catch up with developed countries’ per capita level of income. Therefore, the traditional intergenerational systems in place today will have less time to adapt as the speed of the aging process will be unprecedented.
Without major changes, Sri Lanka will face this massive social challenge at a level of income and pension system that is far below that of countries already experiencing a similar demographic transition. Latest available statistics show that the population above the age of 60 years was 2.5 million in 2012 which is 12.5 per cent of the total population whereas projection shows that Sri Lanka would have an elderly population of about 3.6 million by 2021, which is 16.7 per cent of the total population and by 2041, one-quarter of the population would be elderly.
According to professor, Department of Economics, University of Colombo, Prof. Ranjith Bandara, the government cannot afford the facilities the aging population requires.
“Sri Lanka recorded a Government Budget deficit equal to 5.40 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product in 2016. In such a case, caring for the aged population will become a crisis in the future since we don’t have a proper system to manage it,” Prof Bandara explained.
Taking care of the aging population has become a major issue. It is not just feeding them. “Taking care of elders means all of their interests should be looked after. We need more facilities. Health care and even the environment they prefer should be provided,” explained Bandara, while driving home the point that the Sri Lankan government lack sufficient funds to care for the aging population.
Zahran Sikkanther Lebbe in an article titled ‘Impact of Sri Lanka’s aging population’ published in April 23, 2016 issue of the Nation, says that as a larger proportion of population reaches retirement age, more people will draw from public funded pension schemes which could drain a greater fraction of the future national expenditure.
Additionally, the government has to allocate more funds to fulfill their healthcare and welfare needs, whilst the national expenditure priorities would be negatively impacted with the availability of the limited funds for the public investment activities and for economic prosperity.
Howver, Bandara opined that the expertise of the elderly could be utilised for the benefit of the economic system as done in Singapore.
“The aged can work. They are aged but not old,” he said pointing out the fact that they can contribute to the country’s economy in a positive manner. Yet since there are many unemployed youth in the country the suggestion of employing aged people has to be given careful consideration.
“Though caring for the aged has become an issue we have to take care of them nonetheless. As children are busy with their own lives they don’t have time for parents. The best solution is revisiting the culture where elders were properly taken care of. We have to start this at school level,” said Bandara, while reiterating the importance of reviving the ancient practices for taking care of elders.
According to Lebbe, existing retirement schemes are not only limited in coverage but also inadequate as the real value of the schemes gets eroded due to inflation over the period of time.
Many private sector organizations including banks and insurance companies have launched pension schemes to ensure senior citizens an enjoyable retirement. Starting a pension plan at a very young age will consequently ensure a secure retirement where he or she does not have to depend on others for their financial needs.
According to Assistant Manager, New Business, Hatton National Bank, Krishanthi Nawarathna the number of people who have started a pension plan is very few. The main reason for elderly people not starting pension plans is their lack of awareness about such schemes.
In fact, a substantial population in the informal sector is yet to be covered under the pension schemes. Hence, reforming pension schemes is very essential to support the elderly population to live their retirement free of financial burdens.
Higher contributions to retirement schemes during the period of employment, increasing the retirement age, prudent investment to yield higher returns of the pension’s funds and periodic adjustments to the retirement benefit in line with the real expenditures are few options which could be considered for pension reforms.