Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Being Elderly in South Asia

Written by on . Published in Searchlight. on , , , , , .

This article was originally drafted by the Intellecap for the newsletter “Searchlight South Asia” as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Searchlight Process. For more Searchlight content on, please click here.

Traditional family structures are changing in South Asia. In today’s world, myriad economic opportunities exist in urban areas, and significant rural-to-urban migration supports that fact. But what this also means is that the shape of the multigenerational family is shifting towards a more nuclear structure: the latest statistics show that less than 40% of families in India are “joint” or multigenerational. Where previous generations could rely on living with their children or grandchildren to look after them in their old age, this is not necessarily the norm today.

In the rural areas of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, young people move to urban hubs in their home countries or abroad to find employment and better earnings. Though children still support their elders, a rising trend is that elderly family members are left behind and must take care of themselves. Some may choose to stay in their home villages, but this may not be possible. As their children move away, the elderly are forced to make the hard decision to also make the move to an urban center for their financial and social securities. Meanwhile, none of the government-sponsored programs in South Asian countries currently target the elderly in the urban context.

Perspective on Senior Citizenry

The latest World Bank statistics show that the world’s elderly population has been steadily increasing since 1948. Declining fertility rates and increased life expectancy are behind this growth. In 1950, the global elderly population—defined as persons of 60 years and older—was 251 million and increased to 448 million in 1990. It is projected that by 2025, the number of elderly will increase by 146% to 1.25 billion worldwide.

This increase will be concentrated in Asia, particularly South Asia. An October 2011 article on notes: “South Asia will experience a dramatic increase in its elderly population by nearly nine times between 2010 and 2025 when life expectancy will increase to 75 years for men and 82 years for women.” Bangladesh will see an 8% growth rate in people over the age of 60 by 2020, 12% growth by 2035 and 17% by 2050. India has close to 89 million elderly, and this number is expected to double by 2020 and nearly triple by 2050. Nepal has seen its elderly population growing faster than the annual population growth rate of 2.3% at an average of 3.39% between 1991 and 2001, with 1.5 million elderly people today. In Pakistan, there are 7.2 million elderly people – near 4% of the population and rapidly moving towards 10%. It is predicted that by the next decade, the elderly’s numbers will comprise 15% of the total Pakistani population.

Public Intervention

In the West, institutions and systems have long been in place to support the elderly. The story is quite different in South Asia: India and Bangladesh may respectively claim the second- and third-largest populations of poor elderly people in the world, but governments in both countries spend less than 0.5% of their GDPs on social pensions that benefit less than 20% of people over the age of 60.

In a study by HelpAge International, a not-for-profit working to protect the rights of the elderly and provide helpful interventions, it was found that approximately 76% of elderly Bangladeshis are excluded from government support and social protection. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Social Welfare provides an Old Age Allowance, a program that gives US$3.97 per month to elderly women over the age of 62 and elderly men over the age of 65 — just enough to buy a month’s ration of rice. The Ministry notes that 2.4 million people receive the allowance and that the program costs the government more than US$11bn per year. Mustafiz Rahman, a researcher, has said: “The selection process for the allowance is flawed, and there is nepotism, inefficiency and a lack of accountability that plague the system.”

Over the last decade, the Government of Nepal has taken more assertive action to indoctrinate the rights of the elderly. Most recently in 2009, the government formed the Senior Citizens Regulation 2065 to ensure the social security of Nepal’s senior citizens vis-à-vis relevant policies and programs such as the Senior Citizens Policy and Working Policy 2058, the National Action Plan for Senior Citizens 2062 and the Senior Citizens Act 2063. The UN’s International Conference on Population and Development has recommended that the Nepalese government further develop social security systems to promote greater equity for those persons that support senior citizens thereby encouraging them to live in “multigenerational families.”

While Bangladesh and Nepal have put social safety nets in place for the elderly – however imperfect – Pakistan has none. There is no retirement age or benefits for citizens, regardless of age. This void of social safety nets for the elderly can be attributed to the fact that until three decades ago, the lifespan for an average Pakistani was less than 60 years. Now, people are living longer and have become more visible in society.

Searchlight Process

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Research and Records Unit has undertaken an innovative approach to addressing this challenge by generating applicable intelligence that emerges from a forward-looking, on-the-ground perspective throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It is known as the “Searchlight” function—a group of forward-looking, regionally-focused horizon scanning and trend monitoring grantees that conduct regular, ongoing scanning for novel ideas, research results, and "clues" to where the world is evolving.