Viewpoint

Tracking sunsets

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Suddenly, it is twilight. A stoop matches our gray hair and bifocals. They say we’re the elderly folk we used to zip past unheeding. Where did those years go?

No more bolting out of bed mornings, writes Conchita Razon in “The fear of aging” (Lifestyle, Inquirer, 4/14/13). The process is now protracted: from slow tentative roll to slow tentative steps. “We’re on the downside of the mountain, coasting towards our final days,” she quotes Omega Institute’s Elizabeth Lesser. “Wrinkles and double chins are smoke screens for what we’re afraid of—mortality.”

That too was the focus of April’s conference on “Ageing in Asia Pacific: Balancing the State and Family” in Cebu City. This Association of Asian Social Science Research Councils’ 20th biennial conference considered various old-age “concerns” that range from “myths about the elderly” to new scientific tools, like “ALE.”

ALE? Come again.

“The concept of active life expectancy or ‘ALE’ is relatively new” here, explains Grace Cruz of the UP Population Institute and researchers Yashushiko Sato and Josefina Natividad. But  “lolos” and “lolas” will account for 7.8 percent of the Philippine population when President Aquino’s term ends.

Come 2040, about 19.6 million will be what US President Bill Clinton dubbed as “near elderly.” Some will be justices, physicians, even Inquirer columnists. But many will be in nursing homes, begging or huddled in slums.

“Don’t complain about growing old,” Justice Earl Warren wrote. “Many people don’t have that privilege.” Two of my brothers didn’t. But success in “adding years to life does not necessarily mean adding life to years.” Longer lives can peter out in crippling disability. Yet, little is known of “ALE.”

A prevailing myth claims that the elderly are dependent on their children. At the Cebu conference, family and state debated on who had primary responsibility in caring for the elderly, Sun Star’s Rebelander Basilan reported. Many of the elderly  pitch in to care for children and grandchildren. Some double as guardians when a parent leaves as an overseas worker. Failing health and inadequate pensions bug many.

Indeed, the tally of households headed by “oldies” belonging to the poorest 10 percent of the population has risen since 1997, says a paper by UP economist Dennis Mapa. A young dependent (14 years old or below) jacks up the probability that the elderly-headed household will be paupered by 9 percentage points. Addressing the slow dip in population growth rates is critical.

The swelling ranks of the elderly imply a corresponding increase in the number of persons with disabilities. This future scenario elevates health, particularly health expectancy, as a central issue in policy formulation, Cruz and team note in an earlier study titled “Active Life Expectancy Among Older Filipinos.”

The number of older people unable to perform once routine, everyday chores—like bathing, reading, using a cell phone or going on Internet—has implications at various levels. Buffed-up government health budgets is one.

The Aquino regime has collected more revenues. But there are competing demands on the health peso from the younger sector of the population. The young are the majority.

“The burden of care for the elderly will have to be managed by the family,” Cruz notes. Traditional family structures are changing rapidly. A major factor is overseas as well as rural-to-urban movements. “Labor migration eroded the ability of the family to care for its older members.”

Women are the traditional caregivers for the elderly. Often, older people take on surrogate parental roles for grandchildren whose parents migrate ill-prepared to the cities or abroad. OFW jobs for women outstrip those for men.

Poverty cripples a family’s ability to care for elder members. Out of every 100 Filipinos, 34 scrape below poverty lines. There are more widows than widowers. Measures to address women’s needs are urgent as many will linger longer in disability before death. “Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me,” Emily Dickinson wrote.

“Some believe that having many children is the answer,” Razon notes. ‘“When I grow old, they’ll take care of me.’ For some, this is wonderfully true. And yet, many people with children spend their twilight years alone. I know many older parents who, if they get lucky, may get a phone call or text once a week.”

“Filipinos are generally known for their strong filial obligation. (But) poverty can erode the middle generation’s capacity to provide economic and health assistance for the older generation. Savings in the bank determines the level of ‘inter-generational support.’ The less-endowed are less likely to be involved in kin support,” notes Cruz.

Both the number and proportion of healthy years relative to the total remaining years of life dwindle with age for men and women. Functional impairment emerges as a reality. These will result in significant lifestyle restrictions. Unless policy measures are enacted, the elderly will skid into social isolation, poor nutrition and overall decrease in quality of life.

To concerns that accompany aging, Poet Maya Angelou, author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” offers a “cure”: “The antidote… is to take full responsibility for yourself—for the time you take up and the space you occupy…. Start by speaking to people rather than walking by them like they’re stones that don’t matter.”

After chatting with our grandchildren on Skype, the wife and I sometimes watch the twilight set in. Did you notice those sunsets? They’re never the same twice.

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E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com

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