What does ageing mean for development? Guest blog from someone who knows

October 19, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Last week I blogged on the rapid pace of global ageing (even though I’ve just noticed that I can’t spell ‘ageing’), and asked for suggestions on what it might mean for development policy. Mark Gorman, HelpAge International’s Director of Strategic Development, obliges with this guest blog.

mark-gorman_80x125“So what does ageing mean for development? Will low and middle income countries grow old before they grow rich? What can be done to meet the challenges of the global age wave, and especially for the older poor?

Ageing is largely absent from development debates and action, yet it has impacts across many areas of development. Take migration. A major pull factor of international migration is the ageing of work-forces in the rich world; at the same time migration from poor communities leaves behind disproportionate numbers of the old – and the young. From Latin America to Asia migration has changed the age profile of relatively “young” countries, leaving “skipped-generation” households of older people caring for grandchildren left by middle-generation migrants. With remittances infrequent, inadequate or non-existent, old and young in these households are sharing poverty and vulnerability. 

The same effect is seen in sub-Saharan Africa, where in a number of countries grandparents of children orphaned by HIV and AIDS are the main care providers (in Zimbabwe and Namibia 60% of orphaned children are cared for by their grandmothers).

Look at rural development, where the emphasis is on improving the productivity and incomes of small producers, but little attention is given to including older farmers. This matters, because many poor countries are seeing the ageing of their farming populations. In Mozambique over two-thirds of the members of the Small Farmers’ Union are over 50, a pattern repeated in the Caribbean and elsewhere. But older farmers in many countries say that they are excluded from programmes because they are seen as “too old” to benefit.

Finally, think about health. Little effort is made to make health care “age friendly” despite the promotion of this approach by the World Health Organisation. For example, reproductive health programmes largely ignore the fact that multiple pregnancies in poor health conditions mean that many poor women spend their old age with chronic, life-limiting, but treatable conditions. 

So we need ways forward to tackle the challenges of an ageing world. Firstly we need to see older people not as a problem but as part of pension protestthe solution. Older people in poor communities are survivors, with lifetimes of experience to contribute. Enabling older people to organise has had a dynamic effect not only on improving their own lives but also on the wider community. Older people’s groups in rural north India for example, have drawn in other community members to campaign for village schools. In the Philippines and Bangladesh older people’s groups have played a key role in the initial response to climate emergencies, providing help to the most vulnerable before the arrival of humanitarian relief.

Income and health are older people’s priorities everywhere. Lacking an income, most poor people work far into old age; with lifetimes of experience they have skills to hand on, given the opportunity. In rural Kyrgyzstan for example, older community groups are financing their activities by providing “consultancies” to younger farmers on agricultural techniques. 

The rise of chronic diseases has meant that in many poor countries more people are dying from heart disease and cancers than from communicable diseases. Yet the focus remains on the latter. Screening and treatment for the heart disease, cancers and diabetes could have a major impact, not only improving older people’s health but also that of middle generations who will otherwise age with chronic illness. A pilot health screening programme for retired plantation workers in Sri Lanka shows what is possible – identifying and treating hidden health problems, helping to avoid later crises.

Choices need to be made. Much is in the hands of today’s 2050 generation (the mid-century 60-year olds). They will be the policymakers and professionals driving change in all fields of development. Demography is not destiny, and their choices will decide how successfully the world ages.”

October 19, 2010
Duncan Green