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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 May, 2003, 05:05 GMT 06:05 UK
Asia strained by ageing population
By Jill McGivering
BBC Asia Analyst

Asia is described as the world's most rapidly ageing region.

Old Buddhist woman in Dharamsalla, India
A very large number of elderly women are widows

One estimate is that by the year 2050, Asia will be home to almost two-thirds of the world's population of people over 60 and many will age in poverty.

Due to longer life expectancies and falling birth rates, Asia is rapidly getting older.

In many parts of the region the concepts of retirement and pensions barely exist.

In India, for example, less than 10% of the population are covered by formal pension schemes and they are mostly government workers and professionals.

The government introduced a national old age pension scheme in the mid 1990s, which gives a handout of $1.50 a month.

It is designed as a safety net for those below the poverty line.


But a current study by HelpAge International has found that only about one in five of those eligible for the payments actually receive them.

Many do not realise the scheme exists or, given that three out of four people over 60 in India today are illiterate, just can not cope with the paperwork.

Old Indian man
The ageing population is putting pressure on limited resources

"Even if people are aware the scheme exists, they may have problems filling up the forms, getting their age certified by the doctor or getting certification that they are below the poverty line," said Shubha Soneja, HelpAge India's head of research and strategic development who is writing the report.

"Our recommendation is that the government should simplify the procedures and involve non-government organisations a lot more."

As a result of these gaps, most older people have few choices.

Many are forced to carry on working for as long as they can to support themselves.

Others become dependent on relatives, a pattern which can contribute to keeping the rest of the family in poverty.

Sometimes the traditional three generation family unit is a positive model - but when the elderly have no alternative, dependence on family can leave them highly vulnerable to abuse - from physical and verbal to more generic problems such as isolation.


One researcher cited the example in India of an elderly married couple forced to live separately because one son wanted just his mother to live with him to provide child care whilst a second son took her husband.

Older people are now consistently poorer than the rest of the population and increasingly vulnerable and yet rarely targeted as a group by poverty alleviation programmes.

"Older people are looked at as a spent force," said Shubha Soneja, "and people don't realise they're adding to the dependent population."

Two elderly men in Pakistan
Elderly people may never be able to stop working

The lack of provision of health care for the elderly worsens the poverty cycle.

Poorer older people are more likely to face health problems.

Lost earnings through ill-health and the cost of medicines push them further into poverty.

Gender inequality also plays a part and more than half of Asia's women over 60 are widows.

As well as losing any income generated by husbands, many widows also suffer low social status, are politically as well as economically marginalised and at increased risk of abuse.


As the number of elderly people starts to soar, the lack of financial planning is causing alarm - both about the plight of the elderly and the burden they will represent for communities already struggling against poverty.

Shubha Soneja says the Indian government's response so far to this looming crisis is inadequate.

India is already struggling to support a current population of about 81 million people over 60.

By the year 2025, that figure is expected to have more than doubled - to an estimated 177 million.

But plans to provide for them still are not being made.

"The figures are horrifying," she says.

"Unless we take steps now, it's going to be a very pathetic situation."

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