[Commentary] Watching Sunsets


Suddenly, it is twilight.  We’re  now    those  stooped   grey-haired folk,  who peered through  bifocals, while  we, then  young,  zipped by.  Where did   those  years  go?  

No more bolting out of bed mornings, writes Inquirer’s Conchita Razon in “The Fear of Aging.”  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 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  “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  UP Population Institute and researchers  Yashushiko Sato and Joesfina Nativid. But   “Lolos” and “Lolas”  will  account  for 7.8%  of population  when  President  Benigno Aquino’s  term ends.

Come 2040,  about  19.6 million will be  what  President Clinton dubbed   as “near elderly”.  Some  will be justices, physicians, even newspaper 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   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 for  children and grandchildren.Some double as guardians when a parent leaves as  Overseas Foreign Worker.. Failing heath and inadequate pensions bug many.

Indeed, the tally  of  household headed by “oldies”,  belonging to the poorest 10% 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  probability  that the elderly-headed household will  be paupered  by  9 percentage points.  Addressing the slow dip in population growth rates is critical.

Swelling ranks of  elderly imply  a corresponding increase in the number 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:  “Active Life Expectancy Among Older Filipinos”.

The number of older people unable to perform once routine everyday  chores  —  from bathing, reading, using a cell phone or going on Internet  — has  implications at various levels.  Demand for 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 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 traditional care  givers  for the elderly.. Often, older people  take on surrogate parental roles for grandchildren  whose parents migrate, towards ill-prepared 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. As Emily Dickenson wrote: “Because I could not stop for death,/  He kindly stopped for me.”

“Some believe that   many children is the answer,”  Razon wrote: “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 level  of “inter-generational support”. The less-endowed  are less likely to be involved in kin support.

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

In her  poem    “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,”  poet   Maya Angelou writes  :“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 twilight set in.   Did you notice those  sunsets? They’re  never the same twice.

About JUAN L. MERCADO (contributor)