By Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President
As a former public official and a senior citizen myself, I have interacted a lot of times with senior citizens in various parts of the country. Whether in a farm, a public market, a sari-sari store, or an air-conditioned mall, the senior citizens I have talked to have the same sources of joy and pain.
Grandchildren make senior citizens happy, especially taking care of them and doting on them to the point of spoiling them rotten. Seniors are also proud of their succesful children. They usually have a photo of a son or daughter wearing a graduation toga in their wallets. And on Facebook – and I have met a lot of senior citzens who have their own Facebook acounts – photos of their children and grandchildren are the most frequently shared posts. Senior citizens love to recall their younger years when they wore slim jeans or dresses, had hair to comb, and danced up a storm during parties.
But seniors also do have a lot of concerns as they grow older. The pain can be literal, like back pains and joint pains. You often find seniors exchanging notes on their ailments, and lamenting the high cost of medicines. The pain can also be on a deeper, more emotional level. Being ignored by their children who are too busy with their careers. Grandchildren they rarely see. The what ifs and could have beens, the choices they made in their lives. The fact that they have a few more years left on earth and they remain poor. They lament living in communities where they are disrespected by younger people, the erosion of values, and the state of the nation.
This week, local governments and national government agencies are expected to roll out programs and activities to celebrate Elderly Filipino Week. These events provide an opportunity to make the larger and younger population more aware of issues confronting the country’s elderly.
According to the HelpAge Global Network, the number of senior citizens in the Philippines is rising faster than the total population. “In 2000, there were 4.6 million senior citizens (60 years or older), representing about 6 percent of the total population. In one decade, this grew to 6.5 million older people or about 6.9 percent of the total population. The National Statistics Office projects that by 2030, older people will make up around 11.5 percent of the total population,” the network said in its profile on aging in the Philippines.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and HelpAge International said in a report published in 2015 that the senior population in the Philippines is expected to hit 23.63 million by 2050 or 15.3 percent of the population.
There are five national laws on the elderly, ranging from accesiblity standards to setting up senior citizens’ centers, extending discounts on purchases, and providing pensions to indigents. The study noted several challenges as well. One of them is age discrimination. Age has become one of the “barriers to employment,” especially among men because of “their declining strength and lack of alternative employment” after 60.
This is most unfortunate, considering that most senior citizens today are healthier and more mentally alert than a decade ago largely because of advances in medicine and lifestyle changes. Those who cannot find work in the formal sectors become ambulant vendors, or work as domestic helpers in order to survive. In many cases, senior citizens continue to provide for their children well into their twilight years.
Caring for the elderly is part of Filipino culture. It is not uncommon to find senior citizens living with their children and their families. The fact that the Philippines is one of a few countries with policies and programs specific to the elderly shows that this concern for the elderly also finds its way and manifests in how government sees the elderly.
But we must not stop there. For example, the law mandating 20 percent discount for senior citizens on purchases and services is a big help, but for seniors living in poverty – 13.2 percent in 2015 according to the Philippine Statistics Authority – basic needs such as medicines and food remain beyond their reach.
Senior citizens need care and support from society and government. When I was mayor of Makati, the city government formulated a host of programs and services for seniors beyond what is being provided by national law.
The rationale was simple. Our senior citizens contributed to the growth and development of Makati. They worked hard and paid their taxes when they were younger. It is government’s obligation to repay their good citizenship.
We Filipinos value our senior citizens. They cared for us when we were younger, and continue to care for our children in their twilight years. And they still have much to contribute to society. I know that senior citizens are able to find jobs in call centers. Those who were former professionals do consultancy work and have proven to be quite handy with computers and the latest gadgets. In localities, senior citizen organizations down to the barangay level are among the most active citizens organizations. But it breaks my heart when I see senior citizens forced to beg on the streets. A society must never allow its elderly to live lives of indignity and degradation.
The noted writer and philantrophist Pearl S. Buck said these memorable words: “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”
In my next column, I will discuss the unique programs and services for senior citizens which we began in Makati.