The world is aging so fast that most countries are not prepared to support their swelling numbers of elderly people, according to a global study issued yesterday by the UN and an elder-rights group.
The report ranks the social and economic well-being of elders in 91 countries, with Sweden coming out on top and Afghanistan at the bottom. It reflects what advocates for the old have been warning, with increasing urgency, for years: Nations are simply not working quickly enough to cope with a population graying faster than ever before. By the year 2050, for the first time in history, seniors older than 60 will outnumber children younger than 15.
Truong Tien Thao, who runs a small tea shop on the sidewalk near his home in Hanoi, Vietnam, is 65 and acutely aware that he, like millions of others, is plunging into old age without a safety net. He wishes he could retire, but he and his 61-year-old wife depend on the US$50 a month they earn from the shop. And so every day, Thao rises early to open the stall at 6am and works until 2pm, when his wife takes over until closing.
“People at my age should have a rest, but I still have to work to make our ends meet,” he says, while waiting for customers at the shop, which sells green tea, cigarettes and chewing gum. “My wife and I have no pension, no health insurance. I’m scared of thinking of being sick — I don’t know how I can pay for the medical care.”
Thao’s story reflects a key point in the report, which was released early to The Associated Press: Aging is an issue across the world.
Perhaps surprisingly, the report shows that the fastest aging countries are developing ones, such as Jordan, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua and Vietnam, where the number of older people will more than triple by 2050. All ranked in the bottom half of the index.
The Global AgeWatch Index was created by elder advocacy group HelpAge International and the UN Population Fund in part to address a lack of international data on the extent and impact of global aging. The index, released on the UN’s International Day of Older Persons, compiles data from the UN, the WHO, the World Bank and other global agencies, and analyzes income, health, education, employment and age-friendly environment in each country.
The index was welcomed by advocates for elder rights, who have long complained that a lack of data has thwarted their attempts to raise the issue on government agendas.
“Unless you measure something, it doesn’t really exist in the minds of decisionmakers,” said John Beard, director of ageing and life course for the WHO. “One of the challenges for population aging is that we don’t even collect the data, let alone start to analyze it... For example, we’ve been talking about how people are living longer, but I can’t tell you people are living longer and sicker, or longer in good health.”
Many governments have resisted tackling the issue partly because it is viewed as hugely complicated, negative and costly — which is not necessarily true, says Silvia Stefanoni, chief executive of HelpAge International.
Prosperity in itself does not guarantee protection for the old. The world’s rising economic powers — the so-called BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — rank lower in the index than some poorer countries such as Uruguay and Panama. However, the report found, wealthy nations are in general better prepared for aging than poorer ones.
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