Never too old | Sunday Observer

Never too old

2 October, 2022

A 78-year-old former banker whom I met accidentally near an ATM smiled at me affectionately when I offered to help him pick up his hat that had fallen on the floor.

“ Oh, the hat just flew away by the wind, not because I am old,” he chuckled.

He leaned forward slightly, transferring some of his weight onto the walking stick, and added,” I am just taking a walking stick because it needs my company, not because I need it.”

All who were waiting in the queue looked amused and his positive attitude and carefree nature made all of us happy indeed.

The first thought that crossed my mind when I saw him was, “this is exactly what ageing gracefully means.”

“I retired 18 years ago having served as a banker. My wife served as a teacher. I am a father of two and a grandfather of five. I have five cats and two dogs. But I’am still young at heart,” he said. And I knew for sure that he did not have even the remotest idea that he would be my next protagonist!!!!

This happy septuagenarian ex-banker’s views and attitude stand in stark contrast to those of a 65-year-old retired teacher whom I met just a few days ago at a supermarket. She was struggling to read the ingredients of a certain food item when I offered to help her. Though still in her ‘60’s she looked frail and much older than the happy banker.

She thanked me briefly, but still looked annoyed because her maid was not around to help her with selecting the items.

“See, this woman has disappeared. She must be selecting some unwanted items,” she said. Next, she cursed her poor sight.

“I am very weak now. Both my brother and sister are doing fine though they are much older than me. On top of that my maid is also giving me trouble,” she grinned.

She should have met the happy banker, I mumbled to myself and headed towards the check-out counter.

A challenging experience

Growing old in a rapidly changing world is truly challenging. Social scientists agree that, more than ever before, age is “just a number.” It can be an enriching and graceful experience, but it can be filled with adversity as well. However, grumbling and blaming others won’t help. Facing old age with wit and humour, a positive attitude, and self-esteem, is important. So just be like the happy banker, not the grumbling teacher!

Anyway, how an individual experiences or faces old age is largely shaped by his/her gender, race, social class, and historical context. It is equally moulded by one’s past comforts and struggles, experiences, and access to resources.

Sociological definition

Ageing is defined as the combination of biological, psychological, and social processes that affect people as they grow older, According to world-renowned sociologist and author of several publications on Sociology, Anthony Giddens these three processes can be thought of “as three different, although interrelated, developmental clocks.” “Biological refers to the physical body; psychological, refers to the mind, including one’s mental, emotional, and cognitive capabilities; and social, refers to cultural norms, values, and role expectations related to age.”

Today, with people worldwide living longer than ever before, the number of people aged 60 years and older has outnumbered children younger than 5 years, according to the United Nations. Between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will nearly double from 12 percent to 22 percent and in 2050, 80 percent of older people will be living in low- and middle-income countries. The world’s average life expectancy grew from age 47 in 1950 to age 71 in 2015 and will reach age 77 by 2050.

UN International Day of Older Persons

Yesterday was the UN International Day of Older Persons. The theme of 2022 was Resilience of Older Persons in a Changing World. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Country Representative Kunle Adeniyi in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer elaborated on this year’s theme and its significance.

“Resilience is linked to concepts such as adversity, trauma, stressors, and our ability to bounce back at least as strong as before. Older people face many adversities in their daily lives, such as illness, disability, loss of loved ones, loneliness, loss of income, and being subject to discrimination and abuse. Older women, in particular, are vulnerable to discrimination and social exclusion, and since they tend to live longer than men, may also experience deepening poverty as they age.

Today’s population of older people has dealt with many adversities such as the pandemic, climate change, and shifts in economic conditions that have exacerbated existing inequalities. Their experience, knowledge, and skills have honed their coping styles and resilience.

This year’s theme draws attention to the resilience of older persons and their contributions to finding solutions to challenges that affect us all. It serves as a much-needed reminder to recognise their resilience and contributions to societal development, and the need to include their voices when creating policy responses to current local and global challenges,” he said.

Key issues

According to Adeniyi, the key issues faced by the elderly are ageism, gendered differences, poverty and dependency, lack of Age-Friendly and Affordable Health Care, and lack of Age-Friendly Physical and Social Environments.


Older people are at a higher risk of suffering from the negative consequences of Ageism, (a widely prevalent phenomenon), which impacts a person’s health and longevity. It can result in marginalisation and exclusion, affecting their participation in society.

Gendered differences

It is important to note gendered differences and their implications as men and women age differently. Globally, women are outliving men and as a result, are making up the majority of older persons. Due to a lifetime of disadvantages, older women are more vulnerable to discrimination, have poor access to jobs and healthcare, lack a steady income and social security, and are subject to violence and abuse. Older men, on the other hand, may become vulnerable, particularly after retirement, to financial abuse.

Poverty and dependency

Older people are at a higher risk of poverty and dependency. People are living longer but traditional employment models have not adjusted to this change. With the enforcement of compulsory retirement age, an individual would have to stop working at a particular age despite being able to contribute and be productive beyond these years. This loss of income leads to increased dependency as older people need to find other alternative jobs and/or depend on family and government transfers including pensions, social assistance, provident funds, or saving schemes. This results in older people being wrongfully viewed as a burden to society. Older women are particularly vulnerable as a majority of them have not engaged in formal employment in their working years and are left without access to pensions or other social benefits.

Lack of age-friendly and affordable health care

Access to quality age-friendly and affordable health care is another key issue. While people are living longer, a majority are ageing in poor health. The prevalence of non-communicable diseases is rising among older persons and a large number of older persons are living with some form of disabilities resulting from ill health. The increasing burden of care falls on the family, especially women, affecting their saving capacity, employability, and productivity.

Lack of age-friendly physical and social environments

The lack of age-friendly physical and social environments also impacts the quality of life of older persons. Many face mobility restrictions caused by age-related health conditions. Difficulties in accessing transportation and inappropriate houses can result in increased isolation and loneliness which can have serious impacts on the their ability to carry out basic daily activities, thereby reducing their independence, autonomy, and quality of life

Local situation

Adeniyi said that in Sri Lanka women make up the majority of older persons. The lack of economic autonomy and security makes them particularly vulnerable and susceptible to sexual harassment and exploitation.

“Older people are the poorest age group in the country with the highest headcount ratio of 17.9 percent as of 2019. Less than one-fifth of older persons receive pensions This situation is worse for older women. A majority of them do not benefit from these schemes as they were either engaged in the informal sector or never worked at all. The current economic crisis will be pushing them further into poverty,” he said.

According to Adeniyi, health and well-being remain a huge concern. Non-communicable diseases have been the cause of 90 percent of the deaths of older persons. The ongoing economic crisis is impacting access to and availability of healthcare services and medicines. This has detrimental effects on older people due to the prevalence of complex comorbidities. The shortage of fuel and high cost of transport is also limiting their access to health care which carries fatal consequences for older people, he added.

As he pointed out, older people are also affected by the food security and nutrition crisis in the country. They may be at risk of malnutrition due to the shortage of food and weakened purchasing power due to inflation, increased cost of living, and loss of income.

“As the vulnerabilities of older people have increased with the economic crisis, we need to ensure that their rights and dignity are upheld and that their needs are addressed. It is important to engage, especially older women in decision-making at all levels so their perspectives are included in developing meaningful responses to the current crisis,” he raised concern.

UNFPA’s role in Sri Lanka

UNFPA works to raise awareness about population ageing and the need to harness its opportunities and address its challenges. Adeniyi said that the Organisation also supports research and data collection to provide a solid base for policies and planning and make sure ageing issues are integrated into national development programs and strategies.

“We are working closely with the Department of National Planning (NPD) to integrate population dynamics into national planning. We are working with NPD to produce an analysis of how Sri Lanka’s transition to an ageing society will influence national development, economic security, generational equity and equality, public finances, and many other important public policy issues. We have also worked with the National Secretariat for Elders on promoting the rights and well-being of older persons. We are also working with HelpAge Sri Lanka and Sunrise Senior Citizens foundation to raise awareness about the issues of older persons, address the needs of older persons in the current context and promote the inclusion of older persons in disaster preparedness,” he said.

An older person is defined by the United Nations as a person who is over 60 years of age. Given the steady rise in life expectancy in recent years, can we redefine old age, the Sunday Observer asked the Country Representative.

In response, he said that there are no clear-cut physiological phenomena for the definition of old age. The widely used definition of old age is based on chronological age. 60 years is the definition employed by the United Nations and Sri Lanka follows the same. A 60-year-old today would be different from a 60-year-old 40 years ago or 20 years in the future. So the definition of old age does need to be modified. However, having an age-based definition helps us to define the population in need and target policies and programs.

What more to be done

Adeniyi emphasized the need to invest and adapt a life-cycle approach and place the rights and choices of women and girls at its core.

“This is especially important for older women due to the disadvantages faced over their life. It is by investing in every stage of a woman’s life, from birth to childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, that women and entire communities and countries will be able to enjoy healthy ageing. This is essential to promoting gender equality,” he said.

Adeniyi added that it is important to ensure healthy ageing to improve the quality of life and mitigate the increase in cost associated with ageing in bad health. “We need to invest in health and disease prevention activities that focus on maintaining independence, preventing and delaying disease and disability, and providing treatment. We need to train caregivers and health professionals to improve care for older persons.”

According to him, the environments in which older persons live must be built to promote mobility, safety, and security in order to enable independent functioning and active and healthy ageing. Assistive devices, housing with age-friendly features, safe and affordable transport, housing, and basic facilities should also be provided.

He finally highlighted the need to urgently address the inequalities in society to ensure that everyone has equal access to basic services such as employment so that through the course of their lives, everyone can make informed decisions, access opportunities, live decently, and save for the future. “Investing in young people today will ensure a better quality of life for future generations of older people. The right investments and policy decisions have to be made now to ensure that Sri Lanka can benefit from the transition to an ageing society and ensure that all older persons can live with dignity and security.”

Recent research

In a very recent study researchers from Stanford University, in California, and Deep Longevity, a company in Hong Kong found that being lonely speeds up people’s biological clocks more than smoking. Feeling lonely, unhappy, and hopeless was found to add up to an extra year and eight months onto someone’s age — five months more than smoking. As per the study, the damage to the body’s biological clock (damage to cells and vital organs through chronic inflammation), caused by negative emotions raises the risk of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses.

Chronological age or the age of a person as measured from birth to a given date is different from one’s biological age which estimates the body’s decline based on factors including blood, kidney status, and Body Mass Index (BMI).

The researchers also found that being male added up to five months to one’s age while living in a rural area and never getting married raised it by equal amounts- four months.The study was based on data gathered from 12000 Chinese adults.

It is important not to make the elders feel left alone or isolated. It is up to the young to look after the elderly and provide them with any help when required. Even though the extended family support systems are rapidly declining, each young adult should make it a point to look after their old parents, elderly relatives despite their busy schedules because older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation.

Be young at heart

The Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez once said “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”Never stop pursuing dreams, be kind, be exemplary, and be happy because just as American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said the best tunes are played on the oldest fiddles!