7 billion people: What happens when billions of babies grow up?

28 October

  • Urgent investment in older people critical to building a secure world as population tops seven billion
  • "The world will not solely belong to the young, older people must not be sidelined", HelpAge International CEO says.

As world population reaches seven billion (31 October), HelpAge International applaud the United Nations Population Fund, (State of the World Population, 2011) for dispelling harmful myths about ageing.

The report shows that global ageing is occurring across both high and low income countries and celebrates the contribution older people make to the world's economy. It also demonstrates that ensuring regular income and good health for the present 893 million people aged 60 and over, but also the future 2.4 billion, is critical for a secure future for all generations.

Century of ageing

However, HelpAge, the only global network that supports older people to overcome poverty and discrimination across the world, warns we must do more to meet the challenges of a "century of ageing".

Richard Blewitt, CEO, HelpAge International said:

"I fully agree that protecting the health and productivity of the world's older people now, is the only way to ease the challenges we all face from an ageing world. It is not just gender and geography that drives inequality, a widening gap between young and old is also a barrier to progress. As more of us live longer, this great success story of the modern world will only remain so if we can guarantee a healthy and dignified old age for future generations."

Of the world's seven billion people, 893 million are over 60, with the majority of older people living in developing countries. By the middle of the 21st century that number will rise to 2.4 billion. Presently, millions of older people are reaching old age in poverty and ill health.

Millions of older people living in poverty

In the developing world, HelpAge International estimate more than 180 million older people live in poverty. In contrast, their rights and needs are still being ignored by policy makers, despite the invaluable support older people give. This support is given by caring for their children and grandchildren in humanitarian disasters, when parents have migrated or when family is too sick to work or attend school.

80% of the world's population is not sufficiently protected in old age against health, disability, income risks and poverty, with only one fifth having access to a pension. Family support for older people is weakening under the pressures of higher poverty, migration and rising food prices.

This growing lack of reliable income means that older people in developing countries often have no choice but to work into old age. With the majority working in an informal setting or subsistence agriculture they have no savings or pension and work long hours for low pay, in insecure and dangerous jobs.

We must invest in pensions and healthcare

Blewitt continues:

"Our ageing population is a triumph of development and is happening in some of the poorest countries. Older people must not be sidelined and the support we build now is key to the future. Investing in secure pension and health reforms will help generations that already rely on each other. We cannot wait any longer, as more people are born, more will age and we must be ready."

He concluded:

"Our hope is that this landmark look at our population will be a wake up call to many. Hopefully, a wider audience will recognise how much older men and women contribute to society. I firmly believe that we must absorb their knowledge and experience in building robust responses to an ageing population.

It is time to rethink attitudes to ageing. We are already supporting monitoring projects in 15 countries, where groups of older people hold their governments to account for commitments they have made. We will also keep tirelessly pressing for ageing to be included in key international processes; including the MDGs, European Union policies, and funding priorities."

Ethiopia: A case study

In Ethiopia, 75-year-old Tilahun Abebe is on a mission, armed with the results of a 2010 survey of older people in the capital, Addis Ababa, by HelpAge International, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The survey found that in a country where respect and care for the elderly was the tradition for centuries, there are now older people who are homeless and hungry.

Ethiopia, stricken periodically with drought or other natural disasters, has a relatively small but growing population of people 60 or older; 5.2% of the total population of 82.9 million. Life expectancy at birth is just over 57 years. Against this background, the needs of older people are often overlooked, Tilahun says.

A retired government health official, he is deputy chair of the Elderly People and Pensioners National Association, and he wants to make it an effective lobby for older people. A demand for some sort of financial safety net in old age is high on his list.

"Only government employees, the military, the police and civil servants get pensions," he said. "There is no social security." Homes for older people who have nowhere to live, or who require special care is another need, added Tilahun, who worked with an American malaria control project before receiving a graduate degree in preventive health in the United States and returning to Ethiopia where he became a Ministry of Health administrator. It is not only a matter of increasing the number of old age homes, he said, but also of reviewing how existing ones function to make sure they run at full capacity and offer better services.

The campaign Tilahun is leading on behalf of the national association for the elderly has a headquarters in the capital and two regional branches; at least eight more are in the plans. "We have to advocate for new and better thinking," he said. He proposes more, and smaller, centres around the country, where residents or day visitors could be cared for and trained for income-generating jobs, or kept busy in other activities to bolster their psychological health.

The 2010 survey to which Tilahun refers was made for the national and local Ministries of Labour and Social Affairs with the help of four Ethiopian non-governmental organisations. It found that 88% of homeless older people and 66% of those living at home in the capital city do not have enough to eat. 93% of all older people had no bath or shower, 78% had chronic health problems and 51% said they had no family support.

Source: http://www.unfpa.org/swp/


Notes to Editors

  • For more information, interviews with spokespeople and case studies on older people and ageing please contact: Rachel Trayner, rtrayner@helpage.org, 0207 148 7623, 07738982122 (24hrs), rachel.trayner.hai.
  • HelpAge International is a global network of organisations helping older people claim their rights, challenge discrimination and overcome poverty, so that they can lead dignified, secure, active and healthy lives - www.helpage.org
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