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International Day for Older Persons: Let’s pay attention to emotional wellbeing of living gods and goddesses

As the world celebrates the 30th International Day for Older Persons on this Thursday (October 1), the global population of the elderly citizens aged 65+ surpassed the population of children below five years globally in 2018. The UN has reported that there were 703 million persons aged 65 or over in 2019 and estimates that in the next 30 years, the number of older persons worldwide will double, reaching more than 1.5 billion and with 1.1 billion of them living in less developed countries.

According to the ‘World Population Prospects: the 2019 Revision’, by 2050, one in six people in the world will be over 65 (16%). The ratio was one in 11 in 2019 (9%).

We live in the 21st century. We all agree that all individuals have an inherent right to a dignified life, and all human rights should be respected for all individuals. Principles of human rights never expire. In the highly consumption-based lifestyle currently, there is an increasing trend of treating elderly people as a social group which is unproductive, frail, and incapable. There is a larger possibility of forgetting the need for respecting and guaranteeing elderly peoples’ rights simply because of oversight.

According to the World Population Aging Report 2019, Nepal currently has 1.654 million people (5.8 per cent of the total population) above the age of 65 years, which is estimated to grow to 4.538 million (12.8%) by 2050. The dependency ratio in 2019 stands at 10.8 per cent, expected to grow to 19.8 in 2050. Likewise, economic dependency will grow from 12.8 % in 2019 to 23.8 % in 2050.

Photo: PickPik

These data clearly show Nepal will see a steady increase in the elderly population. Likewise, their economic dependency and overall dependency ratio of the population will see constant growth.

In this context, it will be worthwhile to delve into Nepal’s socio-cultural aspects surrounding senior citizens.

All theist communities in Nepal respect senior citizens equalling their status to that of gods and goddesses and pay obeisance, kneeling down and receiving blessings from them. Any cultural event, religious activity or festive celebration of any person is considered incomplete without the participation and blessings of senior citizens. Cultural traditions have thrived under the direct guidance of senior citizens as leaders of the communities. For example, Newars perform Janko, a celebration of old age, five times between the ages of 77 and 106 years. In other communities, the eldest member is considered the head of the clan and respected accordingly. 

Like other senior citizens across the world, elderly people in Nepal strive for emotional wellbeing and tend to affirm to cultural worldviews to which they are accustomed to. This might be the reason they want to be with their families, being cared for, loved and their points of views respected.

However, with Nepal’s economic and socio-cultural fabrics quickly changing due to the adoption of modern value systems including liberalism, consumerism, individualism, rural-urban and international migration and other trends, the age-old traditions of respecting the elderly citizens and valuing their contribution to families and communities are being blurred.

Photo: Pikist

In more individualised societies, there is a deep divide in the ways the economically active young population tries to make sense of their emotional wellbeing as opposed to the economically dependent elderly population, providing a fertile ground for conflict.

Moreover, the changing economic scenario in Nepal has also had an impact on the elderly citizens. More and more youth are migrating within and out of the country in search of economically viable employment opportunities, leaving elderly and children in their homes to fend for themselves. This has resulted in drastic changes in the cultural values of the migrant labour population.

The beliefs that senior citizens have nothing more to offer to their country, community and family, that they are a burden to the family, that they only consume the scarce resources including precious time, and that the elderly persons are only fuelling traditional beliefs seem to be rooting deep in the younger population. This stereotyping of elderly citizens also negates their contributions to their families and communities.

Such myths find further growth as our family structures tend to grow more nuclear from extended and joint families. The reproduction of post-modern societal values has somehow left behind the needy elderly people at homes. The stereotyping of the elderly population has helped reinforce exclusion, discrimination and marginalisation of this group of people.

All this is making the elderly population more vulnerable to poverty, homelessness, malnutrition, unattended chronic diseases, lack of proper water, sanitation and hygiene. They are also being victims of emotional and sexual violence. They are also excluded from their communities. Elderly citizens are being more and more disproportionately impacted by disasters. Studies have shown that the 2015 earthquake in Nepal disproportionately affected senior citizens. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has also impacted elderly citizens in Nepal. Their support system has been disrupted. A large number of elderly citizens have been thrown into poverty.

Of late, Nepal has also adopted the rights-based approach to guarantee basic human rights of elderly citizens with the enactment of Senior Citizens’ Act, 2006, and the establishment of Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens with a mandate to look into policies and other issues related to elderly citizens. The state has guaranteed social security and provided for some protection procedures for elderly citizens, but they are far from adequate.

Mere legal provisions and protections do not help the elderly population from getting emotional and spiritual support. We might have to learn from our cultures and traditions and understand and respect the contributions by the elderly population to society and internalise the value of respecting and taking care of the elderly people.

While we observe the International Senior Citizen Day, let’s understand the value of spiritual and emotional wellbeing of our elderly citizens and start adopting extended family values which may restore happiness in homes and create an environment where we celebrate ageing gracefully and respectfully. We should not only see elderly people as free babysitters for their grandchildren, free workforce for different works and free mentors of their communities and start respecting the economic value contribution they do through these tasks. In addition to worshipping invisible gods and goddesses in temples, churches, mosques and other religious sites, we should start worshipping visible gods and goddesses at our homes–the elderly population—who have contributed to our wellbeing, by offering our love, compassion and care.

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Rakhal is a PhD student at the Department of Anthropology, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu.

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