A week ago, many countries worldwide, including Tanzania, marked the International Day for the Elderly, meant to focus on issues related to this important age group in any society.
The celebrations at home were rather low key with poorly attended demonstrations and rallies here and there, an obvious reflection that matters pertaining to elderly people are, unfortunately, given less priority compared to those concerning other marginalized social groups.
First things first. May be it is pertinent to make it clear that the elderly social group, or senior citizens as they are referred to in some parts of the world, is made up of those above 60 years of age.
There are several reasons to rationalize the importance of paying attention to those heading to the twilight phase of their lives on mother Earth.
First they are, in a way, a force to reckon with given that their number is estimated to be about 600 million worldwide. At home they constitute 5 percent of the population and their number is anticipated to treble, come the year 2050. Secondly, it is a fact that most senior citizens will normally have contributed significantly to the development of their community during their prime time. Failure to take care of their wellbeing would amount to shameless betrayal.
Thirdly, some of the senior citizens have talents and experience which can still be tapped for the benefit of the nation through, for example, playing an advisory role.
Indeed they can be an important resource to serve as a development catalyst at local level, apart from playing a traditional role of helping to resolve conflicts in families and in the neighborhood. In the past they used to be much valued for this function.
Probably we now have an idea on why issues about the elderly deserve attention. Another question worth deliberation is what exactly this age group is asking from society. Going by what we have heard so far, the elderly are not demanding too much, nor are they interested in luxurious living. Their basic need is actually health care which is vital at advanced age.
It is well documented and observed that the traditional extended family setup which used to guarantee social security to senior citizens is gradually falling apart. Socio-economic changes which have led to increased youth rural-urban migration and a tendency to value nuclear families at the expense of extended ones, are behind this fast evolving scenario which leaves the elderly vulnerable.
Pensionable elders feel the pension they get is inadequate and ask the government to adjust it so that they can make ends meet. The request need no much elaboration, given the rate at which our local currency is depreciating, thus forcing people to purchase less goods and services.
And what one gets as pension depends on the calculation formula used at the time of his or her retirement. On the whole however, some of the retired employees do receive peanuts, or rather a token pension.
Other needs of the elderly include assistance to secure good shelter, participation in society affairs, and being cushioned against the menacing poverty.
The latter is understandable, for if citizens who are physically strong enough to struggle for survival find the going rough and tough under prevailing economic hardships, then the aged are in a more precarious condition. One notes that their demands do not constitute a tall order as they are simply about the basics of life.
The response to these demands by economic planners and politicians with a say in national affairs is the standard reply that there is willingness to assist but the problem lies in inadequate funds.
But when will money ever be enough, especially in a situation where it is being squandered with impunity through sheer extravagance as well as open corruption?
Of course there are other hurdles which work against senior citizens, including the fact that they are not well organized in fighting for their rights. Their rights are also not well stipulated in the current constitution of the land. The elderly must be alert and ready to push their agenda aggressively when the constitutional debate kicks off in the near future.
Henry Muhanika is a Media Consultant firstname.lastname@example.org