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Hardships and hope for Cambodia’s elderly

A woman smiles as she attends a meeting of the Ek Phnom Older Person Association in Battambang province in November 2014. In Cambodia, only 6 per cent of people over 60 have access to any sort of pension.
A woman smiles as she attends a meeting of the Ek Phnom Older Person Association in Battambang province in November 2014. In Cambodia, only 6 per cent of people over 60 have access to any sort of pension. HELPAGE CAMBODIA

Hardships and hope for Cambodia’s elderly

Today’s launch of the Global AgeWatch Index 2015 is an opportunity for Cambodian communities, policymakers, and NGOs to engage constructively on the challenges older Cambodians face daily. In terms of health, isolation, poverty, and human rights, many of the ever-growing proportion of Cambodians over 60 are doing it tough after a lifetime of upheaval, as the index makes clear.

Yet there is reason to hope that positive action from all sectors can restore dignity and quality of life to older people in coming years.

The Global Agewatch Index (GAWI) has been published annually by our global affiliate, HelpAge International since 2013.

The index ranks 96 countries by available data on their populations over 60, with the intent of identifying the essential issues for the social and economic well-being of older people and to make the data more accessible.

This inevitably involves some comparison between countries in terms of the needs and opportunities of older people, but has shown that a country’s GNI neither guarantees a good quality of life for older people, nor is an obstacle to improving their situation.

GAWI 2015 provides an especially important opportunity to better understand and highlight a range of challenges related to ageing, with both the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and the outcomes of COP21 likely to define global development agendas for years to come.

The index has particular relevance for Asia, with its 26 listed countries accounting for 52 per cent of the world’s ageing population.

Japan is the highest on the index at number 8, with Afghanistan the lowest at 96. Cambodia has slipped one spot to number 80 in 2015, behind Greece and ahead of Ghana.

Twenty-five per cent of Cambodia’s older people live in rural areas, with 8 per cent living below the poverty line – well above the national average.

Many of these older people have little to no savings and the limited availability and quality of health services, coupled with increasing health costs, can force them further into poverty.

Compounding the problem is a lack of focus on age-related health issues, particularly noncommunicable diseases, in the health sector, and a lack of awareness among the elderly poor of their rights and entitlements, such as the ID Poor Card. Only 5 per cent of older Cambodians currently have access to a pension of any kind.

Additionally, an increasing number of older people are guardians of grandchildren due to the economic migration of their parents, or as a result of their parents’ separation or death.

This further increases their living and health costs. Conversely, older people without immediate family members are often isolated within their communities and are not able to participate in village life despite their ongoing, often invisible contributions to society.

Clearly, many of Cambodia’s 1 million older people, having endured decades of conflict and disruption, still face enormous obstacles to living dignified, healthy lives. With our elderly population set to triple by 2050, it is essential to tackle these obstacles today.

The statistics quoted above demonstrate that we still have far to go in achieving an acceptable quality of life for all of our older citizens.

HelpAge Cambodia has been working towards this goal since our foundation in 1992 as a country office of HelpAge International, and since 2014 as an independent local NGO.

We see great challenges ahead as Cambodia faces up to its ageing issues, but also cause to be optimistic.

In our work with villages in the northwest, we have found that overcoming perceptions of older people as a burden and harnessing their potential is a challenge communities must face together.

As such, we deliver our projects via village-level Older Person Associations. OPAs are led by older people but inclusive of the entire community, and can act as supportive platforms for internal initiatives and advocacy, as consultative conduits for HAC development projects, or simply as a communal space for older people.

Perhaps most importantly, OPAs can demonstrate the value of older people to their younger relatives and neighbours.

After many years of fostering engagement between communities and local governments, HAC more recently engaged constructively with the national government on ageing issues.

HAC are currently providing technical advice to the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation’s review of the National Policy on Ageing.

We are encouraged by the Ministry’s engagement with this process and hopeful that our advice will assist the Ministry in tackling the many challenges facing its most vulnerable wards.

As GAWI 2015 makes clear, Cambodia is not alone in facing the immense challenges of an ageing population.

When the world’s leaders convene later this year to define the direction of development over decades to come, let us all ensure that their oldest (and fastest-growing) constituency is accorded the attention and respect it deserves.

Dr Michael S Nhim is the executive director of HelpAge Cambodia.

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