Positive about ageing - Be involved, take a stand against ageism

3 October 2016

With the global shifting of population dynamics influenced by various factors including climate change, population ageing is a phenomenon we as nations are all experiencing but may not be preparing well for.

To ensure a societal transition process that will positively impact the outcomes of population ageing, whether personal or national, there has to be recognition that this is another 21st century phenomenon which requires serious multi-sectoral consideration.

There are various ways of preparing ourselves as individuals for ageing family members, and as a nation, preparing an environment that will be conducive to a positive ageing process for all persons regardless of creed, ethnic grouping or geography.

Ageing refers to the process where an increasing proportion of a population is aged 60 years and over. In the Pacific, until the 1980s, most Pacific Island populations were either ageing slowly or not at all and the proportion of over-60s remained below 6 per cent. The median age during this period remained between 16-20.

The ageing acceleration of the last two decades however is expected to peak around 2025. The number of older persons in the Pacific is expected to increase at an average annual rate of 3.7 per cent between 2014 and 2050 and to grow in number from around 512,000 to about 2 million.

The "oldest old" (80 years and over) has been growing at a faster rate than the 60 and over age group. The demographic impact of ageing over the next few decades will be profound in most Pacific Island countries (PICs).

The median age is expected to rise to 27 years by 2030, and about 30 years by 2050; some PICs will reach a median age of 40-42 years by 2050. Consider these age groups in relation to our potential working population, to an increasing group of dependents, to ensuring employment opportunities, etc.

Among the issues related to an ageing population which we will have to consider is the feminisation of ageing - in the Pacific, women comprise the majority of older population and this will continue as long as female life expectancy exceeds that of male.

Projections indicate that the proportion of women among the oldest old will increase to about two-thirds by 2050 and the high proportion of women in this category has serious implications for their welfare, as most women are widowed and lack the support of their spouse.

Generally-speaking, only 15 per cent of men 60 years and over are widowed, in some PICs. It is more than half of the women 60 years and over who are widowed. This can be attributed, among other things, to the fact that women have longer life expectancy than men (65/69 respectively for Fiji) and husbands are usually older than their wives.

Today, Saturday October 1, will be marked globally as the International Day of Older Persons which is one of the core mandates of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as the United Nations agency which deals with population and development issues. The UNFPA couldn't be happier with this year's theme: Take a stand against ageism. While population ageing in an indication of how far we have come in social, economic and technological development in the region, it can also be a socially disruptive force as social inequalities tend to be magnified in old age.

Defying age for an academic high

Fifty-five-year-old Martha Handyside Fatiaki grew up in Vatukoula in a strict household of girls she gleefully described as: "Whatever the function, the Handyside girls were never there" but God and education were the two pillars of her upbringing that continue to influence her today.

Mrs Fatiaki has been in the workforce for 35 years, during which time she's been a wife to Daniel Fatiaki, a mum to four boys and even managed to squeeze in Fiji national representation in squash to a couple of South Pacific Games.

Ms Fatiaki first worked for the Embassy of Japan where she remained for eight years before joining the UNFPA Pacific subregional office where her work ethic, and institutional knowledge and memory is unparalleled as are her compassion and generosity. Her graduation last month from the University of the South Pacific MBA Program was therefore also an office celebration.

"I am a grandmother (two grandsons and three granddaughters) who is about to retire but I make no apologies for pursuing an MBA. I am living proof that learning has no age limits," Mrs Fatiaki told those gathered at the first USP Lautoka graduation.

Mrs Fatiaki acknowledged all those who had supported her; her parents, family, the UNFPA and her colleagues, mentors and Marica, who has been the family domestic help for decades.

"As a wife, working mother, and grandmother who left school 35 years ago, the transition into university studies has not been easy but I was determined to achieve an MBA before I retire," she said. "For me this MBA is not about being sitting in the office, it is about being of service."

Ageing positively

Mrs Fatiaki epitomises the potential and ability of those among us who may be perceived "old" but who will defy all odds to age positively, and gracefully. The enabling environment of age-friendly institutions and employers ensured she could achieve a personal goal of an advanced degree.

The Fiji Times reported in August (this year, 2016) Fiji's ageing population is projected to grow from 69,300 in 2010 to 170,500 in 2050. There was acknowledgment of Fiji's relatively young population and the fact that an enabling environment for a positive ageing process included good health, particularly the prevention of non-communicable diseases which was an added burden for ageing population.

UNFPA executive director Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, in his statement on International Day of Older Persons, emphasised the need to reduce lifelong inequalities and embrace instead the contribution older persons could make to our collective development and progress.

"These efforts start in infancy, with safe deliveries, and continue with good childhood nutrition and excellent schools," Dr Osotimehin said. "Population ageing is a transformative force in every country that will test the existing structure of our economies, households and societies. Let us work together to ensure that all people can age with dignity and enjoy a lifetime of contribution, integration and wellbeing."

Fiji remains the only country in the region with an ageing policy. Such social policies and allowances provided by the State must also however be supported by institutions which allow students to enrol and study regardless of age for example, and other anti-ageism approaches.

The ageing population has brought our nations thus far; supporting them now is only natural if not expected of us who can reach our potential, because of them.