The world is aging so fast that most countries are not prepared to support their swelling numbers of elderly adults, according to a global study issued today by the United Nations and an elder rights group.
The report ranks the social and economic well-being of seniors in 91 countries, with Sweden coming out on top and Afghanistan at the bottom. It reflects what advocates for the old have been warning, with increasing urgency, for years: Nations are simply not working quickly enough to cope with a population graying faster than ever before.
By the year 2050, for the first time in history, people older than 60 will outnumber children younger than age 15.
Truong Tien Thao, who runs a small tea shop on the sidewalk near his home in Hanoi, Vietnam, is 65 and acutely aware that he, like millions of others, is plunging into old age without a safety net.
My wife and I have no pension, no health insurance. Im scared of thinking of being sick – I dont know how I can pay for the medical care.
The report shows that the fastest aging countries are developing ones, such as Jordan, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua and Vietnam, where the number of older people will more than triple by 2050.
The Global AgeWatch Index was created by elder advocacy group HelpAge International and the U.N. Population Fund in part to address a lack of international data on the extent and effect of global aging.
The index compiles data from the U.N., World Health Organization, World Bank and other global agencies, and analyzes income, health, education, employment and age-friendly environment in each country.
Unless you measure something, it doesnt really exist in the minds of decision-makers, said John Beard, director of aging and life course for the World Health Organization.
The report fits into an increasingly complex picture of aging and what it means to the world. On the one hand, the fact that people are living longer is a testament to advances in health care and nutrition, and advocates emphasize that older adults should be seen not as a burden but as a resource.
On the other, many countries still lack a basic social protection floor that provides income, health care and housing for seniors.
Afghanistan, for example, offers no pension to those not in the government. That leaves Abdul Wasay struggling to survive. At 75, the former cook and blacksmith spends most of his day trying to sell toothbrushes and toothpaste on a busy street corner in Kabuls main market. The job nets him just $6 a day – barely enough to support his wife.
Although government hospitals are free, Wasay complains that they provide little treatment and hardly any medicine. He wants to stop working in three years but is unsure his children can support him.
You have to keep working no matter how old you are – no one is rich enough to stop, he said. Life is very difficult.
Prosperity in itself does not guarantee protection for the old. The worlds rising economic powers – the nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – rank lower in the index than some poorer countries such as Uruguay and Panama. But the report found that wealthy nations are in general better prepared for aging than poorer ones.
Sweden, where the pension system is now 100 years old, makes the top of the list because of its social support, education and health coverage, followed by Norway, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada. The United States comes in eighth.
The health care system, for me, has worked extraordinarily well, said Marianne Blomberg, an 80-year-old Stockholm resident. I suffer from atrial fibrillation, and from the minute I call emergency until I am discharged, it is absolutely amazing. I cant complain about anything – even the food is good.