Neglected challenges of aging pose greater risks

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Our life is bound to change as we grow older, become physically weaker and our health deteriorate. In developed countries, people tend to look forward to their “golden years” and prepare for it in advance, but that’s not the case in Mongolia. With International Day of Older Persons upon us, it is the perfect opportunity to highlight the opportunities and challenges of aging in today’s society.
The aging population is increasingly being recognized as a major concern for Mongolians as the population is aging faster and living much longer. In particular, one in five families has an older person, or a woman above the age of 55 or a man above the age of 60. While the older people presently constitute 13 percent of Mongolia’s population, it may surge to 20 percent, or around 950,000 people, by 2045, according to the National Statistics Office. Experts explained that this trend is due to declining levels of fertility and improvements in life expectancy and survival rates to older ages. 

70% of retirees are interested in working

With higher life expectancy, more and more older people are expressing interest in being employed, remain economically active and continuing to make their own contribution to society. Yet, the society is often reluctant to provide employment opportunities to the elderly and tend to neglect the social and economic struggles they face on a daily basis – forgetting that they too will become a retiree someday.

Most elderly people in Mongolia stay at home. Even though some babysit their grandchildren and others attend regular gatherings for the elderly, older people have a limited number of ways they can spend their time, which pushes them to solitude and loneliness. For some, getting their monthly prescription can be the biggest event of the month or a reason to go out. Experts stated that older people who stay at home are more likely to become sick.

The main sources of income for elderly people are their own employment earnings, family support and pensions paid out from the social insurance and welfare funds. Mongolia is home to more than 420,000 pensioners who receive an average pension of 409,000 MNT a month, following a moderate raise to pension proportionate to the increase in the minimum wage rate in January 2020. With commodity prices constantly on the rise, this is hardly sufficient to make ends meet, especially if the retiree doesn’t have another source of income or children to financially support them. Consequently, the elderly seek jobs or loans to run a business with family members or relatives, according to labor agencies.

A 2019 study by the Mongolian Seniors’ Association indicated that 67.9 percent, or over 190,000, of elderly people are interested in working. The study highlighted that the high interest to remain employed is linked to their economic and financial situation.

“There are many elderly people who live on a pension. The government raises pension by 20,000 to 25,000 MNT each year but this is relatively low compared to the rise in commodity prices. Their pension is not enough to support their livelihood,” noted President of the association Ts.Sukhbaatar. “Most of the pensioners want to work and increase their income. But they aren’t able to get loans from the Employment Support Fund or Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Support Fund. It’s also unfortunate that many aren’t able to start their own business because they can’t get any other type of loan other than pension loan from the bank.”

According to the study, 56,900 seniors were officially employed. The most accessible employment opportunities for retired people are found to be jobs in rural areas, such as agriculture, farming, cattle breeding, small trading, manufacturing services and mining. While these jobs keep them active and promote a positive mindset, the biggest disadvantages of these jobs are low wage and the need to relocate and living away from their family, which can induce loneliness and depression.

As a potential solution, countless experts and lawmakers have raised the issue of extending pension age as the average life expectancy in Mongolia is estimated to become 73.5 by 2045. However, the issue remains controversial as the public have mixed feeling about the extension to pension age.

Better health services needed urgently

We are now faced with the need to take better care of the elderly, address their increased needs, and plan ahead for retirement more than ever, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic putting older people at greater risk of poverty, discrimination and isolation.

Even before the pandemic, the elderly were at risk of serious diseases and health disorders, including malnutrition, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Reportedly, a third of those aged over 55 in Mongolia suffer from malnutrition, cardiovascular diseases and cancers.

Relatively high number of seniors are hospitalized for cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, and neurological diseases. In 2017, 9,000 elderly people died, 78.3 percent of whom died of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Though the Mongolian government has done an excellent job at preventing local transmission of COVID-19, the pandemic has placed an extra layer of fear among seniors as international health experts warn that older people are vulnerable to the virus, especially if they have preexisting medical conditions.

There is imperative need to focus on improving the quality of life of the elderly, paying attention to their food and nutrition intake, providing regular preventive health exams, and deliver necessary recreational, nursing and health care services through policy. Experts are also advising to provide technical and financial support to establish psychological counseling and rehabilitation centers, as well as self-support groups that could help people better prepare and support each other in dealing with the problems of old age.

Conclusion

We need to change the negative public sentiment regarding retirement and old age so that more people realize that retirement is not the end of life but a new chapter in life during which people can explore the opportunities they missed and do things that they didn’t have time to do.

The government is carrying out a number of national programs and policies to address key elderly-related welfare issues and encourage a multi-sectoral response to aging. This includes, the National Strategy on Ageing 2009-2030, Law on Social Welfare of the Elderly and regulations on the provision of services, assistance and support to the elderly. As a result, Mongolia has made significant strides in advancing the social pensions system and welfare schemes. However, economy challenges coupled with unprecedented increases in the older population have added pressure on the pension system

In the future, aging issues are certain to pose a multitude of complex social and economic challenges for families, organizations and the government. Estimations show that pension expenditures would become far greater than now to the extent that it can’t be supported by the income from social insurance contributions if the old system remained in effect. The annual pension fund deficit is also likely to continue to grow if the national program isn’t updated.

Potential solutions experts advise include:

•    Improve access to social and health services of elderly people, strengthen the quality of health services and set up necessary standards for relevant services.

•    Conduct research on the social and health impacts of aging in Mongolia and make necessary amendments to laws and regulations on social security and protection.

•    Improve the government capacity to include the aging issues into development policies and programs and integrate it with existing efforts by the government, civil society and private sector.

•    Reduce age discrimination, especially in employment.

•    Reduce health care cost and provide discounted, specialized and long-term health care to older people.

•    Increase awareness of aging and development, coordinate sectoral programs and integrate response to health care.

As most of us will grow older and retire, we need to start preparing for old age now. We can take advantage of the present by initiating new employment opportunities for the elderly, improve pension schemes and health care services, minimize and ultimately eliminate discrimination against the elderly, keep them socially and economically active, and allow them to enjoy their “golden years” with more discounts and incentives. Older people can bring significant positive influence to the society if they are given the opportunity.

Dulguun Bayarsaikhan

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