The Aging of Asia
With 60 percent of the world’s population, Asia has one of the largest concentrations globally of aging persons, creating a host of potential challenges, experts warn.
“Asian countries, besides Japan perhaps, need to plan now. These countries have grown older before they have grown rich,” said Somnath Chatterji with the World Health Organization office in New Delhi.
One in four people in Asia will be 60 or older by the year 2050, rising from one in 10 in 2010, according to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Moe than 65 percent of Asia’s elderly population will be women.
“China and India clearly will be the countries with the largest population of older adults in absolute terms. However, China is ageing more rapidly than India because of its one child policy,” Chatterji added.
The over-60 population will rise from 165 million to 439 million in China and from 93 million to 323 million in India from 2010 to 2050, according to government projections reported to the UN.
India’s overall population is expected to exceed China’s in the same period.
Philip Guest, the Bangkok-based assistant director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) for South and Southeast Asia, told IRIN aging will “severely” affect developing countries throughout the region.
One of the sharpest increases in the region will be in Bangladesh, where the elderly will almost quadruple from 6.6 percent of the population in 2010 to 22.5 percent in 2050, according to UNFPA.
IRIN asked experts about the biggest challenges facing this population.
In many developed countries pensions and social security schemes are tied to employment, which cannot be easily replicated in Asia where most people work in the informal sector.
“Informal sector means workers are not in the social security programme. Half of Thai people will not have income when they retire,” said Amornrat Apinunmahakul, an economics professor at Thailand’s National Institute of Development Administration, a government-run graduate university, who proposed a universal pension scheme, noting funding problems.
“Now the [Thai] government has a universal program for the older population; they give 500 baht [US$16] per month. But the minimum wage in Thailand is 1,500-1,600 baht [$48-$52], so this is not enough.”
“The general feeling within the [South Asia] region is that such schemes are not affordable,” said Dave Mather, who heads the New Delhi-based South Asia centre of NGO HelpAge.
Chronic illness has eclipsed communicable disease due to people living longer, wrote Sarah Harper, a professor at the UK-based Oxford Institute of Ageing, in a 2010 report on adapting health care for an ageing population.
“[Greater] life expectancy without the bonus of increased health may be increasing to such an extent that we are on the verge of an epidemic of frailty.”
Beyond physical frailty, the number of dementia patients in the Asia-Pacific region will rise from 14 million in 2005 to 24 million in 2020 and become as high as 65 million by 2050, estimated Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), an London-headquartered NGO.
Depression is also fairly common among older adults, said Chatterji with WHO.
Experts cite loneliness, disorientation, a sense of abandonment and lack of self-worth as causes of depression and poor mental health, as people become less active.
A key to ensuring the elderly receive the care they need is to ensure they have a solid support network - one that is slowly shrinking.
"Social isolation of this population - as the family size shrinks and migration [leading] to older adults living by themselves - will be a major concern,” predicted Chatterji.
(IRIN provides humanitarian news and analysis as a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.)