Filipinos and other Asians like to scoff at the western countries’ nursing homes for the aged, describing them as examples of “western materialism,” institutions where the young “dump” their parents and elderly relatives when they become too burdensome to care for.
In contrast, we like to claim, we Asians are guided by filial piety, keeping our elderly relatives in our homes and caring for them almost as if we had taken marriage vows: “in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”
But for all this talk of filial piety, there are now two pending bills in Congress that reflect the growing problems we have with the elderly. House Bill 1514, filed by Representative Augusto Syjuco, allows the elderly to ask the courts “to compel their descendants, whether legitimate or illegitimate, to give them financial and other support.”
Then there’s Senate Bill 1809 filed by Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, which proposes the establishment of a government assistance program for elderly victims of abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual, as well as neglect or abandonment by caregivers, financial exploitation and healthcare fraud and abuse.
The long list of possible forms of abuse in Senator Santiago’s bill is not hypothetical. Few of us may know of a lolo or lola being beaten up by their children, but we all know of other forms of abuse. One that I hear often in urban poor communities is that of the retired persons’ SSS or GSIS card being “sequestered” by their children, who then withdraw the monthly pension to use mainly for themselves rather than for their parents.
I wonder though if these bills, if passed into law, can be enforced. The Department of Social Welfare and Development, which will take the brunt of responsibilities for assisting the elderly under the two bills, is just too under-funded to handle this additional task.
Besides that, the bills tend to treat only the symptoms of deeper problems which, in turn, come about from social change. We should instead be doing a more careful analysis of where the problems of the elderly are coming from and looking at what can be done in response to each of these root causes.
What we need to look at are the changes in the age structure of the population. In the 1950s, for example, the average life expectancy for the Filipino was something like 56. People married young, usually in their adolescence, and had many children, partly because their period for reproduction was so much longer, and partly because, in the era before Social Security, children were the only form of old-age insurance.
But “old” then was relative, with some people becoming grandparents even before they were 40, and dying in their fifties. The period of caring for the elderly was relatively short; in fact, in many families, there were no senior citizens as we know of them today, meaning folk over the age of 60.
Sixty would have been a ripe old age in the past. Today, we express shock when we hear of someone dying in his or her sixties: “Ang bata [how young]!” People are living much longer.
Let’s look now at a person aged 35. In urban areas and in the middle and upper classes, that person would have married in his or her twenties, maybe even aged 30. The children are still very young. But even as they raise their young children, there will be parents to care for, perhaps aged 60, with about 20, even 30 years ahead of them. In some cases, there might even be a tripled dependency burden, meaning caring for elderly grandparents as well.
Complicating matters are the expenses involved in caring for these dependents, which are much higher now than in the past, relative to what people earn. Just putting children through good schools strains the family budget. With the elderly, the cost of medication for chronic ailments like hypertension and diabetes can run into several thousand each month. When dementia comes in with diseases like Alzheimer’s, the costs run even higher with the need for caregivers.
Richer families can hire special nurses or trained caregivers, but those from the middle class and the poor often ask a female relative to give up her career and stay home to care for the elderly. Or household help with very little formal education and training are brought in to watch over the elderly.
It is easy to see why there are tensions in the family trying to meet the needs of the elderly. Ironically, with large families – large because the idea was to have more children to help out in old age – the resources may have long been depleted so there may be greater difficulty trying to support the elderly.
In many families, economic hardship means having to work overseas, so money does get sent in, with first priority for the young, and then some money left over for the elderly. But the trade-off is that even as some Filipinos spend the prime of their life caring for other nations’ children and their elderly, they are unable to personally take care of their own families here in the Philippines.
The numbers of elderly will continue to rise in the next century, but trying to legislate filial piety is unrealistic. We need to shift our mind-sets now and recognize that it is society as a whole that has debts to the elderly for their contributions to society. A society that truly appreciates and respects the elderly must also give priority to strengthening our social safety nets (e.g. SSS, GSIS and PhilHealth), to enable them to provide more senior citizen benefits, and assure “age-friendly” spaces and facilities where the elderly can feel safe and be able to socialize with the other elderly and their families.