One of the effects of the world's rapidly ageing population is that we are entering the era of the 'age bulge', when the older population increases in size relative to younger people. The 'youth bulge' of today is fast becoming the 'age bulge' of tomorrow. The only way countries can begin to address the social and economic changes this shift requires is to have accurate and adequate data that paints a vivid picture of life in older age and its problems.
Even though the world is ageing fast, many countries are unprepared. It is for this reason that HelpAge International is launching the Global AgeWatch Index on 1st October - the UN's International Day of Older Persons. It is the first global index to rank countries according to the social and economic wellbeing of older people. Part of HelpAge's Global AgeWatch programme, the Index is a response to the UN Secretary General's call for a data revolution to provide more information about the needs of all vulnerable groups so that a comprehensive development framework can be formed that ensures help and support for all those in need.
The Global AgeWatch Index takes us further in our journey to ensure positive ageing for all age groups. Working with experts from international organisations including the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Labour Organization (ILO), we have put together data from the international data sets on the issues identified by policy makers and older people themselves as crucial to give as rich a picture as possible of their lives. For the first time the Index makes it possible to compare how older people fare across the world, to benchmark countries and measure progress.
The Index covers 89% of the global population over 60, and provides a lens through which to view their circumstances. It allows us to begin to answer obvious and important questions that will have a lasting impact on our future. The Index reveals the poor quality of life experienced by many people over 60 - it provides information on the fact that too many people do not have a pension and that too many people are dying early. Capabilities are unsupported and societies are failing to support their citizens in later life.
Although governments are starting to think about the implications of population ageing, all too often older people are still seen as a being a burden to society, a group that is past its 'sell by date' and a drain on financial resources. While it might be easier for more prosperous countries to see the value of investing in support for people to age well, the Index also highlights a number of lower income countries which have catered well to the needs of their older citizens. The Index shows which countries help older people to stay in employment, promote learning, create environments where older people can remain involved in community and family and ensure health systems are better adjusted to the needs of older people - especially important given the rise of non-communicable diseases such as hypertension and heart disease.
The Index will help us in our fight for basic rights for all older people in all countries. HelpAge calls for action on the following as important to allow older people to lead dignified lives:
1. Universal pension - Every older person has the right to a basic pension, even a few dollars a month makes an enormous difference to income and to the status of older people within their communities and their families.
2. Age-appropriate healthcare - As people age their medical needs change. Many countries focus on infectious diseases and mother and child health and fail to provide healthcare for non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, heart disease and cancer which disproportionately affect older people.
3. Right to employment - Every older person has the right to supplement their income, particularly in countries with no pension provision.
4. Lifelong learning - Every older person has the right to education and learning that allows them to acquire new skills and realise their full potential.
Whilst not exhaustive, the Index and the accompanying issues and questions it raises as well as the opportunities it highlights are imperative if we are to prepare for the world as it will be, rather than assume the world will remain in its present state.
The Index paints as good a picture as we can get of the wellbeing of older people around the world. However, the Index also highlights the countries for which there is inadequate data. But it would be wrong to blame the countries themselves: instead we should focus our scrutiny on the international donors and organisations that collect that data - such as the World Bank, the ILO, WHO, UNFPA, etc. - and which should be striving to improve the lives of everyone. We should be questioning occasions whenever these international bodies publish data that is not broken down by age or excludes certain age groups - and even excludes certain countries.
A major weakness in current national and global data sets is that a core tool used to measure key health and population issues (Demographic and Health Surveys) systematically excludes women over the age of 49 and men over the age of 59. This is a major blind spot for understanding the challenges and health issues older people face globally. We therefore call on USAID to expand the survey in its upcoming review of the survey template, so that it will include people above this age.
Where these data sets are incomplete, we are unable to get an adequate picture of ageing and progress is harder and our picture of the lives of older people unclear. Only by providing accurate and adequate information can we help policymakers to reach the right decisions. One of the implicit aspects of Ban-Ki Moon's call for a 'Data Revolution' is that we strive to make these international organisations see beyond their own areas of interest, and improve their transparency by shedding light upon the adequacy of their data provision.
We hope that the Global AgeWatch Index can become a new gold standard for the collection and presentation of data across the board. International organisations need to cooperate and to put the pieces of the data jigsaw together to ensure their combined efforts create as complete a picture of life as is possible. To this end, we call on global institutions to support this process and to end their focus on certain age groups to the detriment of other vulnerable groups and to instead fund projects that improve lives of all age groups and throughout the course of life.