COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Gemage Karunawathi, 72, sits under a kadamba tree close to Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, and tries to attract the attention of those who walk past her. She says she comes to this spot often during office lunch breaks and school hours to beg for money and food because she has no one to look after her.
“My husband died eight years ago,” she says. “My only son had left me a few years ago after he got married and settled down with his own family. [I] don’t know if he is in the country even. I haven’t seen him in years now so I am living on my own.”
She says that she gets free accommodation in Modera, a Colombo suburb, thanks to a generous person who gives her a room to stay in. But she travels to Colombo every day in search of lunch and dinner.
“I hardly have breakfast, but I find a lunch packet before I go back to Modera,” she says, referring to the packets of rice and curries she finds.
Karunawathi is not alone, as many senior citizens here say they have no one to take care of them, no income, no assets and are too old to take care of themselves. Unmarried and widowed senior citizens, particularly women, are especially vulnerable.
Elderly Sri Lankans say that they have no one to care for them as they get older after spouses die and their children move to cities or abroad for employment opportunities or can’t afford to support them. Nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, and charities have established elderly homes and other initiatives, but funding is always a challenge and a formal support system is lacking as the senior citizen population continues to multiply. The government has created various policies, but senior citizens and international bodies say more needs to be done.
Sri Lankan society has a history of respecting and taking care of old people. The ancient social pattern in Sri Lanka was based on the agricultural economy. Until recently, most families included members of three generations who lived under one roof in an extended family system. The majority of senior citizens lived with their children, so looking after elders was not a problem in the past.
But the family system has changed with the shift from an agriculture-based economy to a free-market economy. These days, nuclear families are the norm. The traditional support system for the aging is under strain, according to a 2008 World Bank report.
At the same time, Sri Lanka has one of the fastest aging populations in the world, according to the World Bank report. A 2007 U.N. report attributes this to an unprecedented increase in life expectancy, reduced mortality rates and smaller families.
The percentage of Sri Lankans over 60 has nearly doubled during the past decade, and the Department of Census and Statistics estimates it will nearly double again during the next decade. Sri Lankans over 60 made up 8 percent of the 6.7-million population in 1991, make up 13 percent of the 17.3-million population in 2011 and are estimated to make up 22 percent of the 23.1-million population in 2031.
Many young people have moved to Sri Lanka’s main cities, where space is limited, from its rural areas for better employment opportunities, leaving behind elderly parents in their villages to care for themselves, according to the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, a charity located in Colombo.
Many young people are also leaving the country to find better jobs. Whereas 16,500 Sri Lankans left the country for foreign employment in 1986, the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment estimates that more than 250,000 Sri Lankans did so in 2008.
Working couples in Sri Lanka say that they enjoy the emotional bonds they have with their parents and appreciate their help in managing the household and caring for grandchildren, according to the U.N. report. But advances in information technology and education – many times promoted by the aging parents themselves – media influences and changing lifestyles have eroded the family support system here.
There are also elderly people who don’t have children, spouses or other relatives to look after them. Or if they have children, sometimes the children can’t afford to care for them.
Heem Menike, 75, a widow, lives in Wattegama, a town in Kandy, a district in Sri Lanka’s Central province.
“My husband passed away 21 years ago,” she says. “He was a farmer and cultivated our own paddy fields. He got enough income to look after our family.”
Menike now does housework at a teacher’s house to earn money. She says the teacher also helps care for her in other ways.
“I [get] meals from the teacher’s home,” she says. “She gives me clothes, medicine, etc., and cares [for] me very well. She is a very kind lady.”
But besides the teacher’s help, she says she must now take care of herself as her children have moved on with their own lives.
“I have five daughters,” she says. “They all have got married.”
Menike’s second youngest daughter, her daughter’s husband and their two children live in her home with her. Her daughter works in a garment factory nearby and her husband does odd jobs, but they say they can’t afford to care for Menike.
“The little money my daughter earned is not enough to look after her family as well as me,” she says.
She says she even must help support her daughter.
“I [earn] 250 rupees [$2.30 USD] per day, and I financially [give] support to my daughter also.”
After this year, the increase in the old-age dependency will outpace the young-age dependency, causing the overall dependency level to rise in Sri Lanka, according to the U.N. report. The incidence in widowhood is also much higher among women – 38 percent – than men – 8 percent, according to a 2003 survey by the National Council for Elders, a government-created body here.
One solution has been homes for the elderly.
One such home, Meddepathana, is located in a calm and quiet environment about three kilometers away from the city of Kandy. Kandy Friend-in-Need Society, a local organization, started this home in 2002. It has all the basic facilities for its 15 current residents, including places for religious and leisure activities, such as reading and playing chess.
The residents live here for free, as Kandy Friend-in-Need Society and various donations cover all the expenses for the home.
One resident, Karunadasa Ariyarathna, 67, says he met his wife while working as an office assistant in Colombo and together they had three children – one daughter and two sons. He says now they all are married and that none of them took care of him as he got older.
“I did all my responsibilities for them,” he says. “As I became old age, my wife and my children neglected me. So I came back to my birthplace at Kandy.”
Ariyarathna says he didn’t want to be seen as a burden.
“My relations asked me to live with them, yet I did not like to be a burden to them,” he says. “So I came here four years ago.”
He says with a smile that he is very happy now.
“People here [treat] us very well,” he says. “Last week, I was taken to the hospital and undergone an operation for my eyes. Now I am quite well. They take care of us very well when we fall sick.”
Another resident, Victor William Brendan, is from England. He says he moved here with his father, who worked as an estate superintendent in Sri Lanka during British colonial rule. He says he fought in World War II and, although he now walks with great difficulty, still has a lot of fight.
“Still I have the war sprit in my body,” he says. “Even now, if I happened to get hold of a weapon, I get the feeling to fight.”
He says his only son, Golden Linsay Brandon, neglected to take care of him. He says he wanted to spend his old age with enthusiasm so he came to the elderly home six years ago.
“I like being with my friends here,” he says. “There are a lot of things to keep us occupied here, and we engage in religious activities, such as meditation.”
Thilaka Senavirathne, a retired government worker, is the home’s matron. She looks after the needs of the elderly residents.
“I live according to my religion,” she says. “I look after [these] helpless adults with the intention of doing a social service, and I enjoy by doing this work.”
She says the home and her work are necessary because many elderly people have no one to care for them.
“The elders have been neglected by the people in the society,” she says. “All our responsibility is to look after them very well during the later part of their life.”
There are also NGOs that provide care, such as HelpAge Sri Lanka, which aims to improve the quality of life for senior citizens. It provides health and eye care, trains volunteers for home care, educates the youth on how to respect senior citizens, offers livelihood assistance, and constructs homes, latrines and wells for those affected by natural disasters.
The All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, a charity, maintains nine homes for senior citizens in Sri Lanka – eight which provide free shelter, food, clothing and medical care to the neediest elders. But the homes run on public donations, which don’t always suffice, according to the charity’s website.
The World Bank report warns that support systems for the elderly will become even more important as the over-60 population expands, but that formal old-age support systems currently have limited coverage, inadequate benefits and are financially unsustainable – leaving senior citizens to rely on family support or low benefits from social assistance programs.
The government established the Protection of the Rights of Elders Act in 2000. The act created the National Council for Elders, a maintenance board for the determination of claims from elders in need of care, a national fund for elders and protection for elders’ rights.
The council arranged workshops and a sample survey on elders to help finalize the national policy. It registered recognized NGOs that focus on senior citizens and established a network of 8,000 village-level elders committees throughout the country. It also promoted the wider use of Elders’ Identity Cards.
The Cabinet of Ministers adopted the National Charter and National Policy for Senior Citizens in 2006. The policy aims to support senior citizens when it comes to financial security, shelter, health care and other basic needs; protect them against abuse and exploitation; invite their participation; and provide opportunities for development and services to improve their quality of life.
There are also various social security schemes and government grants to offer financial support.
Still, senior citizens say more needs to be done to meet their basic needs once they can no longer take care of themselves – especially as they continue to make up an increasing percentage of the population.
The World Bank report suggests policies to support informal care arrangements for the most vulnerable of the aged, strengthen formal income support for the elderly, reorient the health system to respond to an aging population, and counter labor force declines by improving employment, productivity and choice.
“Sri Lanka will need to take appropriate policy measures in advance so as not to slow down economic growth, minimize impact on public health and pension spending and reduce the burden on families,” Naoko Ishii, World Bank country director for Sri Lanka, said at the time of the report release. “Investing in healthy and productive aging is essential – and [e]specially, given the speed of population aging, inaction is not a viable alternative.”