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