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Life of the elderly 

  • Once we are past our prime, do we not matter anymore? 

A heartbreaking tale of neglect and misfortune was recently brought to the attention of the media by the residents of a neighbourhood in Pannipitiya, regarding the living conditions of a retired educator. A respected academic, the elderly gentleman is a former mathematics lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) who has enriched thousands of minds teaching numerous students during his tenure at the university. However, he is at present reportedly living in deplorable conditions in an unsafe surrounding, suffering from neglect and unable to fully fend for himself.

According to the neighbouring residents, it appears that he is currently residing in his home; a dilapidated structure in urgent need of repair, with a precarious roof that could collapse any moment, which renders his entire home damp and wet when it rains. His living conditions are unsanitary in the extreme, without a bed to sleep on or the assistance to properly access a bathroom. The residents are concerned that his surroundings have the potential of becoming a dengue breeding ground. They have also expressed their concern about whether he has even received the Covid-19 vaccine. 

It has been shared that the authorities have been informed, although due to certain external factors and complications nothing has been done as of yet. 

This former lecturer’s current situation sheds light on the unfortunate circumstances that the elderly must endure when they do not have immediate family or a dedicated caregiver. This particular situation of elder neglect alone is incredibly distressing, as it demonstrates how we have become a society that simply takes and finally discards people once they are past their prime. This gentleman was once a valuable part of society, enriching young minds; a respected individual, no doubt receiving much praise and affection. However, now that he is elderly and is no longer able to contribute to society at full capacity he is cast aside. How could we as a society tolerate this kind of behaviour? 

Academic staff and their retirement 

State-run higher education institutions like the OUSL fall under the purview of the University Grants Commission (UGC), which is the apex body of the university system in Sri Lanka. While the UGC is responsible for the planning and coordination of university education, maintenance of academic standards, etc., it is also the body responsible for the allocation of funds to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and also the regulation of the administration of HEIs. 

Therefore, in the case of staff of higher educational institutions, the UGC is responsible for their salaries, and then upon retirement, their gratuity, the University Provident Fund (UPF), and pensions. The same is followed in the other state universities. 

Speaking to us, Devika Doolaege of the OUSL Registrar’s Office shared that when it comes to academic and non-academic staff, the OUSL remains extremely supportive during their period of employment. “The staff here have a great welfare system in place. Of course, there are pay cuts and such when it comes to attendance etc., which is expected and normal, but otherwise, we are very well taken care of at OUSL,” she said. Nevertheless, she added: “When it comes to people who have left the staff and administration, I doubt there is much follow-up in any state institution, apart from such persons receiving their pensions. To my knowledge, unless they are supported in a personal capacity, perhaps by their fellow academic staff members or their students who have taken a special interest, it is unlikely that the state offers such support.”

Similarly, the University of Colombo Registrar’s Office provided that it is not common practice to have a follow-up, especially considering the vast numbers of staff and given that they are all provided with the financial benefits to comfortably live their lives following the conclusion of their academic service.

When speaking to some staff in these state institutions in a personal capacity, many of them shared that academic staff often return as visiting lecturers even following their retirement. Moreover, considering that many of them are highly educated, they tend to have the means of supporting themselves, and on occasions where they do not have any family, they are able to afford a full time caregiver who looks after them. 

While the staff are merely sharing their personal experience, it cannot be said that this is the same for everyone. Not all can ensure a perfect transition into retired life. As we can see in the unfortunate situation with the retired mathematics lecturer, we are not all equally fortunate. 

General care for the elderly 

The promotion of the rights of the elderly is carried out by the National Secretariat for Elders (NSE), established under the Protection of the Rights of Elders Act No. 9 of 2000. The Secretariat is currently functioning under the Ministry of Social Empowerment and Welfare. 

NSE Director Kapila Lanerolle shared that at present, Sri Lanka had no policy in place where the elderly must be subject to mandatory monitoring if they are living by themselves or without aid or a caregiver. He said that the elderly who live in isolation are often looked after by the community or the Grama Niladhari in collaboration with the officers from the NSE. 

The Director shared that in Sri Lanka, those above the age of 60 are considered as the elderly. While communities do tend to care for their elderly neighbours, there is no caregiver programme that is dedicated to looking after Sri Lanka’s ageing population. He said that it is usually charitable organisations such as HelpAge Sri Lanka that take on this role to look after those who are unable to care for themselves. He also added that there are three elders’ homes under the purview of the NSE, and another three under provincial councils.

The Director also stated that the NSE had previously started a programme of their own initiative where they conducted interviews and selected 30 individuals who then underwent a training programme to become caregivers specifically to attend to the elderly in homes without access to the necessary care. 

According to the Director, the programme was underway for a while before it was brought to a halt by the pandemic. However, he hopes to kickstart the programme soon since conditions appear to be stabilising. He noted that the lack of a mandatory policy that requires the registration and consistent monitoring of the ageing population in our country results in the suffering of significant numbers of the elderly who go unnoticed. 

“As unfortunate as it may sound, there are many elderly who simply fly under the radar. They were all once contributing members of society, and many would have had families and spouses on whom they relied on. Once those support systems eventually fade away, many of them are simply left to fend for themselves because there is no mandatory system in place,” said Lanerolle. 

Some steps to take

As NSE Director Kapila Lanerolle said, for the most part we do not plan for our sunset years. If we are surrounded by family and have a great support system in the present moment, it never really occurs to us that one day we may be alone. Isolation can be devastating, and it can happen at any moment. Therefore, it is important that you think ahead when it comes to you and your loved ones, in anticipation of a time when you or they can no longer care for each other. 

Humans are social creatures and isolation is a terrifying reality that may befall you if you do not take measures when you have the means to do so. 

Finally, if you are aware of any individuals living in isolation without receiving the necessary care, take the initiative to inform your area’s Grama Niladhari and follow up on those inquiries. 

You can also reach out to the relevant Elders Rights Promotion Officer in your area through the contact information provided here: http://srilankaeldercare.gov.lk/web/erpa.html

For more information reach out to the National Secretariat for Elders: 

Email: nsemss@gmail.com

Phone: +94 11 2054164

National Secretariat for Elders

2ndFloor, Block D, Sethsiripaya Stage(II), Battaramulla, Sri Lanka