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Forgotten resource: the immense capacities of the elderly

Elderly people who have served their families, community and society deserve no less than our love and compassion

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Published: June 15, 2021 06:28 AM GMT

Updated: June 15, 2021 07:15 AM GMT

Forgotten resource: the immense capacities of the elderly

Vulnerable to the coronavirus, most elderly people do not receive the social benefits they deserve after having served their communities. (Photo: Unsplash)

According to the Coalition of Services of the Elderly (COSE), there is a growing population of the elderly in the Philippines. Its growth could be as fast or even faster than the nation's growing population.

The World Population Prospects 2019 projects that by 2050, older people will make up 16.5 percent of the population. This signifies an increasing need for health services. Morbidity is commonly caused by degenerative and communicable diseases, infections, visual impairment, walking difficulties, hearing problems, osteoporosis and arthritis. 

The government and civil society organizations should therefore give ample attention to the situation of the elderly.

In recognition of the elderly’s outstanding contribution to nation building even in their twilight years, the Coalition of Services of the Elderly (COSE) in the Philippines annually honors 10 outstanding elderly people through the Sampung Ulirang Nakatatanda (SUN) Awards.

I nominated one of the awardees, Edita Burgos, a former professor at the University of the Philippines, a journalist, a farmer, a mother of a disappeared person, Jonas Burgos, and a human rights defender.

In her acceptance speech, she said: “There are neither accidents nor coincidences in life — all are part of a bigger plan with the unsung conductor making events happen, directing with His rhythm and His timing, whatever the case. It may be the abduction of a son, like my Jonas, or a rescue from near death.” 

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the elderly population bears the brunt of its catastrophic consequences

Burgos was selected for her indefatigable search for truth and justice for her son, Jonas, and for many other disappeared around the world and for contributing, to a large measure, to the process of turning the parochial issue of enforced disappearance into a national and global struggle.

Another recipient of the award was Estelita Topacio, who received the award in the late ‘90s. She is now 90. One of her sons, Renato, disappeared in 1988. Her husband, Jaime Topacio Sr., also disappeared a few years later. Two of her other sons were killed.

Prior to the pandemic, she could still manage to walk around. I remember her entrusting to me important documents about the case of the disappearance of her son as a requirement to claim indemnification. No indemnity can ever repay her for all her sufferings. Despite all her pains, Estelita maintains a positive disposition.

Brother Fonso Walsh was among the earlier recipients of the award. Having spent more than 25 years with leprosy patients, he said the award should go to the people with leprosy “who taught him more than he could teach them.”

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They are a few of the more than 300 outstanding elderly persons awarded by COSE during these last three decades. Equally deserving are many others who are making a difference in their lives, in the lives of their co-elderly, of their community and the greater society. COSE has successfully advocated the issue of this vulnerable sector of society, who it describes as those who “experience poverty, exclusion, negligence and invisibility.”

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the elderly population bears the brunt of its catastrophic consequences. Vulnerable to the virus, the majority of them do not receive the social benefits they deserve after having served their communities in varying capacities. You see them queuing in the scorching heat of the sun to wait for food assistance. Some collapsed and died in the process.

Asked about the elderly’s situation during the pandemic, Burgos reflected: “One of the hardest-hit sectors of society during this pandemic is the elderly. Doubly hit are the poor who have no one to take care of them. COSE, whose mandate is to serve the elderly, is challenged to provide the care that cannot be supplied by families. In the Philippine context, COSE is most relevant where the government has miserably failed in providing them protection.

"We are a work in progress no matter our age. God in his wisdom puts across our paths opportunities to love him through our neighbors.  At 16 or 60; 18 or 80, 19 or 90, expressions of love can become better and deeper, each time we give of ourselves …”

In the course of its advocacy, COSE has organized and trained thousands of elderly. It has encountered the poorest of the poor, whose indicators include, among others, the following: no place to live/living on the streets; nothing to eat; eating from garbage cans; neglected and abandoned/alone in life; beggars; sick but cannot afford medicine; no hope or dreams; abused/rejected; no income from anywhere.

The stories of some of these people are chronicled in a book that the Institute of Spirituality in Asia produced. The Best is Yet to Be borrowed its title from Robert Browning’s poem Come Grow With Me, the Best is Yet to BE. This is a fitting tribute to millions of elderly people in the country, who, from the wisdom of years, have persevered to share their time, talent and treasure with humanity.

Now is the turn of the younger generation to give back to their parents and grandparents the love they unconditionally give even in their twilight years

COSE’s advocacy has empowered the elderly. It has produced community organizers, community pocket gardeners, advocates of senior citizens’ rights, lobbyists’ and spokespersons’ causes, survivors of disasters and facilitators. In so doing, it has given the elderly a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. The community activities that COSE organized provide the elderly people with the joy of togetherness, the satisfaction of being useful, and the hope that despite their age they can still produce the best versions of themselves.

The issue of the elderly likewise deserves an international response. The draft UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons, if adopted and implemented, will go a long way towards a global response to the multi-faceted needs of older persons, whose human rights states should give utmost attention to. 

Elderly people, who have spent and continue to spend years of their lives for their families, their community and the greater society, deserve no less than our love and compassion. Now is the turn of the younger generation to give back to their parents and grandparents the love they unconditionally give even in their twilight years.

I have a 92-year-old mother in Sogod, southern Leyte. My last visit to her prior to the pandemic was in March 2020, just before the lockdown. She is being taken care of by two women in their 50s. In this pandemic, we manage to make frequent video calls to assure her that she is not forgotten. I look forward to the end of the pandemic so that I will personally see my mother again.

As Psalm 71:9 states: “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent.”

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is president of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED).

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