Older Persons’ Day: Why older people need to be included in the Millennium Development Goals

Chris Roles
elderly people 300x197 Older Persons Day: Why older people need to be included in the Millennium Development Goals

(Getty Images)

In recent weeks, Governments from around the world have been converging at the United Nations to debate the future of the Millennium Development Goals. The Goals have had mixed success – targets on access to fresh water and reducing the numbers of those living in extreme poverty have already been met, whilst others have many years to go before being achieved. But they have given focus and direction to the efforts of governments, UN agencies and civil society organisations and made a real difference in the lives of millions. Thoughts have now turned to what new targets should be set when the MDGs are due to expire post 2015.

The debate is more than just as esoteric discussion between UN diplomats and government officials. It will help determine where and how governments and the United Nations will spend their money. However deciding what the most pressing issues are requires an accurate overview of what is happening in real people’s lives and therein lies the problem.

In the reams of reports and information gathered on how to improve the lives of people globally, there is a growing group of people that are notable by their absence from official government data pools. A group that has received little attention from those debates around the MDGs yet whose numbers are growing at an unprecedented rate.

It is a group that we should all aspire to be in – namely older people. Thanks to major social and medical advances over recent years, there is a global explosion in the number of older people, with the largest percentage change to be found in the developing world, but it is a demographic group that is yet to be the focus of any serious consideration by the development community.

There are currently more people across the world aged over 60 than there are children aged under five yet older people are not included in the Millennium Development Goals. Nor is there any discussion on what impact older people are having on eradicating poverty. There is simply not enough robust data and evidence being used to understand what is happening to older people and their families.

Getting this data is possible though. If you look for example at the Global AgeWatch Index just released by Age International’s sister organisation HelpAge International, you can get a clear picture of what governments need to do to plan ahead. What the index also shows is that there is a huge gap in our knowledge and comparable data on older people is currently only possible for half the world’s countries. And it is not just developing countries that fail to record what is happening to older people – in the UK, for example, the requirements to record or investigate how those over 80 die are much less stringent than for younger age groups.

Older people in many developing countries have a key part to play in beating poverty. Firstly, many older people remain an active contributing part of a country’s economy. In many countries there is little or no social safety net in the form of a state pension and many older people will not have the option of retirement. If ill health prevents them from ending their days in work, families may not always be there to care for them.

Secondly, in many developing countries, older people have also become the main carers for their grandchildren – particularly in countries badly hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In other contexts, working parents are forced in the increasingly global economy to move away from home to find work, leaving their children in their grandparents care.

So an older person’s health and wellbeing is crucial not only for the global economy now but also for the future of the next generation. The big question is: will the next set of development goals take this into account?

An essential starting point is making sure we have the solid evidence on what is happening in the lives of older people and the contributions they are making to the lives of their families and societies. This is why we need a data revolution, a call backed by Prime Minister David Cameron. It will help us make the most of the positive global demographic changes taking place all around us.

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