Bernardo M. Villegas
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Living Long and Happy Lives (Part 2)

          In the book entitled “The New Long Life:  A Framework for Flourishing in a Changing World” by Andrew J. Scott and Lynda Gratton, it is asserted that in both developed and developing countries, people are not just living longer.  Many are also healthier for longer.  This fact does not change even if  elderly people were the majority of those who died because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As Michael Skapinker, who reviewed the book for Financial Times (June 15, 2020),  remarked:  “While the deaths are tragic, they are not going to noticeably thin the ranks of the elderly.  Nor will they change the fundamental dilemma of many developed countries, as well as China:  that they have too few young people to support a dependent older population.  It is not tolerable for those who have spent decades working to retire into poverty.  Nor is it fair for youngsters to pay higher taxes to fund their parents and grandparents’ pensions when they have so little hope of decent pensions themselves.”

         In most of the developed countries, the elderly population constitutes anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the total population.  Even in China, because of the one-child policy followed for 36 years under various authoritarian regimes, this percentage is already at a high 17.3 percent.  The Philippines is one of the few economies in Asia  which have a young and growing  population.  As of 2020, this figure for the Philippines is still less than 5 percent and, according to a projection by economists from the Philippine Institute of Development Studies (PIDS) it will rise to only 7 percent by 2032.  In contrast, Japan has the highest proportion of elderly to total population in the world.  In 2014, 33 percent of the Japanese population was above the age of 60, 25 percent above 65 and 12.5 percent above 75.  It is very predictable that the Japanese will depend heavily on countries like the Philippines to provide them with the necessary human resources to take care of their elderly.  As they live longer and longer lives, the Japanese (and other Northeast Asian and European populations) will depend on the young labor forces of countries like  the Philippines   to live healthy and happy lives.

         Thanks to a generally pro-life culture in the Philippines (despite aggressive campaigns coming from abroad to impose birth control measures), there will always be enough young people to take care of the elderly in most of our families.  It is highly unlikely that we will follow the widespread practice in developed countries of obliging many of their elderly to spend the rest of their lives in homes for the aged or retirement villages (which during the ongoing pandemic had the tragic  disadvantage of higher rates of infection and deaths).  Long-term projections of the Philippine population show that  almost indefinitely into the future our fertility rate will be at or above the replacement rate of 2.1 babies per fertile woman. In 2020, the fertility rate of the Philippines is 2.530 per woman.  In my dealings with thousands of young people over the last fifty years in various universities where I have taught, I have never encountered prospective married couples who voluntarily target to have only one child.  The minimum desired is at least three children.  That gives me the confidence that , although our population may reach a maximum of 150 to 160 in the next few decades, we will not be experiencing the demographic suicide that most developed countries have committed, leading to their ageing crisis.

         There will always be enough young people in a clan to take care of grandparents and great grandparents in their old age, without having to send them to retirement villages.  This will guarantee the long-term happiness of the elderly whose greatest joy is to spend the rest of their lives with their grandchildren and great grandchildren.    This is what Pope Francis said last January  31, 2020 in a conference on pastoral ministry for the elderly in the Vatican.   According to him, grandparents were the indispensable link in educating children and young people in the faith.  The elderly should be not only the objects of the Church’s care, but also be given a role to play in pastoral ministry and evangelising as “privileged witnesses of God’s faithful love.”  What the Pope said is already a reality among the elderly in the Philippines today.  He stressed the contribution of the elderly to voluntary activities and caring for others in need.  From my own personal experience, I see  the vast majority of those who are over 65 doing what the Pope described:  contributing to voluntary activities and caring for others in  need.  In the words of Pope Francis:  “Volunteering is an experience that is good for both the recipient and the person doing it.  Commitment to others can counteract the perception of loneliness, improve cognitive performance and increase mental well-being. Engaging in volunteering promotes what is called “active ageing.”

         “Living old age as the season of gift and the season of dialogue,” said Pope Francis, contradicts the stereotype of the elderly as “sick, disabled, dependent, alone , and afraid.”  Instead, it emphasises “the resources and potential of the elderly.”  Too often the elderly are discarded in the name of maintaining  a “balanced economic system,” at the centre of which there is not the human person, but money.  We are called to counter this poisonous culture of waste.  We are called to build a more welcoming, more human, more inclusive society which does not need to discard those who are weak in body and mind but moves in step with them.  Thanks to our predominantly Christian culture, the elderly in our society can fulfil the role identified for them by Pope Francis who asserted that the elderly, grandparents have a unique and special ability to grasp the most problematic situations, and their prayer is powerful.  They are entrusted with the great task of transmitting “the experience of life, the history of a family, a community, a people. If grandparents do not talk to their grandchildren, there will be no future.”   Let us make sure that there is always this intergenerational dialogue that does so much good to both the elderly and the young. For comments, my email address is