In 2020, Sri Lanka was met with a formidable obstacle: the COVID-19 pandemic, the most severe contagion to plague the country in recent memory. As the nation scrambled to set up measures and enable mechanisms that protected its citizenry against the spread of COVID-19, it became more evident that one segment of the population was at higher risk than had been predicted—the elderly.
This brought up two questions: how can effective, age-responsive strategies help uplift the lives of the elderly, and why is intergenerational dialogue vital to doing so?
What Is Intergenerational Dialogue?
Intergenerational dialogue is essentially “a conversation” across generations that seeks to combine various viewpoints across ages in order to find solutions to issues a community faces. It is a tool for promoting the sharing of experiences between the younger and older generations.
Intergenerational dialogue also involves intersectionality, where genders, races, religions, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds are also considered. This enables people of a society to better target issues, raise awareness, and promote long-term solutions.
Additionally, it also brings together personal experiences across varying age groups to piece together viable trajectories for communal growth.
“Intergenerational dialogue is a two-way process that helps bring different generations and experiences together. In practice, it could be as simple as having a conversation with an elder in your own community or even within your own family,” said The Asia Foundation Senior Programme Officer Kanniya Pieris.
“For youth, it creates opportunities to learn from the past and identify key values and life lessons through which they could enrich their own lives. For elders, it gives them an opportunity to feel socially included and provides them with a sense of belonging.”
In Sri Lanka, the population of ageing individuals in the country has been accelerating at a higher rate than in neighbouring countries since the 1980s. According to the latest available data, between 1981-2012, the proportion of elderly (60 years and above) has increased from 6.6% to 12.4%.
It is predicted that the population of Sri Lanka will increase by around 9%, reaching 22 million by 2041; of this, the elderly are estimated to account for 5.3 million of the nation’s population, which is double what it was in 2010. This makes it more pertinent than ever to actively promote intergenerational dialogue in the country.
“The proportion of older people in Sri Lanka is increasing rapidly because Sri Lanka achieved long life expectancies and low birth rates in the decades after independence. This population ageing is happening at a faster rate than in richer countries,” The Asia Foundation Senior Programme Manager Roshan Shajehan stated.
Meanwhile, there is a prevailing social myth that all ageing members of a population are equally vulnerable in terms of health, poverty, care, etc. This is untrue. While ageing is viewed as a ‘burden’ on the economy or society, it is in fact something to be celebrated.
Our elders hold a wealth of knowledge and experiences that are vital resources for societal growth. While a portion of the ageing community may be more vulnerable than the rest, it is important to note that the overall community has much to contribute that we can learn from and improve through.
“Older people contribute significantly to their families, communities and to the nation, in emotional, social and economic ways,” Roshan explained.
The elderly face obstacles across different social institutions all around the world, including at the workplace, in the way policies are formulated, and even in healthcare, in instances where older people are often not considered as they should be or are underestimated.
According to the UN, intergenerational solidarity is one of the key players in overcoming this pandemic. In a statement in support of the UN Secretary General’s Policy Brief on The
Impact of COVID-19 on Older Persons, it said: “At a time when international and intergenerational solidarity is needed the most, we express our deep concern over the escalation of ageism, including age discrimination and stigmatisation of older persons, which aggravate their vulnerabilities.”
It highlighted how the spread of the pandemic had exacerbated the vulnerabilities faced by the elderly in terms of access to healthcare services, life-saving treatments and access to social services. They were also neglected in terms of mental and physical health, while also suffering negative impacts on their respective jobs.
In addition to such challenges, restrictions brought on by the pandemic further marginalised groups, such as elders, who most often, may not have access to internet-based interactions and provisions. It is important to then consider the toll this could potentially take on the mental wellbeing of such individuals.
Relating to this, The Asia Foundation has developed a toolkit that aims to promote dialogue with groups such as elders in a psychosocially sensitive manner. The guidelines can be found here.
Higher rates of mortality due to COVID-19 were noted, but alongside this, so were instances of mistreatment, with quarantine and lockdown measures being discriminatory without taking into account potential abuse, violence, and neglect that elderly persons may face in such scenarios.
Stereotyping based on age hinders progress for all, regardless of which generation it is aimed at. The harmful consequences wrought by this affect all segments of society in the end. In particular, it prevents us from designing policies that treat and support all individuals of a population equally, which can be detrimental on a societal level.
For example, prioritisation of public services, which has become crucial in this COVID era, puts at risk the elderly individuals who have no access to such services due to their socioeconomic situations.
This is why intergenerational dialogue is so important. It extends beyond the parts of society being affected by these challenges and makes it an issue that the entire community can relate to and address.
By ensuring that the severity of the issues and discrimination faced by the elderly are understood by the younger generations, a combined effort to mitigate these obstacles can be enacted.
Speaking on one such effort executed by the Foundation, Kanniya said: “We approached this topic through the use of arts. As part of the ‘Our Stories’ initiative, the Foundation has partnered with the Theertha International Artists’ Collective to guide young professional and amateur artists to transform life stories collected from elders via different mediums of art.”
“A distinct feature of this project is the psychosocially-sensitive approach taken during the collection of stories where psychosocial support was provided to elders as they reflected on their lives (both individually and collectively) and recounted memories that were, at times, difficult for them to cope with,” she added.
Solidarity across generations is a vital part of our society’s sustainable growth. If we hope to overcome any unexpected obstacle as a stronger, more united Sri Lanka, we must ensure intergenerational solidarity prevails.