Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”

Said the old man, “I do that too.”

The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”

I do that too,” laughed the little old man.

Said the little boy, “I often cry.”

The old man nodded, “So do I.”

But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems

Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”

And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.

I know what you mean,” said the little old man.”

There’s a poignancy in the above lines that is almost tangible and heartbreaking. The poet Shel Silverstein has beautifully captured the absolute resemblance between infancy and old age. Not surprising, then, that both infants and old people have to be attended to with love, care and compassion.

Fragile, weak and lonely, old people mostly lead insignificant and invisible lives in our society. The ageing process is ofcourse a biological reality that has its own dynamics, largely beyond human control. However, it is also the social constructions about the concept of old age that so define the existence of aged people in any country around the world. In most countries, the age of 60 or 65, roughly equivalent of retirement age is said to be the beginning of old age.

It is a time when their strength and health has physically declined, when their former emotional selves have subdued into calmer, quiet beings and when, not the luxuries of the world, but a kind word and a caring touch is all they need to feel valued and loved. And this is precisely where we fail them as a society.

Strange, then, that we often regard ourselves superior to our western counterparts on account of our closely-knit family values and the importance that we accord to our relationships. But with the changing times, our attitude towards our elders has also changed.

According to an international NGO and an advocacy group, Pakistan is the 5th worst country to grow old into. 6.6% of is population is 60 years and older and only 2.3% of Pakistan’s elderly population can expect regular pay after retirement, the lowest pension coverage in the world. Rest of the old aged people either depend on their children or extended families for their survival or on fate.

This is not to say that all children relinquish their parents in old age. But in today’s times of economic hardship children might now always be able to take care of their parents. Also, with the dispersion of families around the world and strict visa issues, parents are often left alone in their own countries. In such cases, children think it is sufficient to send money back home. What they fail to realize is that money cannot buy the feeling of tranquility one feels in old age by living with his/her children.

For others, it is an even tougher existence. They may have to keep working well into their old age to support themselves. Sights of weak old people begging are not uncommon. So are the sights of long queues of senior citizens, some of them debilitated and enfeebled by age, outside banks to collect their monthly pension.

Some aged people who do not have children and cannot work are left at the mercy of the society to take care of them. Often these are the ones found in the almost nonexistent old homes in our country. For those who can afford, their children hire attendants supplied by agencies specializing in geriatrics or general care. They are fortunate in that they are being looked after well but if their children do not spend quality time with them, they may still yearn for their company.

Here, we all need to stop and question ourselves: why do the old people feel lonely and desolated? What does the process of ageing do to them? What adds vigour to their lives when all colours have faded away? What makes them feel good about themselves?

We need to understand that old aged people are not non-entities. With their lives spent, they still have feelings, emotions and a desire to live constructive, useful lives. Sending money back home or giving a room to an aged parent does not guarantee care. Care is being there when they need us. Care is the genuine nuance of compassion in our voice when we call them, “amma” or “baba”. Care not only lies in the amount of money spent on them but also in the attitude of compassion towards them.

In the west, the government primarily looks after the welfare of the senior citizens. They have well designed institutions, old age stipends, excellent healthcare, provision for funding researches and various other protocols for old aged people. People enjoy their old age in pursuing their interests like gardening, traveling etc, some look after their grandchildren and some even go back to completing their educational degrees. However, in our part of the world, old aged people are thought to be redundant after retirement. They are considered a responsibility and a liability that is reluctantly taken on.

At the social level, setting up of more old homesis a necessity. We need to discard our misleading notion that old homes are indicative of a society where children abandon their parents. It is, infact, evidence that the society cares for its elderly so much so as to set up institutions. Homes for old people can be of many types and purposes. These could be set up by the government, owned by the affluent sections of the society or by NGOs working for old people. A basic type of lodging shelter is where poor, abandoned people are housed, fed, clothed and their medical needs taken care of free of charge. Another could be an “independent living home” type where the not-so-dependent, skilled, old people are housed. They could be designed and managed so as to offer housing, medical care, transportation, recreational facilities and other necessities for a healthy life.

The government, on the other hand, should provide a sound healthcare system for the welfare of the old aged people. It should run public campaigns to educate and sensitize people on geriatric care. Funds for researches should be allocated for old age conditions like Alzheimer, Parkinsonism, dementia and stroke as these are very common in older people. For those who desire to keep working to remain healthy and active, job placements must be created.

Caring for the elderly on a national scale requires a great deal of planning and managing of resources. The government should provide not only healthcare and economic security to the aged population but also create positive environment where senior citizens can maintain their freedom, maintain meaningful relationships and find meaning through employment and education. With the right measures, senior citizens can be encouraged to become an asset to our society.

And finally, caring for the old in any country is more than a question of finances or policies. It is important to remember that we should look after our older generation not because they need us, but because we need them to make our lives meaningful.

The writer is a freelance columnist.