* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
New Global AgeWatch Index shows we need data revolution if we are to fully include older people in global development
The first Global AgeWatch Index was launched in 2013 in response to the UN Secretary General's call for a data revolution to better monitor the needs of vulnerable groups. Three years on, the need for improved data that sheds light on the needs and rights of older people remains just as relevant.
The Index ranks countries across four categories: income security, health status, employment and education opportunities, and enabling environment (physical safety, access to public transport etc.). Switzerland has moved up to take the first place, followed by Norway, whilst Afghanistan remains at the bottom of the table in 96th place.
This year, the Index is being released the same month that governments will be signing up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), committing to universal goals and targets until 2030. By then, the proportion of people aged 60 and over globally is predicted to rise from 12.3 per cent to 16.5 per cent. In addition, by 2050, 41 of the 96 countries currently included in the index will be classed as ‘hyper-aging’, with 30% of their population aged 60 and over.
The Index shows which countries are preparing well for this unprecedented demographic change and that when governments plan ahead and invest in their ageing populations, society as a whole benefits.
This year’s report highlights the present and growing inequality between top- and bottom-ranked countries. The gap in life expectancy has increased from 5.7 to 7.3 years over the past 20 years; whilst the difference between the top and bottom ten countries in terms of educational attainment of older people increased by 50 per cent between 1990 and 2012.
Unsurprisingly, the countries that perform well in the Index have policies in place that support older people’s wellbeing and autonomy. Nordic countries, for example, have universal pensions, flexible employment opportunities, lifelong learning and effective healthcare. By contrast, some Mediterranean countries offer fewer employment opportunities for those over 60, despite rapidly ageing populations.
Older women are particularly affected, as a combination of gender discrimination throughout their lives and inequality when older can have a devastating impact. Globally, 46.8 per cent of women aged 55–64 are economically active, compared with 73.5% of men. In addition, women usually earn less than men so opportunities to save for later life are limited, increasing their risk of poverty in old age.
Although 91% of older people are included in this year’s Index, only 96 countries are ranked: 98 could not be included due to lack of available data. The rankings are compiled using internationally comparable data from organisations such as the World Health Organisation and World Bank. High-quality data on older people are missing in all regions, particularly Africa, where only 11 out of 54 countries could be included.
Data collection could be improved by adapting current international household surveys. Filling just three gaps would allow richer and more representative information on older people to be gathered through existing programmes: coverage, representativeness and greater depth of information.
For example, people living in non-traditional households, in institutions such as residential-care facilities and long-stay hospitals, should be surveyed. Over-sampling of certain groups, such as the older old, may be necessary to collect statistically robust and representative data. Finally, to obtain richer information on the experiences and perceptions of older people all household members should be asked the questions currently in surveys and additional questions asked on issues that particularly affect older people.
Data collection is not an end in itself but allows policies and programmes to be developed based on people’s experiences of ageing, the impact of which can be significant. In Tanzania, Older Person’s Associations successfully collected information via surveys and shared this with healthcare providers between 2012 and 2014. This information was used by local authorities and resulted in increased budgets and better-tailored services for older people.
Without better national, regional and global data – broken down by age and gender – older people, and especially older women, will continue to be marginalised in many parts of the world. It will be impossible to track the impact of the SDGs for older people if their quality of life is not measured.
As governments take on the SDGs, they need to adopt forward-thinking and inclusive policies that cater to the specific needs of older people. For this, a data revolution is needed, allowing us to track, monitor and implement specific policies for older women and men to live secure lives, in good health, with dignity and free from fear and discrimination.
Chris Roles is director of Age International