Many elderly in developing nations still work to support extended families [HELPAGE]

This is the century of ageing. Today, almost 10 per cent of the global population are over the age of 60 and by 2050 this figure is expected to double to 20 per cent.

Although population ageing has the potential to affect human development as profoundly as climate change, there is still little debate on the economic and social impact of this phenomenon in contrast to the growing and now pervasive debate on global warming.

This lack of attention to the elderly is significant because ageing (for the great majority in many countries) is accompanied by increasing poverty.

Around the world, there are currently 197 million older people who live in poverty while some 80 per cent of older people in developing countries have no regular income.

More people over the age of 60 die each year from malnutrition, respiratory diseases and tuberculosis than any other age group, including children aged 0-14.

Yet, the older poor remain largely sidelined by their governments and unreached by most development aid.

Older generations sidelined

HelpAge International: Access to social security is vital to combat poverty [EPA]

Initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals focus on women and children, while global responses to HIV and Aids target younger generations.

Older people are nowhere to be seen.

Until this changes, the situation of older people living in poverty will continue to deteriorate.

The irony, however, is that older people are a vital link in development.

They are the backbone of society in many developing countries and play a crucial role in supporting families and communities.

It is older people who facilitate the economic growth fuelled by migration of younger generations to urban areas – staying behind to look after homes and children.

They are the ones who, while caring for the sick and the orphaned, are at the front-lines against HIV and Aids. And it is older people who, without access to pensions, work long into old age to feed extended families.

Imagine what could be achieved if older people were not only recognised in the global fight against poverty but actively supported, and were seen as a resource, rather than a burden on society.

Around one in 10 people in developing countries is over the age of 60. Can any poverty reduction strategy be truly effective without including this large proportion of the population?

Access to social security is absolutely vital to lifting older people out of poverty. Social pensions, where they exist in developing countries, have proved extremely successful in this regard, with the benefits going beyond older people themselves.

For those supporting extended families, particularly children affected by HIV and AIDS, a pension provides financial resources which can help ensure health care and an education for the next generation.

As we have seen in recent months, pensions can also help to mitigate the impact of sudden shocks like rising food prices, (or the local impacts of a global financial crisis) and stimulate local markets and economies.

Dignity and security

Targeting older people who are able to generate an income has a similar effect. Most older people want to work; to retain independence, dignity and security in old age.

Yet, all too often they are sidelined by income-generating projects and written-off as a risky investment.

"Including older people in poverty reduction strategies is crucial if there is to be real progress on some of the world's biggest issues." 

When older people are given access to these initiatives, such as micro-credit, their business skills quickly become clear; they invest the money in farming or a business to create long-term income security.

Currently, several of the indicators used by Unaids to monitor the impact of the pandemic don't even include people over the age of 50. This fails to recognise older people both as a group at risk of infection (yes, the over-50s do have sex!) and their invaluable role as care providers.

As a result, the UN body leading the global response to HIV and Aids has no data on how these epidemics are affecting older people. Without this, older people are excluded from policy and programming responses, and the overall strategy remains flawed.

Therefore, including older people in poverty reduction strategies becomes crucial if there is to be real progress on some of the world's biggest issues.

This isn't just common sense, however; it is essential if we are to effectively prepare for what, after climate change, is the next big challenge of our times. The world's population is ageing fast.

By 2050, one in five people will be over the age of 60, with the fastest growth seen in developing countries.

Unless the international community starts supporting older people now, it will be unable to sustain this viable economic and social population in the future.

HelpAge International is a global network of not-for-profit organisations with a mission to help disadvantaged older people worldwide.

The views expressed in the above commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera